‘Pippa’ movie review: Ishaan Khatter steers this bumpy war film

Set in 1971, Raja Krishna Menon’s war film feels ambitiously conceived, earnestly photographed and a little abandoned in the home stretch

November 10, 2023 12:26 pm | Updated 12:26 pm IST

Ishaan Khatter in ‘Pippa’

Ishaan Khatter in ‘Pippa’

For a film that boasts some of the most scorching tank battles ever mounted in Hindi action cinema, Pippa blows hot and cold. On the one hand, this film — directed by Raja Krishna Menon and based on the book The Burning Chaffees by army veteran Balram Singh Mehta — is a fluidly executed, predominantly even-tempered Hindi war film. It’s definitely a break from the hateful and hysterical clunkers routinely dumped on Indian screens. Yet, it’s not always the sharpest, with its narrative joins clearly visible and a tendency to resist screenwriting clichés before giving in wholeheartedly to them.

On a joint military training exercise between India and Russia, in 1971, Balram (Ishaan Khatter) ignores his commander’s orders and takes a PT-76 amphibious tank into the deep end of a river. He is pulled up for insubordination, disappointing his older brother, Ram (Priyanshu Painyuli), a decorated soldier who served in the 1965 conflict, and war widow mother (Soni Razdan). Mildly sympathetic is his sister, Radha (Mrunal Thakur), a university student, but even her Balram manages to cross. As Ram leaves once again for the battlefront — the Bangladesh Liberation War is in its dramatic final stages, with a brutal military crackdown by Yahya Khan’s regime and refugees pouring in through India’s eastern borders — and Radha is hired by the fledgling intelligence services for her cryptography skills, Balram is left pushing papers in the army headquarters.

Balli’s reinstatement in his regiment — the 45th Cavalry, already deployed in the east — happens quickly, aided by some timely engineering wit and the inspirational Jubin Nautiyal number ‘Jazzbat’. At Garibpur, a strategic hamlet they are meant to hold, the unit comes under retaliatory fire from Pakistani troops, with a squadron of them riding in on superior American-made M24 Chaffee tanks. Meanwhile, Ram, sent in to assist the Mukti Bahini in their armed uprising, is taken captive by the enemy. The choice now facing Balli, mirroring that of Bharat’s in the Ramayana (down to the borrowed shoes!), is a simple one: either extricate his brother — with whom he shares a spiky, difficult relationship — or press on with his orders as acting commander.

Pippa (Hindi)
Director: Raja Krishna Menon
Cast: Ishaan Khatter, Priyanshu Painyuli, Soni Razdan, Mrunal Thakur, Inaamulhaq
Duration: 139 minutes
Storyline: Three siblings serve their nation and help liberate a neighbouring one in 1971

Pippa, co-written by Menon, Ravinder Randhawa and Tanmay Mohan, is more alive than most Hindi films to the moral reverberations of war—or conflict. In an early scene, Balli talks cynically of the refugee crisis in the east, saying it’s putting a strain on his own country. His mother reminds him that theirs too is a family of refugees (they had moved from Rawalpindi during Partition, and Balli’s father died fighting in a subsequent war). Her words are repeated in voiceover as Balli later witnesses the horror first-hand; a weirdly gimmicky scene, with the stunned young captain driving past rows and rows of displaced refugees. Elsewhere, Ram asks a Mukti Bahini leader why they involve children in armed struggle. “A child who wears his father’s blood-stained shirt every day and who has seen his mother being dragged away by his own country’s army is not a child anymore,” comes the response — a sentiment always more easily digested in a story about a different nation, a different conflict.

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Like Menon’s 2016 film Airlift, Pippa is a celebration of Indian nobility on foreign soil. Balli, whipping his jawans into action, says they are not fighting against a country but a ‘tyranny’. He points out how the 45th Cavalry includes soldiers from all castes, religions, states — as opposed to single or fixed-class regiments. Menon could have fleshed out this diversity a little more instead of focusing on a limited set of (primarily North Indian) characters. On the other side, thankfully, there is no evil Pakistani major mouthing quasi-religious war cries; the film makes do with Inaamulhaq’s limping local stooge.

Ishaan Khatter is a sharp, strapping young lead—and a bold choice to shoulder a film of this magnitude. His casting recalls co-producers RSVP Movies taking a flyer on pre-stardom Vicky Kaushal in Uri: The Surgical Strike (2019). But where Kaushal could bark out orders convincingly, Khatter’s voice — soft and genial despite his best efforts — lets him down in critical scenes. Priyanshu Painyuli is solid in almost everything he does. I would also single out a minor yet memorable performance: Soham Majumdar as a geeky, good-humoured analyst.

As in Uri, the war scenes in Pippa have a reassuring grittiness and solidity. Cinematographer Priya Seth frames the action against vast, tree-lined vistas — but also catches interesting closeups and POV shots, including one from the perspective of an incoming projectile. The only eye sore is the VFX: the explosions and muzzle flashes look clumsily tacked-on. Did budgets run out during post? Did the move from theatrical to streaming hasten the addition of finishing touches? Pippa looks ambitiously conceived, earnestly photographed and a little abandoned in the home stretch.

Pippa is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video

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