1962: The War in the Hills Series Review: Trekking to disaster
Abhay Deol leads a chaotic, overlong war epic
1962: The War in the Hills scores a small win in its opening scene. As Major Suraj Singh (Abhay Deol) prepares to leave, his wife, Shagun (Mahie Gill), softly interrogates him. At this point, all you can do is smile, since it’s the same onscreen pairing from Anurag Kashyap’s Dev D. It’s a fine reunion — indeed a long time coming — but it also points to something else. Both Abhay and Mahie look decidedly middle-aged, missing the freshness and enthusiasm they showed in 2009. “This is them now,” the scene appears to say. “Feel old yet?”
Director: Mahesh Manjrekar
Cast: Abhay Deol, Mahie Gill, Akash Thosar, Sumeet Vyas, Anup Soni
Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar
Through an unnecessary framing device, Mahesh Manjrekar’s series looks back at the events of the 1962 Sino-Indian war. India had lost the actual war, which ended with a Chinese ceasefire in the dead of winter. Since then, the defeat has endured as a source of great trauma and embarrassment in our military history. It was particularly crushing for the soldiers, whose bravery on the battlefield was undermined by scant resources and planning. Manjrekar and writer Charudutt Acharya try to correct this by exalting the fictitious C - Company — a band of 125 Indians who stand up to 3,000 Chinese.
1962: The War in the Hills tries more than your average patriotic drama to highlight the private lives of soldiers. There’s an elaborate love triangle involving two of the sepoys and a girl back in their village. Another soldier, played by Sumeet Vyas, shares a difficult relationship with his son. Early on, Suraj is injured in one foot and is forced to recuperate at home. His wife, Shagun, has cancer. These sequences elongate rather than enhance the narrative. There’s also a fatal lack of cohesion — a private argument in episode 6 suddenly cuts to Nehru in his chair.
As the show progresses, we get to know Suraj and his boys more closely. No such subtlety is reserved for their enemies. The Chinese troops are painted as excessively ruthless, filthy and vile. One of them, a senseless torturer, is named ‘Ug Lee’. Most shameful of all, there’s the casting of Meiyang Chang — an Indian actor of Chinese descent — as the cartoonish Major Lin. It’s not unusual of Indian directors to relentlessly other the opposing side: be it Chinese, Britishers or Afghans. Manjrekar, however, doesn’t stop at that, giving us two local characters in Ladakh and putting their patriotism to test.
After years of trying to shake off his family name, Abhay appears to flip right back into it. He embraces the military genre as sincerely as his cousins or uncle (who had starred in Chetan Anand’s similarly-themed Haqeeqat). But he isn’t a natural lead – and he lacks an extra pair of lungs. The strenuous battle scenes certainly wear him down. It would have been fine if the rest of the action was neatly choreographed. Instead, all we get is the standard run-and-gun, the show masking its flaws under a blur of smoke and fire.
When Suraj, recovering in bed, is told that one of his comrades has died, not on the battlefield but by accident, he is crestfallen. “His death was meaningless,” Suraj declares. The idea that there’s something innately dignified about war might bother some viewers, while others will accept it just fine.