As I mentioned in my non-SPOILER review, my Grandpa loooooooooves submarine movies. Well, really all boat movies, but sub movies are his favorites. And because of that, I have seen a fair number of submarine movies myself. And I have to say, this is a very very good example of the sub movie genre. I would have liked it even better if we’d gotten to the underwater warfare part sooner.
I’ve already done a whole post about the general themes and this that and the other thing. So for this movie, I am just going straight into SPOILERS. Starting with the whole plot in one paragraph, and then moving on to a more detailed discussion of specific points.
We open in 1971. Before India has officially joined in the Bengladeshi war of independence. Refugees are streaming across the border from East Pakistan (future Bengladesh), India is helping them and also sending supplies to the East Pakistan rebels. West Pakistan (or, as it is now known, just “Pakistan”) is considering methods of stopping this, finally planning to send their top submarine to attack either India’s foremost naval carrier, or a port, which will distract India and stop their ability to help East Pakistan. India gets word that Pakistan might be sending their sub on a mission and sends off their own sub, under the command of Kay Kay Menon, a warhawk Sikh, with junior officers Atul Kulkarni (whose wife is about to give birth) and young officer Rana Duggabatti. Rana is given extra orders to try to keep control of Kay Kay, since they are only on a reconnaissance mission, they are not at war. Sub takes off, they finish all their little missions, check out the whole area of the ocean, are ready to go home. Which is when they see a merchant ship which has been attacked. Rana insists on surfacing to rescue survivors and swims over and saves Taapsee and a little girl, both of them refugees from East Pakistan. Kay Kay insists on chasing and attacking the Pakistani sub which sank the merchant ship. Rana almost mutinees in protest. And finally does mutiny when Kay Kay insists on diving beyond the safe level for the ship in order to attack, which sets off cracks in the hull and a fire in the kitchen and all kinds of other disasters. While they debate what to do next, Rana learns that Kay Kay’s son was killed in the 1965 war in a similar situation, spotting the enemy but sitting and waiting for orders instead of attacking. This makes him agree to Kay Kay’s plan? Anyway, the Pakistanis have left landmines in the hills that the sub will have to pass through. They brush against one landmine, severely damaging their ship. They can no longer turn, they only have 25 minutes of power and oxygen left, and they sink to the bottom of the ocean. And Kay Kay dies, shoving Rana out of the way of a flying wheel, while Atul is severely injured. Taapsee reveals herself to be a doctor and cares for the injured while Rana takes control of the ship. They use vibrations to set off the second landmine and then wait for the Pakistanis to come back and confirm the explosion. Torpedoes are exchanged, and after a lot of back and forth, all the Pakistani ones miss and the Indian ones hit. Success! They have just enough power to raise back to the surface and wave the Indian flag to attract the attention of a rescue ship.
See, there are two ways you can look at this film. And also, you know, life. One is focusing on your enemy and hating them and wanting to defeat them at all costs. The other is focusing on the people around you and taking care of them and working together. This film really really works for me when it does the second, but not when it does the first. And, unfortunately, only about 1/3rd of the film is the working together part, while a good half is hating the enemy. And then the remaining 1/6th (HA! A triumph of 4th grade mathematics!) is just kind of process stuff about how naval orders are delivered and stuff. Which is neutral for me but, again, my Grandpa is going to LOVE that stuff! You know the movie Bridge Over the River Kwai? His reaction to that was “Great movie! Loved all the details of how they built the bridge.”
(For most people, of course, The Bridge Over the River Kwai is all about the catchy whistling theme)
The opening 15 minutes is all process stuff. The Indians intercept a message about the Pakistanis requesting fuel, which makes them realize they are sending out their super sub. At the same time, we see the Pakistanis in their planning room discussing how the best way to pull the Indians away from supporting the East Pakistan rebels is to either destroy their aircraft carrier or attack one of their ports, and that is the mission they are sending their super sub “Ghazi” on.
We also get a kind of by the numbers intro to our sub officers, Kay Kay as the aggressive Sikh captain, Rana as the fresh-eyed and aggressive junior officer, and Atul stuck between them, an old friend of Kay Kay, but with a calmer personality (and a pregnant wife).
