By Anannya Baruah
Spoilers ahead for both Baaz and Kaatru Veliyidai
I really wasn’t looking forward to Baaz. I had thought The House that BJ Built was a disaster that weighed down on my enjoyment of Anuja Chauhan’s earlier books.
I knew that Baaz was an armed forces romance and I told my friends that I’d read it the way I read Mills and Boons about Marines and CIA operatives, especially given my own context as someone who grew up in an AFSPA state and whose family was unintentionally caught up in the whiplash of an army operation. I went in very, very warily, and it is a testimony to Chauhan’s craft that this book sucked me into its narrative and kept me absolutely immersed in Baaz’s world.
The book is set in 1971, at the height of the Cold War, when the USSR-backed India-Mukti Bahini alliance is on the brink of war against the America-aided Pakistani forces. Ishaan Faujdar aka Shaanu, beloved of all his family except for his controlling, resentful stepfather, bucking all expectations of a landed Jat from Chakkahera, Haryana, and at the advice of his doting nanaji, has channelled his train-chasing daredevil spirit into becoming an ace fighter pilot in the IAF. Tehmina Dadyseth, or Tinka, on the other hand, is born to privilege and military tradition — her father is a General, her uncle a big shot in IAF, and her brother, Jimmy, a rather celebrated dead Army officer. Tinka herself, like her mother, was never too sold on the rhetoric of armed forces, and is a rather fierce peacenik, especially after Jimmy’s death.
Their paths cross when a young cadet Shaanu and his mates are asked to intercept Tinka, who is running away from an arranged marriage: in the most swashbuckling and overbearing tradition of filmi heroes, Shaanu uses his IAF card to physically pick up a sleeping Tinka from the train, and gets kicked in the balls for his pains. However, once he recognises a fellow feisty spirit chafing under the tyranny of a distant parental oppressor, he helps Tinka escape — even at some cost to his career.
They meet again, serendipitously, a few years later — Ishaan as the dashing and much desired darling “Baaz” of the IAF with one blotted page in his copybook thanks to the unsuspecting Tinka — photographer, slightly infamous bikini model and even more committed peacenik, who has more than one blotted page to her credit. Sparks fly, but the course of true love doesn’t quite run smooth in the shadow of the brewing tensions between India and Pakistan in 1971 and their opposing ideologies and antipodean (and yet gloriously desi in their meddling) families. Love does blossom, though, and both of them, but Shaanu, in particular, takes a closer look at what he fights for, at notions of patriotism and valour and humanity, as well as ideas of masculinity and internalised gendered notions of the differential limits of aspiration.
In some ways, the book is the perfect output from someone who is an army brat and an advertising veteran, because if there could be a book-length advertisement for the Indian armed forces as officers and gentlemen, this book would be it. In this age of hyperpatriotism and #BMKJing and “soldier, soldier bol diya” rhetoric (in AIB’s phrase), Chauhan’s version of our men in uniform is not of blind hyperpatriotism and using citizens as human shields to protect yourself, but of virtues like heroism, courage, gentlemanly behaviour and the willingness to sacrifice oneself for a larger cause — not necessarily for one’s nation, but for the larger cause of humanity.
When even the most dickish of the IAF officers in Baaz is just a pimply-faced virgin who is marginally sexist and sleazy, but dies a hero, the narrative does give us these very human but very likeable gentlemanly men of another age. They are also representatives of a certain idea of military valour — with their Pakistani counterpart in Squadron Leader Bilawal, if not Macho da and General Nikka. And with Ishaan, especially, there is also a very gentlemanly and compassionate willingness to engage with a world that might consist of views that you have never considered/might contradict your own, whether it is at the political level with Tehmina, or at the personal level with Sneha.
In the penultimate section of the book, he is willing to consider a life which does not involve him being “Baaz”, the fighter pilot. When he takes that final suicide mission, he is true to the daredevil 10-year-old that he once was, but it is also a suicide mission that will help keep a hard-won, still tenuous peace in the subcontinent by preventing a political assassination, and not just one intended to rub the enemy’s nose in the dirt.
