For me, watching an old black-and-white Bollywood film is an experience very similar to that of my parents trying to watch an English-language film in that I can't distinguish between the actors because I only recognise older/more recent versions of them. Watching Chetan Anand's Haqeeqat was a little bit like like that.
Starring Balraj Sahni (Major Ranjit Singh), Dharmendra (Captain Bahadur Singh) and Jayant (Brigadier Singh) as the three central characters, Haqeeqat was made in 1964, just two years after the Indo-China war. When I read the film's Wikipedia page, I assumed it would be a love story set against the war but nope - Haqeeqat is a three-hour-long war film. And nobody warned me.
The film opens with Captain Bahadur Singh (a young Dharmendra AKA the only actor I could confidently recognise), who has recently taken a Ladakhi boy named Sonam under his wing. Sonam has a sister named Angmo (Priya Rajvansh).Now, obviously, Bahadur falls in love with Angmo within minutes and promises to eventually take her to Delhi with him. But things are about to go wrong.The Chinese troops are moving inwards into Indian territory, so Major Ranjit Singh (Balraj Sahni) instructs some of his soldiers, including Bahadur to go secure posts at the border. Bahadur's narrative is also woven together with back stories of some of the other soldiers and the lives that they've left behind.
The next two hours are a gritty, unsanitized portrayal of Indian soldiers at war with the Chinese troops.
As the first Indian motion film to be shot in Ladakh, Haqeeqat almost overdoes it - but I guess it's allowed because it was, after all, 1964 and getting Ladakh, or anything, on camera, was a pretty big deal. Long panning shots of the hills of Ladakh, Ladakh skies abruptly inserted as filler shots, aerial snaps meant to capture the vastness of the region... Chetan Anand makes sure that the audiences KNOW it's Ladakh. Personally, some of those shots made my head spin and it was difficult for me to appreciate the silhouette-like monochrome beauty of Ladakh in the film. But I have to say, even without the colours, the visuals are ethereal in their own way.
Circling back to the story now - Indian troops are massively outnumbered by the Chinese army moving towards them but they've been ordered not to attack until the enemy does. Once ambushed by the Chinese, Indian soldiers retaliate with all their vigour but the circumstances don't favour them initially. Several lives are lost and a small platoon of soldiers is presumed dead after all connection is lost.
Considering the time around which Haqeeqat was made, I was quite surprised by how the film doesn't exactly villainize the Chinese army. There are a couple of cringe attempts (Chinese soldiers repeatedly chanting "Hindi-Chini bhai bhai" and later torturing a Ladakhi civilian), but that's pretty much it.
Instead, what Haqeeqat does is focus its gaze on Indian soldiers and tell their mundane yet tragic stories.
Anand doesn't sugarcoat their bloody, unfortunate struggle. They're confused between wanting to die at war and keeping alive so they can go home to their families, they're frustrated at not being able to call the shots despite being the ones risking their lives, they're conflicted about what being a 'soldier' really means and often can't help feeling defeated.
Anand's unflinching depiction of war is not bereft of unfavourable elements. It has its share of preachy monologues about how India has historically been a non-violent nation and how China's history is rooted in violence. There's also some unnecessary glorification with the soldiers confidently claiming that one Indian soldier is enough to fight 20 Chinese soldiers. In the last hour of the film, Anand includes a pretty excessive subplot involving Angmo and Sonam. The sibling duo somehow gets involved in the situation and helps Bahadur kill the last of the Chinese troops. It's not believable and a little awkward to see Angmo, with her long, beautiful cascading hair, aim a rifle at the Chinese troops. But for me, all of this is eclipsed by the rawness with which Indian soldiers are portrayed in the first two hours of the film.
Haqeeqat is full of terribly long and tragic war sequences and that was refreshing. Sadly, Bollywood doesn't make such war films anymore.
Over five decades ago, Chetan Anand's Haqeeqat paid a sincere tribute to the Indian soldiers who fought the Indo-China war of 1962. All said and done, the film was a balanced depiction of various sentiments. Watching it at a time like this, when we once again find ourselves in the middle of a border dispute, makes me wonder how the situation right now would be narrated a couple of years down the line. Will we be true to the Indian lives lost or will we continue playing the optics game?
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