Former Indian soldier Brigadier Balram Singh Mehta is the real-life inspiration behind Ishaan Khatter’s character in the new Prime Video film Pippa. In an exclusive interview, Brigadier Mehta talks about his experiences, the purpose behind adapting his book as a film, his perception of Khatter, and much more.
Backed by producers Ronnie Screwvala and Siddharth Roy Kapur, Pippa is directed by Raja Krishna Menon (of Chef and Airlift fame). The film also features Mrunal Thakur, Priyanshu Painyuli and Soni Razdan in important roles. Brigadier Mehta’s book The Burning Chaffees A Soldier’s First-Hand Account Of The 1971 War first came in 2016. Brigadier Mehta now reveals that one of the producers decided to turn it into a movie in just 15 minutes of a meeting with him.
Brigadier Mehta was part of the 45th Cavalry Tank Squadron when they fought and won against the Pakistani army right before the 1971 war between India and Pakistan began officially.
Here is an edited version of the conversation with the retired army officer:
How well has Ishaan Khatter essayed your personality?
Brigadier Mehta: Within minutes of meeting him, I was sure he was born for this. I saw it in his personality, the way he conducted himself, and the manner in which he interacted with me. His personalioty justifies him playing a young leader. He has lived up to my expectation and I am sure people will get to see it as well.
Tell us about the journey of The Burning Chafees to the screen.
Brigadier Mehta: I am flattered that you think people like Ronnie Screvwala and Sidharth Roy Kapur will be looking around for a retired army officer who had left service early and was a vice chancellor at a university in a remote place in India. I believe it was the experience (which reflected) in the book that really travelled. I did not have to run from one publisher to another – the first publisher who read my book called me soon enough to confirm that he’d publish it. (In a similar fashion), Kapur also invited me soon after reading the book. And, within 15 minutes, he announced to everyone around (including his family) that this story must be brought out to the country and the larger community of young people so that they get inspired by this story.
Were there any changes for the onscreen adaptation that you were initially unsure of?
Brigadier Mehta: We did not discuss any adaptations with great clarity, but (reading the) opening script (made it) clear that the film will be based entirely on the book. As things progressed, and delayed – because of the pandemic and a few other things – it became evident later that adapting the entire book would be at least a four-hour-long experience. So, after discussions with the makers, it was finalised that certain liberties will be taken while keeping the inspiration and essence of the book intact. The aim was that the essence of sacrifice remains sacrosanct, and people get inspired.
How involved have you been through the journey of Pippa.
Brigadier Mehta: Right from the beginning, I was associated as a consultant for the script. For the logistics, they eventually appointed a military advisor who served in the army much later (after the war). I was present for all the shooting schedules and I was able to interact with the crew, actors, director, and the entire team. I did wish that the movie should’ve had more of the book, but it wasn’t practically possible.
What emotions do you hope to evoke with the film?
Brigadier Mehta: While writing the book, I did not have any such plans and it was just my memory paying tribute to the regiment. When it was converted into a movie, I wanted to inspire the youth. As far as young people are concern, it should be a case of nation first. Growing up, we realise the importance of our family. During school, we fight for the house alloted to us; and in the Academy, we fight for our squadron and during training, we fight for our company and battalion. The youth must realise that we must do something for the family, as well as the larger family – the nation. I just hope young people will be able to take inspiration from the film.
(This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.)