On a more personal level, it is through Sneha, his married sister, that Baaz also learns to question what he has accepted as the natural order of things: Sneha in a reasonably happy marriage that she was expected to accept without question, while Baaz can still refuse a similar match; Sneha who wants to be a teacher, but won’t be allowed to work by her in-laws, while Baaz could defy his stepfather and apply to the IAF.
Let me go straight to the ending — which is JK Rowling-actually-killing-off-Harry-Potter-at-the-end-level-audacious, in a frigging romance — and say that I straight up applauded it. Chauhan has us heave a sigh of relief when sidekicks Maddy and Raka survive, although not poor Dilsher; and then she lulls us into thinking that there is actually a happy ending in sight for the boy from Chakkahera, who is willing to give up being a pilot for his posh Parsi peacenik, except that wouldn’t have been Baaz, and that wouldn’t have made him the capital H hero of the plot. Baaz’s last heroic gesture is far more fitting (or dare one say, palatable to a potentially #BMKJ audience?) as an ending in this war than it would have been, say, in 1965 or Kargil.
The ending is also interesting, because the IAF did drop bombs on Mizoram to deal with Mizo National Front, as early as the 60s, a fact most of us do not hear of, or just choose to forget. An Ishaan who lived would have had to deal with Naxalbari, Khalistan, Assam Agitation and being part of an armed forces where you kill people who don’t belong to another country but your own; where borders are no longer so clear-cut but are being redefined by those who no longer want to be a part of your country. An Ishaan who lived would have had to deal with soldiers being used as an excuse to justify all manner of political excesses. An Ishaan who lived would also have had to deal with the actual mechanics of making relatives of posh Parsis and rustic Haryanvis, and trying to turn a lightning war-time romance into a marriage that survives the daily wear and tear of two completely different worlds (although my money is definitely on Ishaan and Tinka making it work). But perhaps Sneha wouldn’t have become the director of a chain of schools if Ishaan had lived, although I do see Tinka becoming the director of Amnesty. Class disparity does work like that, and while the armed forces are indeed a ticket to upward mobility, I don’t think the benefits would quite have extended the same way to a married sister of a decorated war hero as they seemingly did to a martyr’s.
What makes Baaz so narratively satisfying is that even though this is very much Baaz’s story as told by an omniscient narrator, each character has its own narrative arc. Tinka passes the Mako Mori test (so much better than the Bechdel test for demanding the work has at least one female character who gets her own narrative arc that is not about supporting a man’s story). And so do Sneha and (to an extent) Juhi. There are actual female friendships here; friendships that stand the test of time. Sneha is allowed to both like Tinka, for who she is, and express her worry as a future-sister-in-law about the disparity in their worlds. Raka and Maddy have their own arcs and their own moments in the sun. The book has a virgin hero and a bikini-clad heroine who deals with slut-shaming, but whose virginity is never considered a relevant question in the toe-curling sex scene. (Yes, there is a sex scene: Chauhan has moved beyond intense make-outs and buildup of sexual tension to actual consummation, and it is *fun*). There is life (and love) after Shaanu for Tinka, even if she does miss him every day, as she tells Maddy’s grandchild. Even the horrible stepfather gets a PoV, and although Ardeshir is a human moustache and a posh BMKJ, Kung Fui is a delight.
Which brings us to that other Indian Air Force romance of the recent past — Mani Ratnam’s Katru Veliyidai. Baaz is, in some ways, the polar opposite of Katru Veliyidai.
An aircraft crashes in the middle of the Kargil war and an IAF officer ends up in Rawalpindi prison. Torture and cruelty follow, and what keeps him going is his air force training, his patriotism and hatred for the enemy, and memories of his love for Leela, whom he never actually valued when he was with her. Cue flashback to when he was dating someone else, a Girija, daughter-of-a-brigadier Kapoor, and driving rashly on Kashmiri highways and sneeringly responding to a question about marriage with an, “After you are pregnant with my first child.” Unfortunately, swagger and sunglasses kinda make you oblivious to signs about road safety, and our dude winds up in hospital, in the care of a fresh joinee, Dr Leela Abraham.
