Directed by: J. P. Dutta || Produced by: J. P. Dutta
Screenplay by: J. P. Dutta || Starring: Sunny Deol, Sunil Shetty, Akshaye Khanna, Raakhee, Jackie Shroff, Tabbu, Pooja Bhatt, Kulhushan Kharbanda, Puneet Issar
Music by: Anu Malik || Cinematography by: Iswar R. Bidri, Nirmal Jani || Edited by: Deepak Wirkud || Country: India || Language: Hindi
Running Time: 178 minutes
According to Wikipedia, writer-producer-director J. P. Dutta made Border as an anti-war film, as in a movie that argues that war is bad and that we shouldn’t wage it for either political or economic reasons. I don’t know who’s editing Wikipedia these days or if Dutta was ever so bold as to claim anything to that effect, but if that statement is true, that is one of the most laughable boldfaced lies I have ever heard.
To be sure, Border is a rousingly entertaining, juicy, and effective melodrama that paints well written, interesting characters against an exciting background of warfare and national conflict. It’s one of the most effective Hindi melodrama’s I’ve seen since Sanjay Bhansali’s Devdas (2002), which is saying a lot given my high opinion of and fondness for that film. Border is the first (and so far the only) Bollywood war film I’ve ever watched, and given my initial hesitance at dipping into another action-tinged genre of Indian films after my shaky reactions to Ghajini (2008) and Dhoom 3 (2013), I was especially surprised at how much I enjoyed it and how entertaining it was from beginning to end. Border is a true Bollywood blockbuster epic, stretching wide across epic narrative territory and being unapologetically ambitious in scope. It’s a full 3-hour adventure with every sequence and character backstory fleshed out and sports refreshingly little filler. The story, characters, and action-setpieces are strong enough that the film doesn’t have to rely solely on its songs or elaborate musical numbers for critical pacing, and for a film of this size that’s an impressive feat. Border is not, however, any sort of pacifist or peace-preaching philosophical art pastiche or commentary on the moral ambiguity of war —- it is a straight up war-action film through and through, and don’t let any sociologist (or unabashed Indian patriot) try and tell you otherwise.
Something I’ve noticed about Hindi films of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s is their cinematic potency and overall consistency compared to most other Bollywood blockbusters in decades before or since. Films like this one, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999), Lagaan (2001), and the aforementioned Devdas remind me a lot of American films in the late ’70’s to ’80’s in terms of effective genre pulpiness and well-made drama. Early American blockbusters of that age were made during the pinnacle of practical effects before the ease and convenience of digital effects neutered much of the magic of cinematic attractions, and even managed to retain some of the immediate post-American New Wave magic of the late ’60’s and early ’70’s regarding creative, forward-thinking screenwriting and editing. Likewise, mainstream Bollywood pictures of the late ’90’s and early 2000’s experienced their own peak in effective melodramatic cheesiness, cranking the scale of action and dance spectacle higher with advances in technology and choreographing phenoms like Saroj Khan hitting their creative peak. It was the period right before the intense modern Westernization of the Bollywood industry, which has since turned many contemporary Hindi hits into wannabe Hollywood action films and bizarre mishmashes of classical Indian dance and MTV music videos that go together like oil and water.
While Border doesn’t fit in quite genre-wise with those other romantic cultural hits of that time period, in terms of its construction and pacing as a melodrama, it’s quite well made and pretty accessible to any viewer provided you aren’t too ethnically invested in the setting of the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War. By that I mean you’ll only be turned off by the film if you’re of Pakistani descent, a Muslim, and/or take either of those heritages too seriously. Too be fair to those folks, though, the biggest fault of Border is that it is laughably biased and one-sided to the point of silliness. The movie unquestionably and blatantly portrays the Hindu (and to a noticeably lesser extent, the Muslim) Indian soldiers as the heroes and the Pakistani forces as the villainous bad guys. This story is all black and white and absolutely no shades of grey at all. Throughout nearly every scene, Border oozes Indian nationalism and Hindustani pride, painting the characters of the 23rd Battalion Punjab Regiment as hopelessly outnumbered underdogs going up against a far superior, much more sinister and much less admirable opposing force to protect the former’s “rightful” claim of the contested Rajasthan territory. In terms of narrative sociopolitical bias, Border runs way past patriotism into outright jingoism and then some. Border is many things, including an exciting and entertaining adventure, but a well rounded, politically objective story it most certainly is not.
