When 1971 war hero Brig Balram Singh Mehta (retd) got down to writing The Burning Chaffees following a regimental lunch in 2015, he had never imagined that his book on the valour and bravery of tank crews during the 1971 India-Pakistan war would be turned into a film. Pippa, the action-packed tank war film based on his book, is being directed by Raja Krishna Menon and produced by Siddhartha Roy Kapur and Ronnie Screwvala. Ishaan Khatter is playing the lead role of real-life war veteran Brig Balram Singh Mehta, while the music of the biopic is being given by none other than AR Rahman.
Brigadier Mehta, who lives in Dharamsala, narrates how he decided to write the book. “I was commissioned into 45 Cavalry in June 1966. Immediately after the 1971 war, I had promised the tank crews that one day I would publish a book describing their valour, sacrifice and bravery,” he says.
However, after raising 13 Armoured Regiment in 1988, Brigadier Mehta took premature retirement from the Army. Several years later, he was reminded of his promise. “I was invited for the regimental lunch of 45 Cavalry in 2015 by Lt Gen Amit Sharma, then Colonel of the Regiment. Serving and retired officers present there reminded me of my promise to write a book about my first-hand battle experience. The golden jubilee celebrations of 45 Cavalry were scheduled for early 2016. For a soldier, a promise is a promise. I resigned from my post as Vice Chancellor of MUMT, Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh, and started working on the book. The Burning Chaffees was ready for release at the special Sainik Sammelan held in February 2016.”
Initial response to the book, he says, was rather sluggish but over time, it has gained circulation. “A military book, about a war fought nearly five decades back, was not expected to generate excitement among the younger generation. But now it has been translated into Gujarati; Hindi translation of the book is complete and is awaiting publication. Bengali translation of the work is on the anvil.”
He was surprised when Siddharth Roy Kapur approached him to make a film based on his book. Siddharth invited the Brigadier for lunch in Mumbai. “I was thrilled; convinced that this would be a far bigger tribute to regimental martyrs and others who fought alongside, especially 14 Punjab,” he says, adding that “besides laying the foundation of India-Pakistan war, the tank battle on November 21, 1971, gave recognition to the role of Other Indian Classes (OIC) in the war.
The decision to make a full-scale war movie was taken before the lunch got over. “Over the past few months, his team has assembled big names and talent recognised for excellence,” says the Brigadier, adding, “It is the imagination, creativity, experience and talent of Siddharth Roy Kapur to have visualised and conceptualised a war movie while reading the narrative. In his own words, ‘It was a story screaming to hit the screens in India.’”
On Ishaan Khatter essaying his role, Brigadier Mehta says, “Selection and talent of the cast is beyond my purview. I can, at best, comment on my interaction with the actor: ‘A born Cavalier’ who was destined to play the pivotal role assigned!”
The floating Pippa of 1971
The film Pippa takes its name from an incident surrounding tank PT-76 (Palavushi Tanka — a word for amphibious. The Indian Army was not familiar with this equipment or fighting in riverine terrain. Designed like a boat with a three-man crew, the tank was allotted to 45 Cavalry after the 1965 war. Deployed in the East, it was conducting a demonstration for troops to display its amphibious potential. The troops witnessing were mostly from Punjab. A JCO, standing next to a mike, expressed his amazement on watching the tank floating on water, a sight he could co-relate with a ghee tin bobbing in the village pond; his enthusiasm and amazement at what he witnessed made him call out with joy: “Pippa tair reha ve!” The mike had not been switched off so the 1,000-odd spectators burst into laughter in the middle of this formal presentation. The General and other officers joined in, soon converting ‘Pippa’ into military lexicon and a codeword for the Regiment. PT-76 was a major battle winning factor. It served its role of movement across the riverine terrain to the surprise and shock of the enemy.
A promise well kept
Immediately after the 1971 war, I had promised the tank crews that one day I would publish a book describing their valour, sacrifice and bravery. —Brig Balram Mehta (Retd), Author
A proud moment
It is a matter of pride that a brother’s gallantry is subject of a big-ticket film. Had my mother, sister and brother Col Narinder been alive, they would have been so happy. —Maj Gen Raj Mehta (Retd), Brother
Roller coaster of thrills
Pippa chronicles one of the most important battles of Indian history narrated from the point of view of war veteran Brigadier Balram Singh Mehta. The film promises a roller coaster of thrills through genres right from action to drama. —Siddharth Roy Kapur, Producer