A war movie that barely shows any war, that’s subtle and gentle and doesn’t have even one chest-thumping Bharat Mata moment, or even a song placed purely to yank the strings of your patriotic heart, seems like an oxymoron. But that’s precisely why Govind Nihalani’s 1982 classic Vijeta remains one of the best Hindi movies about India’s armed forces.
There’s a scene in the film in which Angad Singh, a young Indian Air Force pilot readying for his first war, is sitting with his friend and fellow officer. The two share what is going through their minds before they take to the skies to defend their nation.
His friend laughs and says if he survives, he’ll take the plunge and get married, but Angad is thinking about the fact that he will soon be flying over the land that his ancestors are from, warring against people who once shared a country with his family. And he is scared of inadvertently killing innocent people.
The scene is remarkable for a number of reasons. One, the poignancy of the warrior’s dilemma that humanises a section of people we are now constantly told are infallible, flawless, to be venerated and never questioned — the Indian armed forces.
The second reason is that this is a movie about IAF pilots in which the actual war they fight is given barely a few minutes of screen time, towards the end. Then, there is Angad’s awareness that this is not a fight with the people of another country. There is no jingoistic demonising of the other — in fact, although there are clues to indicate this is the 1971 war, nowhere, in this scene or in the entire movie, is the name of the ‘enemy’ country ever clearly stated.
And finally, there’s the fact that one of Angad’s closest friends in the IAF is a man from Andhra Pradesh named Venkat Raju; the others are Aslam Khan from Allahabad and Wilson from Bhopal. This seems like an inconsequential detail, but it’s just one example of the quietly determined pluralism that runs through Vijeta like a leitmotif.
This Independence Day weekend, watch Vijeta, a war film showing an inclusive and diverse India.
Progressive without making a noise about it
Kunal Kapoor plays Angad, an aimless young boy who repeatedly fails his matriculation exams, to the frustration of his parents, Nihal (played by Kunal’s real-life father Shashi Kapoor) and Neelima (Rekha).
His relationship with his father is particularly rocky, partly because he can’t get past Nihal’s gruff exterior and partly because he holds Nihal responsible for his parents’ strained marriage — he once overheard them arguing about Nihal’s drunken one-night stand with a woman, which he tries to defend by saying she was just a “bazaaru aurat“. (Neelima’s response, siding with the woman who was just doing her job, is quietly feminist, and lovely.)
It is her Naval officer brother Arvind (Om Puri), who takes Angad under his wing for a few days, and explains to him that marriage is complicated and that life and human relationships are layered and not easy for anyone on the outside to understand.
Arvind also shows him around the Naval base, and during this time, Angad decides he wants to join the defence forces, but as an Air Force pilot.
The scene then shifts to the National Defence Academy, where Angad undergoes gruelling training for three years as a cadet. His father is convinced he will give up and come back home soon, but he’s wrong. In between studying flight theory and overcoming his fear of heights during beautifully shot spin flights (Nihalani also did the cinematography, with help from senior IAF pilots, and won a Filmfare award for his work), Angad finally finds his groove.
He gets pummelled in boxing bouts, travels around the area with his trusty camera and even has a serious horse-riding accident that would ordinarily make a career as an IAF pilot impossible, but with grit, the help of his fellow cadets and the support of his family, including a slowly thawing father, he gets right back in the saddle, literally.
He also, meanwhile, falls in love with Anna Verghese (Supriya Pathak), the only and much-loved child of his daunting chief instructor and mentor with a penchant for playing the piano (Amrish Puri).
This is yet another example of Vijeta’s progressive tone — the fact that Angad is a Sikh and Anna a Malayali Christian is not even raised once. Anna is more concerned with Angad’s boyish inability to admit his feelings for her rather than with his religion, and the scene when he finally does is hilarious and adorable.
As much about the parents as it is about the IAF pilot
But Vijeta is equally about Angad’s parents, about marriage, love, loyalty and family, which makes it stand out in a sea of Hindi movies about war and the armed forces.
Nihal and Neelima are constantly prickly with each other — that is, when they bother to talk to each other. She drowns herself in her classical music (the film has only one song, a lovely classical-style one), which is almost like her lifeline in a marriage that has long since stopped feeling like one. Rekha’s performance (one of her own personal favourites) is dignified and quiet, the perfect foil to Shashi Kapoor’s slightly more mannered, theatrical tone.
Nihal battles his own demons — namely, his and his mother’s narrow escape from Punjab during the bloody, traumatic Partition that decimated his family and everything he had known until then. He has managed to provide quite well for his family, but disparages his own job, of making commercials, as “tel sabun bechne vaali filmein”. And he has an obvious inferiority complex, calling himself a “hal jotne wala Jat” (a Jat farmer), code for not as well-educated, cosmopolitan or cultured as his wife who’s from Pune.
He is hard on his wayward son, but beneath his crusty exterior, he, too, yearns for Angad to love him like he loves his mother. He also yearns for Neelima, who, despite being in the same house, keeps her distance.
One of the film’s most powerful scenes, in fact, is when Angad has written to Nihal for the first time since he joined the NDA. Nihal is perplexed, touched and unable to stop reading the letter, even prompting Neelima to tease him about it. That step towards forgiveness between father and son also paves the way for the couple to repair their relationship — and in a scene that’s still rare in Hindi movies, the middle-aged parents make love.
It’s one of the movie’s many triumphs, along with the sweet equation that Anna goes on to share with Nihal. Tragedy has struck both families, and though it is never clear whether Angad has married Anna or they’re still dating, she goes to stay with Nihal once the war starts. She calls him dad and the two crack jokes about his drinking and her cooking.
These subtle inflections that hark back to, ironically, a gentler time, make Vijeta a movie that stays with you long after it’s over.