And then, boat! Confusion on the dock, everyone loading things in, a bit of a rough start between the officers, and we are off! Their first orders in their locked safe direct them to a certain position in the Indian ocean. And then another position. And another. We get to know the radar room and the kitchen and the newbie among the enlisted crew through this kind of calm period. We also have a drill that the captain insists on calling right at the beginning to make sure the crew is ready for emergencies, and they fail utterly. Which shows us that Kay Kay has no patience with mistakes, and this crew is a little green. And Atul objects to it, which shows that he may be friends with Kay Kay, but still doesn’t like his methods. Rana has nothing to do with any of this.
As I mentioned in my no-SPOILERS review, Rana is kind of dull in this whole part. Kay Kay is magnetic, and also has some great backstory. We learn he is just back from suspension after slapping two of his subordinates, which is why Rana was secretly ordered to watch him. But Atul still supports him because the men he slapped went on to be heroes, I guess because of his slapping? Although I would go more with a “let’s not slap them, because they are brave awesome people, as was proved by their later actions” kind of thought. Atul is quietly interesting too, conveying just with the smallest expressions how conflicted he is over what is happening.
And then their radar guy hears something just as they have finished their final order and are about to go home. They go off to check it out, and arrive just in time to see an Indian merchant ship sinking. The Pakistanis, unable to find the aircraft carrier that was their primary target, have instituted their Plan B, to sink a random merchant sink, and then zip over and attack a port city while the Indian navy is distracted by the merchant ship.
The sub surfaces, Rana and Atul go up to check it out, and see a little girl clinging to wreckage, so Rana jumps in and swims and swims and drags her back and sends her up. Meanwhile, Kay Kay wants to take off right away before they are noticed, and while they can still chase the Pakistani ship. It’s the first big conflict, between Rana’s desire to help survivors and Kay Kay’s desire to attack the enemy. And, as I mentioned above, I am definitely a Rana person, I am much more concerned with saving the little girl than attacking the Pakistanis.
Also, this is not the last time Rana has a big swimming scene. Which is fine, but if I were writing the script, I would have given that as part of his backstory. That he was a champion swimmer and he used to be on the Navy team or something, and that’s why he’s never had a real command before. That would be cool! But just using the underwater camera to watch his muscles move while he swims, that’s cool too.
(Do you remember when Dino Morea was a water polo player/army officer in Kandukonden Kandukonden? That was weird!)
Faux-tension is created when Kay Kay orders them to dive in 90 seconds even if Rana isn’t back yet. But obviously Rana is going to make it back, because we are only 30 minutes into the movie and he’s on the poster! The surprise is that he comes back into the ship at the last minute, with a woman!!!! Taapsee Pannu, who comes down the ladder, sees all the uniformed people around her and starts singing the Bangladeshi national anthem. And then Rana cuts her off and tells her she is safe, she is with the Indian navy.
Kay Kay orders them to zoom off after the Pakistani ship. Rana argues against it because they don’t know what really happened yet. And says that all three officers have to agree to such an action. Kay Kay agrees, but then suggests that perhaps he just orders an emergency drill, which he does not need their approval for. This is clever, but then it is IMMEDIATELY not clever at all because Kay Kay goes ahead and orders actually firing the torpedoes, which means Rana has to hand over to Atul his half of the torpedo key. Which he does, only like minutes after he was ready to practically mutiny to prevent it! What happened? Why the sudden change? Why the clever maneuvering if just minutes later Kay Kay can simply peer pressure Rana into agreeing? Oh, and then they shoot a torpedo and miss.
Kay Kay wants to drop the ship to 300 feet so they can come up below the radar of the other ship and shoot at it’s belly. But Rana is against it because their sub has never been tested below 250. This time they really do have a confrontation (really? Over sub diving depth, but not shooting a torpedo in an act of war?), and Kay Kay manages to scare Rana off and order the dive (with Atul’s support, because he is the captain). But then as they dive, the ship creaks and bolts ping and everything shakes. This was really well done, definitely gave you the feeling of everything just sort of compressing. And the kitchen caught on fire and all their food burned up. Gets us all into the mindset of Rana and why he really does mutiny this time and insist on raising the ship.
And then there is kind of a waiting period. They have orders to hold position (also, Atul learns his son was born and distributes the sweets he brought on board just to be ready. It’s a great character touch, but I wish it was a daughter. It would have been so easy to insert, and such a nice non-macho message in this macho movie), Kay Kay goes to his room and reads his Patton bio, Rana gives food to the little girl he rescued and checks on Taapsee. Taapsee bandages up injuries and just as I am thinking “oh of course she knows first aid, because all women just know these things!” we learn that she is actually a doctor, so I feel foolish and happy that her character has real skills. Rana also asks her why she sang the Bangladeshi anthem when they captured her. Taapsee explains that when Pakistani soldiers here it, they get so enraged that they kill you immediately. Which is better than them raping you, and then killing you.
