I always forget how good this movie is, and then I watch it again and it is just REALLY REALLY good. And sometimes I feel like I am the only person who realizes that, it’s not talked about nearly as much as you would expect for a Farhan Akhtar/Hrithik Roshan/Amitabh Bachchan/Boman Irani/Amrish Puri/Om Puri/Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy/Javed Akhtar/Preity Zinta movie.
This is a coming of age story masquerading as a war story. Or else a war story masquerading as a coming of age story. Really, the two things are the same. War time experiences permanently scar the young men (and it is almost always very young men) who experience them. They change you for a life time, make you into who you will be. And sometimes, to make the best kind of war story, you don’t need to be a grizzled veteran who understands war so much as a young man who understands young men.
The Red Badge of Courage is one of the greatest stories of young men during war. It was written by Stephan Crane when he was 24 years old, with no experience of war. One of the stories often told about the book is how real veterans of the Civil War refused to believe it could have been written by a young man who had never seen a battle. Crane’s attitude towards what he wrote was in two parts, he wanted to get at the inner life of soldier in a battle and he felt he could understand what that felt like through inner intuition:
I wonder that some of those fellows don’t tell how they felt in those scraps. They spout enough of what they did, but they’re as emotionless as rocks
Of course, I have never been in a battle, but I believe that I got my sense of the rage of conflict on the football field, or else fighting is a hereditary instinct, and I wrote intuitively;
Of course, you can research a war and a battle, you can find out all the details of what happened and how it happened. But you need a special genius to pull out how it felt while it was happening, to bring the audience along with the soldier. And you need an extra-special genius to bring them along and still make them feel everything that happened was worthwhile, that war is more than just black comedy.
There are a fair number of movies about the Kargil conflict, the most famous being LOC: Kargil. It was a perfect little war, India was clearly in the right, there was a clear objective, and that objective was achieved in a short amount of time. And there were also a fair number of heroes, mostly young officers like Hrithik in this film, going into their first experience of battle with high hopes and no fear. We will see another version of this story soon in the Vikram Bhatra biopic.
But what this film does differently, and well, is place that war in the context of a whole lifetime. It is painful and tragic, but life happened before, and life moves on afterwards, with that one ugly strange dividing line in the middle. Hrithik at the end of the film is the culmination of everything that happened to him, from college jokes to army training courses to life and death missions. That’s what most war films don’t get, for the people in the war, there is tomorrow and yesterday as well, not just today.
The other thing war films don’t always capture well is what is happening beyond the battlefield. This film brilliantly captures the way life diffuses in a million directions before suddenly pulling into sharp focus as battle comes closer and closer. Family issues, romance, career ambitions, college friendships, everything slowly drops away until there is nothing left. The title of the film, “Lakshya” begins as a comment on Hrithik not having a career path after college. And then it changes meaning as he grows up and goes through life, his goals shift from one place to another, before finally narrowing down to pinpoint precision on simply conquering one outpost on one mountain range, and that’s enough. Everything else in life has ceased to matter. Tomorrow is a promise that may not come, and yesterday has been erased by the real tragedies that the real yesterday gave him.
Hrithik’s performance at the center of this film is so raw and fresh. He uses his body to convey that moment of going from loose floating college kid, to confident happy fearless soldier, to someone who has lost all concept of himself and his body but as an extension of himself, a way of accomplishing a task.
But he is surrounded by other wonderful actors. Boman Irani made me cry, in the way only Boman can do. Preity manages to be an ambitious woman who puts career ahead of love without losing my respect or liking. Lily Dubet, in only a few moments, made me feel the kind of supportive understanding mother who would have raised Preity’s character. Ranvir Shorey shows up just long enough for you to go “is that Ranvir Shorey?” and then breaks your heart in the next moment. Amitabh is perfect as the casually commanding officer, we don’t need to know a backstory or a justification for his command, we can see in his eyes and posture that he has been here before, has sent young men to their deaths and been that man who was sent and came back.
And then there is the soundtrack. This is still one of my favorite soundtracks, as it has been since I first heard it. I think it is a triumph, one of those soundtracks where each song sounds completely different from the others, and yet they all somehow come together to convey the correct feeling. And it comes with full song sequences that do not feel like moments of fantasy, like they are removed from the reality of the film, but somehow fill in gaps in the emotions that could not be described otherwise. Until the very end, until the war becomes real and there are no emotions left to feel, just the moment that is in front of you and the task at hand.