Dudebros gotta dudebro, and so “Officer VC” leaves the hospital before Dr Abraham can give him clearance, while dumping Girija by spouting Bharati at the bewildered and angry North Indian girl. (As breakups go, that has to be an all-time low, even worse than being dumped by text.) Dr Abraham is strangely fixated on her missing patient — explained first as her concern for her first patient — but after a bit of flirting over tango and illicit flights, it turns out VC was her deceased brother’s batchmate and she has known of him since she was a schoolgirl.
What follows is an incoherent mess of a supposed love story: your humble reviewer cannot make head or tail of it despite watching the film twice, so if Wiki isn’t helpful, the TL;DR is that Leela stays smitten with VC despite repeated instances of assholery, and no one can figure out why. Eventually, she leaves just as war is about to break out — she is pregnant*, and VC doesn’t want a child? He isn’t sure he can be a father because he had an emotionally/physically abusive father and her family loathes him but doesn’t actually say a word in his presence — and VC crashes his plane in war. Once he realises how much Leela means to him, VC escapes from prison with practically cartoonish ease, and then wastes a few more years(?) before he finally tracks down Leela and their seven-year-old daughter, Rohini. Love conquers all, or something, and they live happily ever after.
(*This film is weird about pregnancy. First that wisecrack with Girija, then the pregnant bride, and then Leela getting pregnant. What is up with that, Mani saar?)
The movie only makes any sense in my head if I read it as a narcissist’s reconstruction of his narrative of redemption via a love that he failed to appreciate earlier. Everyone else is so thinly sketched, even the great love of VC’s life is such a prop to his ego, that it is well-nigh impossible for me to read motivation let alone logic into any of their actions.
Why set it in Kashmir during Kargil, apart from the gorgeous views? Why set the narrative as an Air Force romance in India’s last major military victory and its first televised war? Why begin with this macho officer crashing and burning and being captured and tortured in a war that India won? Why follow it up with a flashback that begins with him swaggering, but landing up in the hospital — injured and vulnerable and with her as his caregiver — and swaggering his way out while being a dick to his ex-girlfriend?
The question is, even with the brief family interlude that shows us cycles of emotional abuse and VC’s own worries about repeating bad fatherhood with his children, is this toxic masculinity only originating in the personal? Or is the chest thumping macho culture of the armed forces one that allows such toxic masculinity to thrive, even grow uncontrolled?
None of the officers say anything about how VC behaves with Leela. He coaxes her back after the first horrible argument where he literally arm-twists her — where not one man says anything — and then brags to a crowd of silent officers about how he has won his girl back and won his bet with them. Is this silence condemnation? Or collusion? The film is too badly written for this to be clear. VC constantly pushes boundaries: keeps talking in Telugu to a senior when asked not to, misbehaves with Leela in public, or calls out to colleagues in the mess and makes a public spectacle of their personal problems when it looks like Leela will walk away, and no one quite calls him out on it. Is this because the narrative is told from his perspective and our egomaniac is quite impervious to criticism? That said, while there is a constant chorus in Baaz that praises Shaanu to the skies and emphasises his desirability, there is a curious silence here from his peers, matched only by her grandfather and Dr Ilyas’ disapproval. His family, on the other hand… “You aren’t the first one he has brought home, you know?” says VC’s younger brother, sparking an ugly confrontation between all the Chakrapanis at the hospital.
Notice, there are almost no other women we see at the Air Force Officers mess; no wives, no lady officers. I cringed at the sight of Nidhi and Leela surrounded by male officers in the camp in Leh, especially when Nidhi started dancing with a bunch of officers after Leela pretty much left her alone to canoodle with VC. What on earth was Nidhi there in the film for? As an enabler of Leela’s bad romantic choices? As a provider of easy transport and Sutradhar like commentary on the blindness of love? For her limber body and gorgeous curls to be used as a prop for dances, surrounded by a bunch of jiving officers? As yet another Tamil speaker in freezing Kashmir? Chauhan does linguistic suspension of disbelief much better than Mani saar, and I’m more ready to believe that posh Parsis and rustic Haryanvis and Bangladeshi refugees communicate in a hodgepodge patois of Hinglish than I am in all these hordes of good-looking Tamil speakers that Mani saar insists on flooding North India with.