I have SO MANY ISSUES with this! Firstly, again, there is a bit of the “better to kill yourself than survive and be raped” argument which always bothers me. Not as much as in other situations, because it sounds like this is a “definitely will be raped and then killed anyway” kind of argument, not just “death before rape”. Secondly, while I can easily believe that young pumped up soldiers who are fighting rebels and guerilla war on the land would rape and kill, I don’t buy it that the elite Pakistani navy members on their best sub would have so little discipline. Yes yes, wartime horrors and I know there are plenty of historical precedents and all that. It’s just this very very specific situation where even the highly trained and professional officers on a sub, the ones who have to be highly trained and professional because one error means the sub will sink, are just wild-eyed and uncontrolled. It gets too close to the argument that all Pakistanis are kind of inhuman, orc-like monsters.
Oh, also during this “hold” period, Atul goes to talk to Rana and explains that Kay Kay’s only son died in a similar situation, he was a land army officer during the 65 war. They called for back-up and attack orders, were told to hold, and hours later were found, their bodies riddled with bullets. And thus, Kay Kay’s current drive to attack at all times even against orders.
Huh. Well, this is clearly a Nehru versus Indira argument! I know there was a lot of concern and frustration about how the earlier wars were kind of fought tepidly and relief when Indira took charge and was super aggressive. But, on the other hand, you kind of have to follow orders! The solution isn’t for the army to just take off on their own and have their own wars. There has to be some over-arching control, someone who sees the big picture and has more information than those on the ground. Maybe there was a good reason that Kay Kay’s son couldn’t attack at that time, maybe there is a good reason that they are being told to hold now. Maybe the solution isn’t mutiny, but instead to elect better leaders and promote better leaders within the army.
In this particular case, of course, they are right. Kay Kay intuits that the enemy sub is going to try to attack the Naval command headquarters and they must chase it done at all costs. Rana, possibly because of his conversation with Taapsee, maybe because of learning Kay Kay’s story, has a change of heart and agrees that they might as well take an extra 3 hours out of their way to follow it. What I am not clear on is if they are actually going against orders at this point or if they are more interpreting the orders creatively. They were told to hold, but they also lost radio contact. If someone had just thrown in a comment about “without radio contact, we can’t know what our orders are, which thereby gives us the right to do as we see fit”, I would have been happier.
And, FINALLY, we get to the undersea battle portion! The Pakistanis figure out that the sub is chasing them and instead of shooting a torpedo and possibly missing, they decide to plant landmines behind them in the path of the Indians. Which is great tension, us in the audience knowing they are heading towards mines and waiting to see what will happen!
(I also wish The Hunt for Red October was almost entirely underwater battles. More underwater shots of submarines and fewer conversations with Alec Baldwin!)
Even better, they hit the mine and it goes off! Okay, not better for them, but an interesting dramatic choice. The boat shakes, lights flash on and off, we aren’t sure what happened to all of our characters. And then there is the excitement of watching them use all their little boat tools to deal with the damage. Locking off areas with leaks, turning on generators, picking up people who were knocked down, etc. Atul landed against a broken pipe and got stabbed, Rana was briefly knocked out then got up. We don’t know what happened to Kay Kay for a while, because everything is all confused and flashing lights.
They manage to get to the battery array and confirm that two of their batteries are working. Another young officer dives into the waterlogged front compartment to disable one of the torpedoes which has been set off by the explosion and is about to go off. They determine that only one propellor is working so they can’t maneuver. But they can use compressed air to move up and down. They immediately rise to a safer level to release the pressure on the outside of the sub. And use the emergency batteries to turn the lights back on. But they only have a limited amount of power and air.
Now, this is fascinating! All the mental challenges and rules and buttons and things lighting up! And it gets even more interesting when Rana rises to the challenge and takes control of the ship and determines that their only hope is to get the Pakistani sub to come to them and line up with their rear so they can shoot of their rear torpedoes. And the best way to get it to turn back is if they set off the other mine so the Pakistanis will come to look at the damage and confirm the kill. And the way to do that, best of all, we just see happening and get to figure it out ourselves, without them explaining all the thinking to the audience.