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I was going to start with a super brief overview of the actual conflict. But really you don’t need to know about the conflict, beyond that it was brief and bloody and successful. If you want more details, watch LOC: Kargil which gives a minute by minute battle by battle account of everything happened, in strict historical detail. This film is less interested in the minute by minute account than in the feel of one particular soldier, going from peacetime border service to moving towards the front to his first battle experiences to finally success.
No, a better place to start is with our hero, Hrithik. That’s where the movie itself starts, his first arrival on the border, with that fresh out of the academy look, new hair cut and new uniform and perfect solute for his superior. His superior, Amitabh, who gives him a casual wave and lets him relax. And then, slowly, we get to know this first posting and Hrithik in it. We come in like he does, a rapid passing of new names and new faces, the men he tries to remember, nerves as he meets his superior officer, then trying to relax in the little officer’s lounge, making cautious conversation with his new co-workers. There’s no immediate deep emotional bonds, just the cautious getting to know each other of people who are going to be working closely for an unknown length of time. And only after we get to know Hrithik in this context, a little untried but serious, trying to dig in and do his best among other men who are doing the same, do we flashback to the past. To Preity.
(Hrithik, mature and certain)
Preity is Hrithik’s past at this point. He keeps her photo, he thinks of her, but it doesn’t stop him from doing what he has to do in the now. That’s what makes the flashback so strange and interesting, to see this focused dedicated eager young man bursting with potential and dedication, as a very different sort of man who was only vaguely dedicated and interested in his girlfriend. Back in college, Preity was the dedicated one, the one organizing protests and reading books and nagging Hrithik to figure out his life. And all he wanted to do was avoid working for his father Boman Irani and keep Preity as his girlfriend.
It’s a different kind of relationship between the two of them, because we come in at the end of things. They’ve done the falling in love at first sight, and the first flush of passion, and the fights and the make-ups and the drama and all the rest of it. At this point, they are at the fish or cut bait moment of romance. Either it is just a college thing and dies down, or they get married. And if they are going to get married, then they need to talk seriously about what they want and need from each other. It’s part of growing up, in a different way than movie romances usually deal with falling in love and growing up. Hrithik doesn’t need to be a man in order to take care of Preity, or earn Preity, or any of that. He just has to become a man so Preity can make an informed decision about what the end product will be that she is buying, what she will get if she chooses to spend her life with him.
And later, Hrithik has to know the same thing about Preity. Their whole romance in this film is about the two of them leapfrogging each other, growing up at different paces and in different ways until they meet at the end. It’s not a love story, it’s a story about two people who happen to be in love, but they aren’t going to put their lives on hold just for that. But they also love each other enough to check in as they go on their journeys, see where the other has landed, care about the other enough to want to always sort of know where they are in life. You could easily picture their whole lives like this, if they had never managed to meet in the middle, marrying other people and having separate journeys and every few years meeting at a party and exchanging stories and then moving on. Only, then the war happened. And through fate and coincidence and just innate similarity of traits that drove them together in the first place, they both end up right on the front lines and driven to the same place in life.
(I also love Preity’s look in the film, first and second half, going from casual boho-chic indo-western style in college, to simple and practical and easy war correspondent style)
But that’s not where we are at the beginning. At the beginning, Hrithik is in love with Preity and trying to avoid working for his father, so he hits on something that will solve both his problems, passing the officers training test and going into army training will be something his father won’t like but also can’t openly object to, and will impress Preity. One of his friends comes up with the idea, it sounds good to Hrithik, so he tags along. And then the friend ends up going overseas for more school instead and Hrithik, surprising everyone, actually passes the test and is admitted to the training program.
There was no real decision anywhere, just pretending to make decisions. Pretending to Preity that he has his life together so she won’t break up with him. Pretending to his father that he has his own plan so he won’t dismiss him. But then he starts the training program and the pretending stops. Or, it should stop, but he doesn’t know how.
