Nine months of intense political tension ended in a military confrontation between India and Pakistan in November 1971, when the Pakistan Armed Forces were overrun in Dhaka and the province of East Pakistan was officially disestablished and succeeded by the independent state of Bangladesh. The documented attacks, per se, lasted just thirteen days, earning itself the ironic honour of being the shortest war in the history of mankind. But a majority of the backstage events that transpired over a month, which eventually lead up to this inevitable clash, still remain classified. Director Sankalp Reddy takes the most significant of these controversies -often dubbed as the last unsolved war mystery of India – as his premise for his debut film, fictionalizing quite a handful of blank spaces in history with a narrative that constantly breathes atmosphere and tension.
And just for this audacity to bring to screen an earnest, full-length war-drama that stays focused on its sensibilities, without much of an obvious compromise, the film deserves to be singled out and celebrated, ignoring the occasional jingoistic blemish after the half-way point. With all the ripe opportunities for infusing a lot of elements that our trade pundits presume the majority of the audience care about, Sankalp keeps a lot of temptations – like squeezing in a war-romance or overstating things – at bay, displaying a level of confidence on his audience that is seldom seen in the industry he hails from. But, to discuss the film further, some historical perspective would help.
In the winter of 1971, the flagship submarine of the Pakistan Navy – the Ghazi – set out on a two-fold mission around the Indian peninsula from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal: the primary objective being to locate and sink the Vikrant – the Indian warship that served as the pivotal naval blockade of the contended Eastern province – and the secondary, to mine India’s eastern seaboard, the reasons for which were obvious. The area of friction (the now Bangladesh) getting confined all around by Indian Territory, the sea route became Pakistan’s only way of gaining any sustained advantage over the burning conflict. After two weeks of sailing in search of the Vikrant, the Ghazi sank on December 4, 1971 with 92 men on board under mysterious circumstances off the Vizhakapattinam coast. The Indian Navy officially credits the sinking to its master destroyer-ship Rajput; a stance that is negated by a lot of investigative journalists. Pakistan never accepted the attack, all the while maintaining that their submarine sank due to an internal explosion or accidental detonation of mines being laid off the Vizag harbour.
Now, Sankalp capitalizing on the pun that truth becomes the first casualty in war, gets an Indian submarine called S21 into the picture, fills it with a handful of interesting (though a tad one-dimensional) officers and pits them against the indomitable Ghazi, thereby lending the whole mission a whole new, nail-biting perspective. He weaves nonstop, high-octane drama into his narrative and holds our rapt attention for the first one and half hours with a screenplay that’s as watertight as the submarine. Marine jargon like sonar, radio-frequency, oceanic coordinates, and torpedoes are tossed off at will, reflecting a staggering amount of homework, but never at any point, spoon-fed. The uninitiated, nevertheless, are also made to feel at home. The repercussions of an escalating hydrostatic pressure at several hundred metres below-sea-level are nailed with a passing quip involving a glass of water and an egg that blends into the fast-paced action. Almost throughout the film, Sankalp aces this tightrope walk between explaining things and letting us figure them out with the confidence of a seasoned film-maker. Its delightful, to say the least.
The claustrophobic terror that the film generates, and sustains for almost three-fourth of its running time, has to seen to be believed. The under-water sequences are brilliantly conceived and shot (by Madhi in probably his best work till date) that the visual effects, when they happen, don’t really stick out. The film, in these adrenaline stretches, doesn’t bother too much with intense character back-stories; but gives them the bare-minimum arcs to keep us fittingly engaged. And it works. Kay Kay Menon as the aggressive captain keeps switching to a shrill ham, but he makes up for it with some cool navy-swagger. Rana Daggubatti is quite adequate as the law-abiding Lt. Commander, but its Atul Kulkarni (playing the senior executive officer) who does more for the film than it does for him. And just when the movie appears to have earned extra brownie points for not trivializing the enemy by making its leader cut a sorry figure, the last half an hour happens.
As a little bummer amidst the many streaks of brilliance, where Sankalp deliberately walks into a jingoistic warp. We get the genre-defining, rousing speech, which, without a hint of hesitancy, alludes to army-jawans standing at the border to let farmers and civilians live in peace. Really? After 24 months of incessant trolls? And towards the last act, things start getting a little too preposterous. The first time film-maker in his quest for a sky-rocketing graph of war-thrills, oversteps a little as he indulges us in a torpedo game that I must admit, is staged well enough to not allow us the cushion to reflect on the improbability of it all. But then the wacky aftertaste… isn’t that what differentiates a good film from a great one? On the brighter side, the placement of our National Anthem at such a high point in the narrative almost makes up for the two-hour dearth of humour. Quite a close call, nevertheless!
But, embracing all its minor missteps, I would go the distance to call Ghazi a sort of a mini-milestone, in its own right. Yet another passionate film-maker, who doesn’t shy away from dreaming beyond the industry’s apparently ‘impossible‘, is born. And that feels real good.