A crew is set to ram a pole as hard as they can against the side of the ship exactly lined up with the mine. Clearly they are trying to use the vibrations to set off the mine. But it’s not enough! Rana has another idea, and my favorite moment of the movie. He puts out an announcement to the whole ship, “one to three, HUM!” And they keep going for a good minute “HUM….HUM….HUM…” We get shots of everyone on board joining in, including the little girl that was rescued. It’s a great moment of them all working together, plus using “hum” as the joint syllable, which is of course “us-we” in Hindi.
(Or else they are warming up to sing this song)
This whole sequence, the decision to try to set off the mine and all, this is when Rana really impressed me. I found myself thinking “Wow, he really looks his age here! All young and inexperienced.” And then I remembered that Rana-the-actor is of course NOT young and inexperienced at all! So this is him just acting and completely inhabiting the character, even in silent moments, even in just how he is sitting.
The plan works and the Pakistanis turn back. Only the first torpedo the Indians set off misses them, alerting them that the Indians are on the attack. They set off a torpedo in response and the Indians move to a higher depth just in time to be missed, the torpedo scraping along the bottom of their hull. The Pakistanis figure out that they are “moving up and down like an elevator” (which is a great line), and set off torpedoes at 3 seperate levels so that they cannot miss. Rana figures out the only level that gives them a hope and moves the sub to that level, and this time all three torpedoes just barely scrape the hull. While all the soldiers are ordered to hold on to something and brace themselves. And, in a really nice touch, one of the junior officers grabs hold of a button with the Indian flag on it. And once again, the torpedoes just miss them.
Now, the good news is, the Pakistanis have used all their front weapons. They will most likely spin around and line up with the Indians torpedoes in the back in order to be able to use their back torpedoes. Which will give the Indians another chance. But only if the Pakistanis move quickly, since their power and air will only last for another 25 minutes and they will have to surface. And only if the Pakistanis attack from the back, since their front torpedo compartment is flooded.
For the first, Rana suddenly remembers Taapsee’s technique of singing the Bangladeshi anthem in order to force them to shoot her right away. And, it’s a great moment, the whole sub singing “Jana Gana” as loud as possible all together. But on the other hand, REALLY???? The smartest most experienced sub crew in the entire Pakistani navy is brought to incomprehensible fury by the mere sound of the Indian national anthem? Losing all reason and judgement and attacking immediately? But still maintaining enough control to follow procedure and correctly maneuver and attack? Also, I feel like there is a joke here about really really hating Tagore poetry, but I can’t quite find it.
(Tagore: author of both the Indian and the Bangladeshi national anthems! And also maybe Sri Lanka)
The problem is, the Pakistanis chose to attack from the front, where the torpedo room is flooded. So Rana gets to swim again! He orders the men to open the seal and let him in, but not open it until Atul gives the order. Rana dives in and swims swims swims, and manually triggers the torpedo. Bombs away! And the Pakistanis miss again while the Indians hit! Yaaaaaay! Only after the hit is confirmed and the Indian sub rises to the top, does Atul give the order to open the hatch and let out Rana, and also all the water trapped in there which could flood the ship if opened too soon. It is legitimately stressfull! And then Rana falls through the hatch, unconscience. And the men gather round and start working on him. Taapsee is standing there looking worried too. Which at first I liked because it kind of made her part of the group without making it all lovey-lovey with Rana (in fact, through out the film, there is no real indication that she and Rana have any romantic feelings for each other, which is wonderful since it would be so easy to go that way and minimize both their characters), but then I got mad because she is a DOCTOR!!!! Shouldn’t she be the one knocking people out of the way to treat Rana instead of just standing their watching while other people work over him?
Oh, and Rana is fine! And the ship surfaces and Atul goes out the top hatch thing and waves the Indian flag to attract the attention of the rescue boat. It’s kind of an abrupt ending.
But, overall, a fairly well-constructed film! Especially in the second half. The first half is so focused on getting us oriented to the characters and the space and the type of warfare and all that, that it doesn’t feel like anything actually happens. And the only thing that does happen is the Rana-Kay Kay friction which feels sort of created just to have some kind of conflict before the real conflict started. But the second half is perfect! A variety of issues arise, are all handled differently, are all shown clearly so we understand the challenges, and the tension slowly ratchets up. Best of all is the final torpedo hit being contrasted with Rana’s danger trapped in the flooded compartment, a great contrast of tensions. And a very strong ending. No wonder they couldn’t find anything else to put after it and just went for a sudden cut to Atul waving the flag.