There is a particular kind of young man posturing where suddenly nothing matters and anything can be a joke. It’s fine in high school and college, but then you get to real life and suddenly you can’t act that way any more. Hrithik laughs at the gun drills and the obstacle courses and doesn’t like waking up early. Everyone around him is so sincere, and he just can’t bring himself to switch into gear, to actually start caring, about anything. This is the part of the film where, structurally, it is so important that we began in the middle, with him as the bright new officer. We know he will get there even when he doesn’t think so himself. If there was any real possibility that he would stay that bored and disconnected, it would be hard to keep watching the film. This way, we feel the frustration which makes his family and girlfriend and teachers give up on him, without fully giving up on him ourselves.
And so Hrithik, bored with all these things that don’t matter (he thinks) goes AWOL from the training school, goes home to his father who is unsurprised, which is so much worse than disappointed. And to his girlfriend, who is so shocked that all her sympathy and love just drain away in one moment. And that is when he goes back. When it isn’t for anyone else, when he knows his father might never believe in him, when he knows Preity is completely done with him, when there is nothing else left in his life, that’s when he is able to go back and fully throw himself into the course.
As an American, I had to do a bit of a mental adjustment to the whole idea of this kind of training program. Post-WWII our army turned into more of an efficiency machine training on a assembly line system, everyone was a little cog in the machine, just doing their one little task. The idea of a wealthy upperclass college grad going to some kind of exclusive training program with horses and waiters at the dining room and all of that is a bit ridiculous. But from the very little I know, it is less unheard of in India, the army still has a strong upperclass officers class. And therefore taking the exam and entering the school is not necessarily common but is an acceptable (although unusual) choice for someone of Hrithik’s class. His friends are going into engineering or hotel management, he picks something a little off-beat and strange just so as to surprise people and buy some time. But once he has no other option, he throws himself into it with an expectation of finding a respectable profession that will give him a position in the world for the rest of his life.
And so Hrithik has found his first goal in life, his first real goal instead of simply avoiding problems, to finish the program and succeed in his chosen career. And then is off to his first posting, on the border, where we saw him the first time. Followed by a brief leave back home for a grudging greeting from Boman Irani and a cheerful proud greeting of his mother, he tracks down Preity. But unlike in other heroines, she hasn’t stopped her life to wait for him. And unlike other films, the film didn’t forget about her either. She isn’t the lead or the most important character, but we still check in on her, see her starting her job as a newsreader at a TV station, slowly working her way up, getting what she wants as well. And we jump back and forth a little, see her first fielding a proposal from a new man, a proposal that seems to take her by surprise and not necessarily pleasant surprise. And then later see her first meeting with that man, as a commentator on a talk show she is moderating. A conversation with her mother, the same mother we saw earlier silently observing the failure of her relationship with Hrithik, this time silently observing Preity’s lack of excitement over her engagement without pushing at it. And so when Hrithik appears, ready to see her again, having achieved something and started on his path in life, he discovers that she has started on her own different path, professional success and an engagement to a successful young businessman. And he leaves without speaking, because they are too far apart. She has moved away from him, and he has moved far enough that he no longer feels the need to build his whole life around her, to take a step off his own path in order to run after her.
And so he goes back to that path, back home on leave with his parents, until he is suddenly jerked away to a different direction, a phone call ordering him back to the front. This is first true war scene of the movie, but it isn’t handled like a “war scene”. It is handled like these characters that we already know and how they would be in this moment. Hrithik is shaken but excited, that eager young officer dedication still there. His mother is afraid and shifts most easily, just wants to wish him a good farewell, the way he would want, used to sensing what people need and to giving them that. And Boman blusters and talks and tries to take control. It isn’t a perfect well thought out good-bye, it is a good-bye of people trying to shake themselves into this new reality and not quite making it fast enough.
Everything happens very fast after that in the film, as it did in real life with this conflict. Hrithik starts moving towards the front, along with his fellow officers and new friends, and others he hadn’t met before. But they all feel strong and confident with the comradery of the army. That slow build we saw through his training program, the fellow students who offered to study with him, the casual conversations getting to know each other in the officers lounge, and then it all pays off in this sense of being as one together, strangers who were not quite strangers because they had all shared the same experiences on the way to this place. That’s what army training and regulations are supposed to do, in the best sense, prepare you so that you can work together with trust and without question right from the start. And the music in this section, this is my favorite song sequence, the way the voices weave in and out of each other, each different but each in perfect harmony.