Thankfully though, the numbing simple-mindedness of the story does not extend to many of the characters, most of whom are well written and easily relatable given their plethora of healthy flashbacks and fleshed out backstories. Almost half of the film consists of setting up the major characters and establishing their personalities before they were all called to serve. The way the film takes its time to set up each and every one of the ensemble cast is admirable, especially given how the screenplay never becomes indulgent with this or adds any unnecessary filler. Border accomplishes a very rare feat by pacing itself well for almost three whole hours and wasting very little of its viewers’ time with frivolous details. Given its native industry, that accomplishment is particularly commendable.
The setpieces themselves are well rounded and diverse, though few if any are meant as the film’s primary cinematic attractions save for perhaps the final battle. Most of the songs are melodic, easy to listen to, and feature modest but appropriate choreography. The only thing I’d dock the film on musically is that the filmmakers reuse the same playback singers over and over again to the point where most every actor’s playback voice sounds almost exactly the same. This becomes somewhat distracting when we see different characters of varying voice pitches, body sizes, and personalities singing in the same two voices repeatedly. As for the battle scenes, they’re relatively sparse save for the final extended action sequence where the Punjab Regiment holds their own against a siege of Pakistani forces. The action is pretty good for the most part, especially for a Bollywood film, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say the final stand isn’t an exciting climax to a very good movie.
Border is top to bottom a highly effective melodrama set against a colorful war backdrop that one doesn’t often see in Bollywood. Therefore, it is incredibly satisfying that J. P. Dutta pulls all these extraneous elements together to make a successful film. It’s far from perfect, namely in light of how its story is too simplistic and laughably nationalistic to take very seriously, but unlike many of its Bollywood brethren, Border makes you take its characters seriously and presents them as complicated human individuals. Unless you’re a phenom auteur known for screenwriting outside the box (e.g. Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese), the rule of thumb for popular filmmaking is to keep a movie’s story simple and its characters complex, and in that sense Border is a fine film that checks all the necessary cinematic boxes. The screenplay could stand to be a little bit less hamfisted, certainly, but again, it’s the characters and the pacing of the narrative that really matter here, not so much the narrative backdrop itself.
If you’re in the mood for a straightforward crowd-pleasing war film in the vein of Braveheart (1995) or The Patriot (2000) as opposed to a more grim, philosophical contemplation of the subject matter like Saving Private Ryan (1998) or The Thin Red Line (1999), you should check out Border. OK, it probably won’t please all South Asian (namely Pakistani and/or Muslim) viewers, but no film is perfect 😛
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Dutta gets the characters and the story’s pacing right; His ensemble cast of characters and their solid backstories are the rock that holds the war epic together. The music of Border is comparable to your average well-written Hindi soundtrack, and the cinematic violence is well above most any action scene I’ve seen in South Asian film. The finale is pretty damn rousing stuff.
— However… the narrative backdrop itself and the obvious political bias of the film are so sloppily slanted that you’ll likely chuckle throughout much of the film or be downright offended if you live on the western side of the Kashmir border. Border’s story is essentially Avatar (2009) or Dances with Wolves (1990) with more complex characters. The film could’ve used two or three more playback singers.
–> HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
? OK, so if that Pakistani tank hadn’t been driving backwards, would Sunil Shetty’s anti-tank mine even gone off if he’d thrown it at the vehicle? Don’t anti-tank mines require tremendous amounts of weight to set them off?