Looking back at Ajay Devgn and Bobby Deol’s unique thriller Tango Charlie – Times of India

2005 was a decisive year for Hindi cinema. Frontiers were being opened up constantly. A new dimension to the war epic emerged from Tango Charlie, which released on March 25 eighteen years ago. Mani Shankar’s fascinating study of terrorism, violence and valour that is incredible in scope.
In the film, Mani Shankar holds on to key pockets of terrorist activities in the country and creates a fascinating collage of geo-political aggression whereby characters are thrown from one level of separatist violence to another until the audience is virtually shell-shocked.

Tango Charlie looks at ‘war’ as a state of the mind as seen through the mind of the state. There are no politicians in the film. But politics populates the plot abundantly. It’s indeed remarkable how the director fuses the main characters from the Border Security Force (BSF) into a spiralling demonstration of battle lines drawn between war and terrorism.
Caught between protecting the country and making spot-decisions distinguishing crime and nationalism, the two protagonists spin dizzyingly from one episodic depiction to another – Bodo insurgency in Assam, Maoists in West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat riots, and finally the India-Pakistan conflict at Kargil in Jammu and Kashmir. That is where, in a tribute to David Lean’s A Bridge Too Far, Mani Shankar ekes out a stunning climactic scene for his two protagonists Mohammad Ali (Ajay Devgn) and Tarun Chauhan (Bobby Deol).

The director constantly courts the unconventional. Tango Charlie never gets dull and the protagonists seem to exude an authoritative and credible energy. Wisely the film unfolds in a diary format with two air force pilots (Sanjay Dutt and Suniel Shetty) reading through the unconscious BSF personnel Bobby Deol’s jottings. Using the diary device Mani Shankar provokes us to look at the socio-political forces in different parts of the Indian map.

The Devgn-Deol relationship reminds us of Devgn and Abhishek Bachchan in that other counter-terrorism adventure story “Zameen”. Both the actors are far more agile spirited and in-character here than they have been in their other films from the time. Bobby Deol’s vulnerable personality lends itself especially well to his character of the reluctant soldier who must convince himself that the killings in the name of country are justifiable.

Parts of the film showing the killing of civilians during the 2002 Gujarat riots or the brutal torture and killing of a BSF soldier in the jungles are unbearably violent. The overall mood of the film is relentlessly rigorous and rugged.

The success of films like Black and Page 3 gave scope for directors like Mani Shankar to attempt something different. He deliberately avoided going to Kashmir for Tango Charlie because he needed to give the audience a different, visual experience. Instead, he went to Tripura and “got to know the extent of brutality in the northeast”.

“I think filmmakers need to take up responsibility for what’s happening in our country. We can’t continue to seek solace in escapism,” Shankar had revealed in the past.

Unlike his previous work, Rudraksha, where he somewhere lost his audience, the audience flowed with Tango Charlie. “And to have audiences with you when the film is talking about the war of attrition around the border areas of India, without showing our soldiers as super-heroes, isn’t easy. With a little bit of deft writing I pulled it off.”

Episodic films don’t generally work. Yet Tango Charlie was an episodic work. “I never slowed down to think about what would work and wouldn’t work. If you strive to create a work of art you just have to go with your instincts. Audiences today are mature enough to not allow conventional perceptions to colour their judgement. Tango Charlie doesn’t qualify as a potboiler. With a very good film like Black and a good film like Page 3 doing well, there’s scope for directors like me to attempt something different. In Tango Charlie I attempted a visceral experience. Though it would qualify as an action film I tried to take the action out of the action, so to speak, to let it assume a higher meaning. I don’t think any Bollywood filmmaker has used action to attempt a higher experience. Even the way I’ve portrayed the women characters in Tango Charlie is different. I wanted to create a heroine who’s superior to the hero in every way and yet he’s not threatened by her.”

In Tango Charlie Mani Shankar brought terrorism from different areas of the country under one plot. “I actually travelled to various parts of the country and saw the violence first-hand. One had to take it in totality. There’s no peace in any part of the country. Forget peace, our country is going into pieces. And I’m not talking about simple law and order. I’m talking about insurgency in various parts of the country. I’m talking about the Border Security Force guys who actually take the bullets out there. I tried to develop a character (played by Bobby Deol) who holds on to his innate innocence in spite of all the killings around him. I’ve tried to show humanism is more important than politics. We as a nation have to take charge of these wars of attrition being fought all over.”

Tango Charlie required a learned audience that knows its history and the headlines. That’s why Mani Shankar layered the narrative so it can be watched both as an adventure saga and a deeper study of the malaise that threatens to tear the nation apart. “See, the film has to be as exciting for the audience as it is for the filmmaker. The journey must be as exciting as the destination. When I wrote Tango Charlie, I based it on gut-wrenching facts of separatist violence. When I went to Tripura I got to know the extent of brutality in the Northeast. Chopping off of the victim’s ear is a common occurrence. To my horror, I got to know that in many villages fathers disfigure their daughters’ faces when they’re 14-15 so that insurgents don’t attack and destroy the village just to abduct a beautiful girl. When I saw the disfigured faces of these innocent girls, I was provoked into writing a sequence in Tango Charlie where Bodo insurgents brutally wound a BSF soldier and use him as a bait to capture his colleagues. Such things happen right under our noses! I know of so many tales of brutality in Kashmir. But I didn’t use them in Tango Charlie. There are so many terrorist groups operating with impunity in Tripura and other parts of the country for the sake of a nebulous freedom. I think filmmakers need to take up responsibility for what’s happening in our country. We can’t continue to seek solace in escapism, arguing that’s what the audience wants. Also as a filmmaker I need to keep moving on.”

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