And then it slows again. Hrithik keeps moving, slowly, towards his active duty. We catch glimpses of the superior officers discussing movements at a level Hrithik is removed from, and we see him catching up with old friends, getting used to bombardments, getting ever closer. And we see Preity getting ever closer, interviewing soldiers on the way to the front, but not intersecting with Hrithik. Again, she is on her own journey, seeing one of the soldiers she interviewed now injured, bursting out in anger at the pointlessness of it, all only to be shouted into silence by another soldier who argues that she disrespects the injured or dead with her words. Hrithik is there for that confrontation, but does not interfere, he is too far into his own world and his own journey to reach out to Preity.
No, their interactions come later. A silent one, when they are both caught in a blast, hiding with other soldiers waiting for it to be other, all they can do is look at each other. But then, there is nothing to say. The rest of the world is stripped away almost completely now, her ambitions and her fiancee, his struggles to find himself, none of it matters in this moment beyond just being there together.
They have two more conversations, and this time it is Hrithik who is farther forward than Preity, giving her ultimatums to see if she can catch up. He goes on his first active mission, and it is confused and sad and terrifying and impossible. Poor Ranvir Shorey dies in the stupidest way, tripping on a rock, hitting his head, and standing up confused in full view of the guns, only to be shot in the chest. Hrithik loses another friend, the bring him back for treatment and he doesn’t survive. Hrithik is not the one most affected, that is another friend from the officers, but Hrithik sees his grief and that is what affects him, watching that pain and knowing that he might feel it tomorrow for one of his friends, that he may cause that pain in someone else with his own death.
They survived that first encounter by the skin of their teeth and are being ordered out on another. And the night before, Hrithik goes to talk to his friend, the one who was so grief stricken, and catches him taking off his engagement ring and sealing it in an envelope. Hrithik backs away without speaking, his face shaking. These aren’t the brave emotionless heroes of the service in most films, these are two young men who were silly college students in love just a little bit ago, who are scared and sad and don’t want to be there but are trying to keep moving forward anyway. We don’t find out of the engagement was broken, or if he decided to break it knowing he might not come home, or if he simply could not bear the weight of the ring on his hand any longer, reminding him of promises that might not come true. All we know is what Hrithik knows, here is a man that just days earlier was so excited about his engagement and marriage that he was kissing the ring, and now that part of himself has died.
And so when Hrithik speaks to Preity again, he does not say he loves her or ask her to marry him or anything like that. He leaves it up to her to promise to wait, and expect nothing in return, know that at this moment he can promise nothing in return because he cannot belong to her, not right now. The first time I saw this movie, the lack of romantic declarations and certainty bothered me in this moment. But on this viewing, it felt right. This isn’t the time or place for big romantic declarations, and there is no purpose to lengthy explanations because none of the things they might explain really matter any more. All it is time for is to let Hrithik go off knowing he need not fear leaving Preity behind, she will be there if he comes back and she will be able to survive if he does not.
In the same way, he finally takes his farewell of his father. The two people who first set him on this path, in an accidental unmeaning way, are now the two he is guiding. His father, who couldn’t quite catch up in time for a real good-bye, is caught up now. And there is no need to say “I’m proud of you” or “I was wrong not to have faith in you” or anything like that, Hrithik doesn’t need that any more, he has moved past it. All they need to say is “I love you”.
And then there’s the final bloody mission. This movie does not shy away from the bloodiness of mountain warfare. That’s the one thing my Grandfather was always very emphatic about, he was in Italy during WWII and he felt strongly that they had the worst of it for the simple reason that France had beaches, beaches are easy, he was climbing up mountains. Hrithik is going up mountains too, climbing with only the supplies he can carry and the men who can keep up, and with a desperate battle to take an outpost at the end of it. Men die on both sides, die random deaths, painful deaths, not noble deaths with perfect last words as most movies would put it. But also not meaningless deaths. When Hrithik finally takes the position and plants the flag at the end, you feel something. Not patriotism exactly, this isn’t the kind of triumphal joyful patriotism most films sell. This was a hard horrible job, and he did it. And he should be proud of that, as an individual not just as an Indian soldier.
And so we end with the return to the individual. Again, the first time I watched it this felt anti-climatic. But that’s the point, the end of war (if you are lucky) is an anti-climax. A return to average normal life, to average normal civilian clothes, to standing on a sidewalk talking to your parents, and seeing Preity waiting. Not waiting in tears or with a big declaration, but just waiting like she promised she would be. An anti-climax, that is the happiest climax possible.