Hope Dies Last in War is an award winning documentary by Supriyo Sen. Bagging the award for the Best Documentary at the 55th National Film Awards, the story is about the two-week Indo-Pakistani conflict of 1971 which rendered about 54 Indians as prisoners of war. These Indians were unaccounted for and presumed to be in Pakistani detention.
More than 92,000 Pakistani soldiers were taken prisoners by India in the western sector while nearly 500 Indian defense personnel were captured by Pakistan during the 14-day India-Pakistan war that began on December 3, 1971. Following the Shimla agreement (1972) between Z.A. Bhutto and Indira Gandhi, prisoners of war (PoWs) were exchanged.
Over 200 Indian soldiers were repatriated from Pakistan. The last train expected to bring the last lot of Indian soldiers from Pakistan did not arrive. While Pakistan claimed that there were no more PoWs left in Pakistani jails, the Indian government advised the families to presume that the missing soldiers were dead and to accept monetary compensation in lieu of the missing persons. What happened to these 54 soldiers? Are they alive, dead, sick, injured or missing? No one knows.
Some parents died waiting in vain, some children lost the last ray of hope bending under the pressure of bureaucratic and administrative non-cooperation, some wives remarried, while a few committed suicide.
Supriyo Sen’s documentary, Hope Dies Last in War, is a tribute to the tremendous zeal and determination of the few that did not give up. Their lives are a perennial struggle between hope and despair. Their crusade is for the restitution of basic human right — the right to live and die in one’s own country, the right to come home, and the right to a national identity. The fight has been on for nearly four decades.
Hope Dies Last in War is a saga of their individual and collective struggle, spanning three generations, to get their men back. It records a tragic stalemate, sufferings of love and shining moments of humanity, courage and hope. BBC journalist Victoria Schofield mentioned around 40 prisoners in her book. Evidences keep trickling in every day.
“Most of us have heard the names of the missing soldiers announced in the Pakistani radio as ‘captured alive.’ We are convinced that they are alive because stories of their being alive keep pouring in from different sources,” says the brother of a missing soldier.
“One soldier, who managed to smuggle a letter to his family, reported that 20 of his compatriots were languishing in the same cell. The Time magazine published photographs of two other soldiers,” says a daughter, one of three sisters. A major part of their lives is dedicated to this search.
The painstaking research that went into the making of this film is evident. It covers field research, documentary research, first-person interviews, travelling back and forth with active members of the “Missing Defense Personnel Relatives Association.”
It widens the canvas from a simple wait-and-search saga to a tragedy that neither government has tried to mend even with their infrastructure and the power. Photographic albums are brought out and lovingly caressed by a doddering old mother, who has not seen her son for 37 years, her voice choking over her words as the young man’s father sits back, resigned to their tragedy.
Damayanti Tambay is an icon symbolizing the struggle of the families to uncover the truth behind their missing member. Damayanti spent one year with husband, Lt.V.V. Tambay.
“We drove together towards the Ambala Cantonment on December 5, 1971. He took off for the last time. I never saw or heard of him after that,” she adds, her eyes brightening with memories of a love she cherishes till this day. Her national badminton championship is now forgotten. She has lived the life of a single woman. When Sen asked her how she could wait so long, she said, “It is the unconditional love for the person that drove me to walk this endless journey. As long as love is there, hope is there and hope dies last in the war.”
Sen was with her on the ride to Ambala Cantonment on December 5, 2004. “That was the moment I realized that I have to tell this love story to the world, love that survived through and after the war.”
That gave Sen the title for his film. Damayanti refuses to accept claims that her husband’s plane was shot down and fell into the sea almost as soon as it took off. The camera closes in on medals and certificates adorning the walls of some of these homes. Damayanti takes Sen to the hangar where defense planes are still kept. The torturing wait at the Wagah border for the prisoners to return home reveals one returnee who lost his mind during his internment. No one knows who he is. The others keep waiting, in vain, but with hope.
Hope Dies Last in War has won the Best Documentary film Award at the 55th National Film Awards for 2007. The film was chosen “for its sensitive albeit searching exploration of those in prisons in alien countries; a complex polyphony of variegated voices, the film is an endeavor to find hope in the midst of a struggle against despair.” Saikat Ray, who edited it, won the National Award for best editing in the documentary and short-film section.
The citation commends his work “for its creative blending of various elements of the past and present, as also for its seamless flow of images that evoke genuine emotions.” It was first screened in public in 2007. Ranjan Palit bagged the IDPA (Indian documentary Producer’s Association) gold award for his cinematography.
“It is a tragic story of Human Rights violation based on the testimonies of parents, wives, siblings, children and grandchildren. The film is about their pain, helplessness, dejection, reconciliation, hope and dreams in war-hungry Indian sub-continent,” Sen sums up.
In February, this year, Sen’s Wagah, a 12-minute documentary, bagged the Berlin Today 2009 Award.