'1971: Beyond Borders' review: The film's portrayal of the human cost of war saves it from its jingoism

Expecting a sober and jingoism free film on a war between India and Pakistan is as unrealistic as wanting affordable popcorn.
 '1971: Beyond Borders' review: The film's portrayal of the human cost of war saves it from its jingoism
'1971: Beyond Borders' review: The film's portrayal of the human cost of war saves it from its jingoism
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1971: Beyond Borders, the fourth installment in the Major Mahadevan series directed by Major Ravi, comes at a time when 'Think about the jawan at the border' has become the universal line to quell any kind of dissent, and it has become compulsory to stand up for the national anthem before you watch a film at the theatre.

So expecting a sober and jingoism free film on a war between India and Pakistan is as unrealistic as wanting affordable popcorn. 1971 begins with Mammootty's unmistakable voice giving us an introduction to the war that birthed Bangladesh, even as black and white photographs and visuals from that period capturing the misery of the people and the exodus of refugees play on screen. For some reason, a famous picture from the Bengal famine of 1943 also finds a place here. 
And then we're taken to Georgia, where the UN peacekeeping force is fighting in the conflict zone. Mohanlal as Major Mahadevan is given an entry scene that sets the tone for the rest of the film - he saves a Pakistani officer (also a part of the peacekeeping force) and the latter is touched equal parts by the Indian's bravery and generosity. 
But this isn't Mahadevan's story, it's his father Sahadevan's (also Mohanlal), although there is a link between this scene and the rest of the film. We go back in the past to relive the Indo-Pak war through the eyes of the two armies who fought against each other. 
Though the film is loosely based on real life persons, a brave Pakistani officer who was posthumously awarded a gallantry award by the Pakistani government on the recommendation of an Indian officer who fought him, the narrative is heavily prejudiced in favour of the Indian troops.
So we have a belligerent Sahadev insisting that India only fights a war of righteousness unlike Pakistan; Indians are equated to the Pandavas while the Pakistanis are the Kauravas; the General of the Pakistani army enjoys torturing prisoners of war systematically while it's a lower-ranked Indian officer who slaps around a Pakistani PoW to show some kind of balance. 
Further, Colonel Raja (a dignified Arunoday Singh) plays the brave Pakistani officer who tells us twice during the film that he was born in India and feels bad for fighting against the land of his birth - this might very well have been true, but one wonders if the deliberateness with which this information is presented to us has more to do with making us sympathize with the Pakistani man at the end of the day.
The film draws a parallel with the Mahabharatha at several points - the futility of war, the tragedy of people of the same blood fighting each other, the greed of the superior powers that lead to such bloodshed and more. However, while the Kauravas were ostensibly the villains of the epic, the Kurukshetra war was not won without the Pandavas too indulging in their share of unethical means. 1971, however, doesn't get into that grey territory. 
The film revolves around the capture of Basantar bridge, which was pivotal in securing the Indian army a victory in the war. But though there are plenty of war scenes - and impressive ones shot in the dark - there's very little on war strategy itself. Instead, the film becomes about Sahadevan, the tiger, who can never lose. 
Other than Allu Sirish who comes in the role of Chinmay, a young officer, everyone else in the Indian camp looks physically unfit to be in the army. It's to Mohanlal's credit that despite his considerable girth, he manages to convince us that he's indeed capable of performing all those intense battle sequences (well, if he could fight tigers in Pulimurugan, what's a bunch of Pakistanis?).
The supporting cast, including Asha Sharath and Renji Panicker, do their job well although Sudheer Karamana, who plays a Tamil officer, should listen to "Naan aanai ittal" once again to get the words right. Srushti Dange gets an one song appearance as Chinmay's love interest. 
1971 was made on an ambitious scale and the makers have not spared any trick in the book to maximise its reach. There's Allu Sirish for the Telugu audience, a Tamil song and Tamil characters for the Tamil audience, and plenty of Hindi music in the background during the high octane war scenes that's meant to whip up your patriotism.The songs appear organically and are pleasant enough although it's strange that the background music becomes 'Allah-hu-akbar' when the Pakistanis get into the battle. 
Though the film does glorify the Indian army, it's careful not to indulge in war-mongering. We're never allowed to forget the human cost of war. Among the genuinely moving scenes in the film is the one where the army men scramble down a sand hill when the letter delivery service comes, eager to hear from their loved ones. 
It's moments like these that save 1971 from turning into a painful exercise in nationalism. I highly doubt that any Pakistani would think that this was a fair portrayal of the war but given the current political climate, this is possibly how far we can go. 

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