What to make of Lakshya? After Rock On!! I decided to look for some other films from Excel Entertainment and Farhan Akhtar and came across this DVD in a sale. The film is presented on 2 discs in a fold out package with an outer sleeve and a glossy booklet. At first glance, this matches the Hollywood packages that Excel and UTV are attempting to emulate. Unfortunately the impression is spoiled by the presentation on screen. A 185 min film in ‘Scope is compressed onto a single disc and my DVD player had problems with the coding in the central section of the film. The second disc does have some interesting material (including a ‘making of’ the film as a whole and a separate presentation of one of the dance sequences as well as some deleted scenes). This clearly was a big budget production with four major stars, location shooting in Kashmir and an international flavour to the crew.
The title ‘Lakshya’ means ‘objective’ or ‘aim’ and the central character Karan (Hrithik Roshan) is an upper middle-class young man with no real aim in life until, on a whim after watching an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, he decides to join the Indian Army. Eventually, he finds himself involved with his Punjabi Regiment in the Kargil War of 1999, when Pakistani forces crossed the LOC (Line of Control) in partitioned Kashmir. With the Pakistanis occupying one of the peaks and shelling an Indian highway, Karan finds his aim – to do the John Wayne thing and plant his country’s flag on top of the peak. The narrative utilises a flashback structure so that we meet the young officer first and then discover how he got there.
From what I’ve read and from the ‘making of’ documentary, it’s clear that the filmmakers here (father and son combination Javed and Farhan Akhtar as writer and director) intended to be as accurate as possible in representing the setting for the story and compared to what I know of mainstream Bollywood, Lakshya is a ‘realist’ film in the mode of mainstream Hollywood. The camerawork by the German cinematographer Christopher Popp is generally excellent, especially in presenting the mountain landscapes and the training moves of the Indian Army. Hollywood films such as An Officer and a Gentleman and The Eiger Sanction sprang to mind as I watched the film. I choose those references carefully as they represent two of the genre repertoires on which the film draws. Lakshya begins as a romantic drama and then transmutes into a patriotic war film with elements of the espionage thriller. There is no reason why this mixture shouldn’t work (although it is a tall order) but I wasn’t really convinced by any single genre element or indeed by the overall package. I was, however, impressed by many specific scenes/sequences. Is it me or is it the film? Lakshya was not a massive hit in India, despite its stellar cast (Preity Zinta, Amitabh Bachchan and Om Puri) but it does have some very enthusiastic supporters and played reasonably well in the US and UK.
Wikipedia’s detailed entry on the Kargil War/Conflict suggests several Hindi films that have been based wholly or partly on incidents associated with the war. I haven’t seen any of these, but I’m familiar with scenes from Mani Ratnam’s Tamil films and from Santosh Sivan’s The Terrorist. Many critics have suggested that it was Ratnam’s Roja (1992) that pushed Hindi film producers towards films more clearly focused on issues in ‘real’ India. In Roja an Indian computer engineer working for the Indian military is abducted in Kashmir. His young wife campaigns to get the Indian authorities to do something to get him back and the engineer also attempts to escape. There is some business with an Indian flag and clearly there are connections between Roja and Lakshya. Although it is much more slick and probably more ‘authentic’, Lakshya doesn’t seem to me as coherent as Roja.
What’s the problem? First, I don’t really care about the central character Karan. Partly this is just prejudice against upper middle-class pretty boys. Hrithik Roshan is a good dancer and he looks very handsome in uniform, but his performance as a ‘slacker’ is really embarrassing. The other three stars have very underwritten parts and, for me, don’t do enough in their roles (it’s especially sad that we don’t see more of Preity Zinta as a TV reporter). Perhaps this is a problem with the Bollywood star system and with its approach to genres more fully developed in other cinemas such as the war movie. The combat/army sequences need more space for other characters. Why is Karan in a Punjabi regiment? Who are the other officers in the regiment? Who are the squaddies? What stories do they have to tell? The cliché of British and American war movies – a squad of young men drawn from different classes and regions is there for a good purpose.
This kind of Bollywood film still requires songs, two of which have sophisticated dance choreography. It seems impossible for the producers to not have these – and indeed there is no reason why they shouldn’t be incorporated in the narrative. I think all the songs work to some extent. It is the sickly sentimental score in other scenes that I found to be a real problem. The issue is how to develop a tone that can bridge the romance and action scenes and I don’t think that was achieved. The film has been praised for the realism of the combat scenes but I wasn’t convinced. I’ve seen much better sequences of this kind of assault in recent Chinese and Korean films as well as earlier Hollywood efforts such as Sam Fuller’s films or indeed the Russian film about Afghanistan, 9th Company. Have the producers’ seen Santosh Sivan’s combat scenes at the start of The Terrorist?
The other major issue for me is the film’s literal ‘flag-waving’ patriotism. I’m afraid that I struggle with all forms of nationalism, so war pictures that go beyond a narrative of looking after your mates and seeing that they get out alive usually leave me cold. Again Lakshya seems to have been praised for not demonising the Pakistani forces. I thought it did do that to some extent, but I recognise that there was also an attempt to humanise them. The actual sequence when the film’s narrative switched to the Pakistani defenders on the peak threw me a little. Again this felt arbitrary and not thought through.
Overall, Lakshya is an interesting attempt to make a different kind of Bollywood film. It didn’t work for me, at least not as well as the producers might have hoped, and I doubt it found audiences in India outside the major cities, but this production team will eventually crack it, I feel sure.