As twins separated at creative birth, do Baaz and Katru Veliyidai have anything at all in common? Both feature heroines with generational links to the armed forces and dead brothers who were serving officers. And yet, while Jimmy’s death makes a fierce peacenik of Tinka, Ravi’s death seems to make Leela obsessed with VC. (Not gonna lie, if this film were a stalker-revenge plot on VC instead, I still would have watched it with some bloodthirsty relish, but alas, that isn’t the film Mani saar chose to make).
To be clear, Chauhan also does war and combat scenes much better than Mani Ratnam. There is plenty of research that has gone into fighter planes and combat in the 1971 war, and it shows in the fleshed out, gripping aerial battle scenes in Baaz. While the Sarhind club and the Air Force Officers’ wives association have their own role to play in the film, life in the IAF isn’t just about the swagger and the lifestyle in Chauhan’s book. (If anything, it is the refugee camp scenes where Chauhan is both aware of her characters’ privilege and her own, and still making us wince a little at how this section features largely as window dressing for the romance). War exists as an afterthought, a little bit of background colour in Katru Veliyidai, and apart from the opening scene of VC’s flight crashing and one scene of VC flying in a drill while Leela looks on, Bambi-eyed, his being in the IAF is more about macho swagger, balls and drinking than anything else.
While both Baaz and Katru Veliyidai are set in wars that India won, 1971 is much more integral to Baaz than 1999 is to Katru Veliyidai. It matters that the events in Baaz took place in 1971, that his final heroic gesture as well as his bravery were a part of this war. Kargil, on the other hand, does not seem to have any actual bearing on Katru Veliyidai: he would have been treated just the same had he been captured on a regular sortie across the border. Both Baaz and Katru Veliyidai are primarily about the male leads — even though the most peripheral character in Baaz has more depth of characterisation than Leela does, let alone Tinka — but being a fighter pilot in this war is central to who Ishaan and his friends are. For “Officer VC”, being a fighter pilot seems to be mostly about the swagger and the shades and playing it cool for the ladies; the one occasion when talk turns to the intrusions at the beginning of the war, the conversation takes an ugly turn towards the gendered and the personal instead, leading to VC physically abusing Leela in public.
Katru Veliyidai could have been the obverse of Baaz — an interrogation of the ideals of masculinity and heroism that Chauhan markets so effectively in Baaz. But it refuses to push itself and ask those questions, and instead locates VC’s violence in the domestic, while also placing the onus of fixing those dysfunctions on Leela (who is a cipher) and at the end, on their seven-year-old daughter Rohini whom he literally meets for the first time (“he is your responsibility now”, she says to this seven-year-old child, HOLY ABDICATION OF PARENTHOOD AND BAD MOTHERING!). And that makes me very, very nervous, because the film begins with him vulnerable and broken and in-charge of her caregiving… which leads him to treat Girija badly and embark on a rollercoaster emotionally abusive relationship with Leela.
I tried being very generous and asking myself if the refusal to directly question #BMKJ style patriotism in a film set around the Kargil war, made at a time like this, was in fact Mani Ratnam asking a subtler question about masculinity — if heroism excused, or even enabled such toxic behaviour. Unfortunately, the film is far too incoherent for this question to have been articulated and, worse still, the price of even trying to inarticulately raise this question seems to be the violence the narrative metes out to women. The tacked on happy ending and VC’s redemptive arc make a further mockery of this. The cartoonish ease with which he escapes the Pakistani prison seems to suggest that once VC has battled his inner demons and realised Leela’s worth, battles of the military sort are easy peasy lemon squeezy and the rest of his life will be devoted to making amends to Leela. If this were an ad film, I would stay the hell away from that product. Baaz, on the other hand, has knocked Steesh from The Pricey Thakur Girls off #2 on my list of dishy Anuja Chauhan heroes (Dylan will always be #1), and even as someone who usually warily side eyes all things#BMKJ and armed forces related. I’m completely sold on it..
Anannya’s gluttonous cultural consumption occasionally results in inarticulate fangirling. Other people write run on sentences, Anannya’s clauses can run a marathon as a relay race.