Watch | Ishaan Khatter and team on ‘Pippa’: Patriotism is not about hating somebody else

Watch | Ishaan Khatter and team on ‘Pippa’: Patriotism is not about hating somebody else

Actors Ishaan Khatter and Soni Razdan and director Raja Krishna Menon discuss the making of their war film ‘Pippa,’ which highlights a crucial battle during the Bangladesh Liberation War

November 09, 2023 01:41 pm | Updated November 11, 2023 01:16 pm IST

This month marks the 52nd anniversary of The Battle of Garibpur. Fought during the throes of the Bangladesh liberation struggle, it was a critical prelude to the 1971 Indo-Pak War, and featured a dramatic tank battle in the eastern theatre of the conflict. Brigadier Balram Singh Mehta (retired) was then a young officer in the 45th Cavalry of the Indian Army. When his commanding Major was killed in battle, Mehta took charge, leading a squadron of Soviet-made PT-76 amphibious tanks that destroyed the superior M24 Chaffee tanks of the enemy. An aerial interception the following morning secured the strategic hamlet for Indian troops.

Mehta’s war memoir, The Burning Chaffees, has been adapted into a Hindi film titled Pippa, starring Ishaan Khatter as the young, resolute captain. The film is directed by Raja Krishna Menon (Airlift, Chef) and co-stars Priyanshu Painyuli, Mrunal Thakur and Soni Razdan. It was expected to arrive in theatres but, following some delay, is premiering directly on Amazon Prime Video on November 10. We spoke to Ishaan and his director on the making of the film, mounting realistic tank action and eschewing hate and hyper-nationalism in war narratives.

Ishaan Khatter in a still from ‘Pippa’

Ishaan Khatter in a still from ‘Pippa’

Excerpts from the conversation..

Could you tell us about the military boot camps that took place in preparation for this film?

Ishaan Khatter: We had two of them, one in Suratgarh in Rajasthan, and the other in Ahmednagar, Maharashtra. Since the first one happened during the pandemic, we had to do multiple (antigen) tests to be eligible. I have never mentioned this before, but the most brutal nasal swab test I have done in my life was in the Army (laughs). I think the resetting of my mind to become a fauji (soldier) began with that swab going up and pressing a button in my brain.

But jokes apart, it was one of the most invaluable experiences of my life. We were in Suratgarh cantonment for about a week. There were seven to eight of us. We were put through the wringer the night we arrived. We had a few hours of sleep and started immediately at 4am in the morning. We went through PT drills, learning the salutes, march-past, how to read maps, etc. We worked with the machinery and learned how to navigate a tank. Since the Pt-76 tanks were phased out decades ago, they had to pull out an old model for us and take us to the desert for tank drills. Then, before we began filming, we had another workshop in Ahmednagar where we witnessed tank firing for the first time. It’s so loud that your chest comes out of your skin! It’s a fact that most tank crew are partially hard of hearing because the decibel levels are so high.

Ishaan Khatter on the light armour PT-76 amphibious tank in ‘Pippa’

Ishaan Khatter on the light armour PT-76 amphibious tank in ‘Pippa’

Raja Krishna Menon: Before the first boot camp, I spoke to the commanding officer and he told me it’s not an easy experience, especially for actors. I told him, you know what, I don’t care. I don’t care if they come back (laughs). But it’s amazing. The story that got me really concerned though was when Ishaan and the boys called me one day and said they were taken to the desert at 5° Celsius and made to stay overnight in a tank. Normally, a tank is warm because it’s run... except this one had not run anywhere. They didn’t have blankets and were given raw dal, rice, and a live chicken to cook dinner. That was the training.

The tonality of Hindi war films has gotten increasingly jingoistic. Simultaneously, there’s little reckoning with the psychological and humanitarian fallouts of war. Is ‘Pippa’ an effort in the other direction?

Raja: Patriotism, as Ishaan has said before in an interview, is not about hating somebody else. It’s about loving what you love, which is your country. They’re two different emotions. Even in war, both sides do have a healthy respect for each other. They understand they’re doing a job. They’re not out there for personal vendetta. When you’re fighting a battle, you’re fighting for a higher purpose or reason. So I find it very odd when I hear these blood-curdling chants of going and killing people. Nobody wants to kill anybody, trust me. There is a book called Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman that talks about the inherent decency in human beings. We are traumatised by violence and conflict. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) comes from there. So for me, any kind of a war or military exercise has to have a higher purpose. And the higher purpose in this case was liberating Bangladesh. That’s what we have focused on.

Ishaan: The 45th Cavalry is probably the most liberal and inclusive regiment in our army. Its class composition includes (traditionally non-martial) OICs (Other Indian Communities). They all worked together with the knowledge that the ultimate enemy was not a sector of people, but the acts of atrocity and genocide. Of course, we had a refugee problem in our country and there were political reasons to account for. But I think this is as noble or selfless a cause to fight over. It’s borne out by the fact that this was one of the shortest wars in history. In 13 days, we helped the Mukti Bahini and the Bangla people gain autonomy status and create Bangladesh and then we left.

Soni Razdan on how her family history resonates with a key theme in ‘Pippa’
There is a scene in Pippa where my character reminds her son (Ishaan) that theirs too is a family of refugees. But it’s a little more personal for me because you can be displaced anywhere in the world, right? My mother originally comes from Berlin. During the Second World War, my maternal grandfather was running an underground newspaper against Hitler and the Nazis. He was caught and put in jail, forcing my grandmother and my mother to flee Germany. They became political refugees in the UK. So I know what it means to be displaced because of my own family. And my mother used to always tell me thatif you have been through a war, you will never want war ever.

What were the challenges of recreating the tanks and making them functional, believable vehicles on sets?

Raja: The PT-76 tanks don’t really exist anymore. Luckily for us, the Army found us one in Suratgarh except it didn’t run. So it took about eight months for the MES (Military Engineering Services) in Meerut to get it up and running. We kept going through tests and the first time we water-tested it; the engineers didn’t think it would swim. We eventually had an incredible team of people who built a bunch of tanks — down to the actual shells — and made them land and water-worthy. But a large part of the action was shot with the original tank. The first time it floated, I knew we had a movie!

Ishaan and director Raja Krishna Menon discuss a scene

Ishaan and director Raja Krishna Menon discuss a scene

Ishaan: Besides resurrecting this grand machine, we had a 70-year-old army veteran, Mondal sahab, who drove the real PT-76 in the entire film. There was a poignant incident that happened during our last shot with the tank. I was in the tank in a lake and we were doing a travel shot. Suddenly, the hull of the tank blew up. Fire and black smoke started emerging from it and I heard a lot of screaming. Everyone was freaking out because I was inside the tank. Somehow, they managed to get it back to land. And then Mondal sahab came out and simply said, “Iska toh ho gaya” (this tank is done for). The tank came alive for our movie and then decided to go back to sleep.

What prompted the decision to release the film on streaming?

Raja: It’s a decision our producers (Siddharth Roy Kapur and Ronnie Screwvala) had to take. We had made the film for theatres. But there is no window available for the next six months. It’s a crowded space. There was also a sense of not putting it out at any random date. A big part of releasing it on November 10 was securing a Diwali solo release. That’s what Amazon Prime Video offered to us.

Ishaan: So long as people watch the film, I’m good with it. Of course, it’s not the same experience. You have to feel the sound and the scale. Having said that, a lot of people will watch it on good systems. And then it will all depend on the storytelling. We have a lot going on in the film, dramatically speaking. It’s an emotional story at its heart.

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