Plenty of war films made in the Hindi language always cater to the jingoistic narrative. Most of them would include a plot that involves sheer hatred for a certain neighboring nation. Though the enmity between the two nations was at its peak during all the major wars, the filmmakers approached this subject matter by emphasizing nationalistic tropes and refusing to dial down the noise. They also do not focus enough on screenplay, direction, or other technical aspects.
Raazi, Border, Shershaah, Lakshya, and Uri: The Surgical Strike are a handful of films that did justice to war drama as a genre. Pippa belongs to the same category as well. This period war drama directed by Raja Krishna Menon was released straight on Amazon Prime Video on November 10, 2023, and is based on the book The Burning Chaffees: A Soldier’s First-Hand Account of the 1971 War by Brigadier Balram Singh Mehta.
The movie is set during the onset of the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, when the Indian army intervened in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) to stop the ongoing genocide of Bengalis carried out by the Pakistani army in a bid to stop their revolution for an independent nation. The resistance from the rebel group Mukti Bahini was equally strong, and they helped the Indian army in placing the enemy force on the back foot. Amidst all the chaos that was unleashed in the form of refugees moving to the border towns of India, three siblings from the same family contributed to the war in various ways.
Major Ram Mehta was asked to be a part of the covert operation involving the rebel group and infiltrate into East Pakistan. His younger brother, Captain Balram Mehta was one of the soldiers with the 45th cavalry. The battalion oversaw the amphibian war tank PT-76, aka Pippa, as they were asked to prepare for an imminent war with Pakistan from the eastern side of the country. Radha, their sister, was a medical student and a self-taught cryptography enthusiast and was offered a job at the Communication Analysis Wing of R&AW to decipher codes being sent across the subcontinent. Will the siblings reunite amidst the increasing onslaught happening in several border towns? This forms the central narrative of the film.
The premise of the film is excellent, and it is set up by Captain Balram Mehta narrating a brief history of East Pakistan. The most interesting parts of the movie are the lingo, production design, and atmosphere, and the screenplay, which is true to the era it is set in. There are no over-the-top scenes involving the lead of the film, a trope commonly used by many filmmakers in every war drama.
An army officer is expected to be extraordinary, but in Pippa, the audience gets to see army officers only as human beings who carry out extraordinary work in times of crisis and war. The narrative around the families of army officers is also not drowning in emotional theatrics. The narrative could have easily slipped into that territory, but the writers Raja Menon, Tanmay Mohan, and Ravinder Randhawa kept the screenplay and the dialogue realistic. The sibling dynamics are another subplot of the show that shines because all three inherently love each other but are brutally honest about the situation at hand. An important scene involving Balram and his brother Ram has minimal dialogue, but it is filled with emotion.
The screenplay was going well until the direction, action, and cinematography of the film overpowered the narrative, and Pippa became more about the fierce battles than the repercussions of the war. The writers tried to emphasize the plight of the women who were brutally assaulted by their army, and the refugees, who sadly had to flee from their land to survive. The writers did not delve deep into the collateral damage caused by the war. There were only a few scenes dedicated to demonstrating how the Bangladesh war caused widespread poverty and human displacement, which could have matched the numbers from the partition if the Indian army had not intervened and put a stop to the genocide. This narrative could have generated some tears, as it would have latched onto the heartstrings of the audience. Since the narration in the beginning was about rescuing the people of East Pakistan from wanton murder, the makers made the movie about combat.
The direction by Raja Krishna Menon is excellent. When the screenplay falters, his direction takes over and allows the audience to comprehend the brutality and reality of a war. All the war scenes are highly engaging. Keeping in mind that the movie was a straight OTT release, audiences tend to skip the action part if they feel it does not add any value to their viewing experience. In the case of “Pippa,” not one combat sequence is repetitive, dull, or added just for the sake of the genre. Each conflict scene is executed with finesse. The scene involving the amphibian tank PT-76 (Pippa) floating through the water is exhilarating. This is the first time Hindi filmmakers have realistically approached the subject of the Bangladesh Liberation War. The film is almost two hours and twenty minutes long, but the pacing picks up in the second half. The narrative involving Radha’s engagement was unnecessary, for it did not add any value to the screenplay.
The art direction by Shane Ali Khan and the production design are impeccable. Almost all the sets and locations are lifelike. The detailing in each scene is done to perfection, keeping in mind that the movie is set in the 1970s. The costumes and interiors of the homes from that era are worth mentioning. Thankfully, the film is not overwhelmed with chronic cases of nostalgia-induced narrative. Many filmmakers focus so much on the era-appropriate atmosphere created in period films or television shows that they forget to focus on the screenplay and the pacing. Case in point “IB71,” directed by Sankalp Reddy.
The music by AR Rahman is incredible. One song in the movie is out of place, especially in this decade when many filmmakers are moving away from lip-syncing dance numbers. This was just added for entertainment purposes and to utilize Ishaan Khattar’s incredible dancing skills.
The performances by all the leads are wonderful. Despite the faltering screenplay, Ishaan Khattar’s performance as the rebellious Captain Balram Mehta is grounded and intense. His emotions are on point, and his eyes are very expressive during crucial moments. He is a standout performer in Pippa. Priyanshu Painyuli is the older brother of Major Ram Mehta, who was trying to be a controlling figure in the absence of their father. Their relationship is complicated just like any other sibling dynamics, and Priyanshu has performed well. One would assume Priyanshu might not have much to offer in this film, but the audience will be surprised.
Mrunal Thakur, a cryptography specialist, delivers a lukewarm performance, mainly because her arc was not developed effectively. Soni Razdan, as the mother, had nothing much to offer as a mother who was constantly worried about the status of their children’s wellbeing. She could have been projected as an emotionally strong mother and an ex-army wife who has remained resilient right from the day she lost her husband to a war. The audience will also get a glimpse of the yesteryear actor Kamal Sadanah as Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw.
Pippa was majorly hampered by the lukewarm screenplay, and it only remained engaging because of the direction and interesting combat sequences. Despite its flaws, give this film a watch because, amongst all the noisy patriotic films, this one largely made sense because of a touch of realism.