By Rohini Mohan
Last weekend I had the pleasure of watching Manoj Bajpai in two movies; Pinjar and 1971. The two were quite different from each other, the characters being portrayed by Bajpai also diametrically opposite. If he is a good guy but somewhat lacking a backbone in one, he is a fearless leader of men, daunted by nothing, in the other. The only striking commonality is the flawlessness of his performance in both. I was watching Pinjar for the second time, so I had high expectations of 1971. I was not disappointed. A low key but powerfully told story of the Indian prisoners of war left behind in Pakistan post the 1971 India-supported struggle for Bangladeshi independence, it is well researched, tightly edited and gripping. 1971 is the debut directorial venture of Amrit Sagar, grandson of Ramanand Sagar. Six prisoners of war, their trials and tribulations in the detainee camp, their single minded mission to escape and the escape effort itself are the central theme of the film. Apart from Manoj Bajpai there are really no known faces; there is no leading lady (no women of note at all in fact) and a few not very spectacular songs. However every single actor excels in his performance. Bajpai of course is the keystone. Intense and strong as always, he is outstanding in every scene. All characters are finely developed, the emotional portrayals are extremely convincing and the dramatic moments are just adequately tense without being overwhelming. It is often said that the most steadfast friendships develop on the battlefield, and this is beautifully brought out in the film. The efficacy (or lack thereof) of the human rights commission and the Red Cross is another fact that has been fairly explored. This is not just another “Great Escape” type of macho cliffhanger; the intensity of varying emotions felt by the victims and their families is given equal importance and treated with tenderness. All that and the fact that this is supposedly a true story make for very interesting viewing.
Per the Geneva convention, POWs are supposed to be returned immediately after a war. After 1971, India freed some 93,000 Pakistani POWs and Pakistan claimed to have reciprocated. But apparently 50-70 Indian POWs believed “Missing in Action” were left behind to languish in Pakistani jails and camps– families of the missing veterans are convinced even 36 years after the war that several of them are still alive, but Pakistan maintains that they never existed; and neither government has the desire to do anything about it. In a world which can deny that the holocaust ever happened, I truly doubt there is any force that a handful of wronged families can turn to for justice in a situation like this. When a nation is in the thick of a war, patriotism is at its peak, the adrenaline is pumping and the soldiers are the heroes. Once the war is over and it is not news anymore, the fervor dies and interest wanes. The victims and their families are rendered faceless and nameless. Too soon, the cause, the event and its collateral damage are erased from the memory of the masses. The victims and their loved ones are left licking their wounds and facing the futile reality of life. Some war heroes sacrifice their lives; and some return, physically and psychologically scarred. But, as 1971 points out there are still others who are suspended in oblivion, forever separated from all they hold dear. I would put 1971 in the genre of movies like Schindler’s List and Munich. Whether or not films like this succeed at the box office or win awards is not important. Such is the power of the written word and the media, that Uncle Tom’s Cabin started a great war; The Diary of Anne Frank inspired millions; Michael Moore’s documentaries are powerful eye-openers. 1971 not just empowers us viewers with the knowledge of a little known historical fact, it provides a lifeline to the families who have and are suffering the worst type of agony – that of not knowing. Released in March 2007, 1971 is available on DVD. Scenes with bloodshed and violence makes it unsuitable for young children.