It was sheer chance that led Taranjiet Singh Namdhari to the story of three young Air Force officers, Flt Lt Dilip Parulkar, Flt Lt MS Grewal ‘Garry’ and Flt Lt Harish Sinhji ‘Harry’, prisoners of war in the 1971 war who embarked on a life-threatening mission and managed to escape from a Pakistani jail. It was deemed as the most outrageous prison break in the history of the Indian Defence Services.
From flying into Pakistan and successfully bombing targets followed by their subsequent crash and capture, these pilots had put their training to good use. Their trials and tribulations through the initially hostile, and to some extent, incarceration to experiencing a typical Air Force bonhomie in the camp, sometimes even with their enemy, while the politics of the creation of Bangladesh played across the three nations, was a story waiting to be told on celluloid felt the Hyderabad-born filmmaker as he embarked on a journey to trace the officers who had, in the absence of an active social media, post retirement, moved into oblivion.
Four years of intense hard work later, the film, titled The Great Indian Escape — Khulay Asmaan Ki Oar was made. A tete-a-tete with the filmmaker on how this film came to be…
What inspired you to make this film?
It was at the Bengaluru airport that I first came across the story while browsing through some books on the Bangladesh war that mention this escape. What made it stand out was the fact that apart from being an escape story, the protagonists were Indian, and unlike a criminal trying to break prison, here were three IAF pilots who were POWs in a Pakistan that was still coming to terms with its partition and the loss of a war to India.
A couple of hours later, the story had found its way to the heart. The more I thought of these officers and their escape, the more determined I became to meet them. And so the journey began.
Several attempts on the internet just came to naught. Finally, a small blog written by a neighbour of Flt Lt Dilip Parulkar, the architect of the escape, now a well-decorated Retd Group Captain, gave me a glimmer of hope. My excitement knew no bounds as I held on to the hand of a real-life superhero, much to his amusement. I just couldn’t hide my excitement and within minutes suggested we make a movie on his escape from a Pakistan jail. His response was a loud laugh and a question —‘It’s been almost 45 years, who would be interested in seeing it?’ And my response was: Every Indian.”
What were the hurdles you encountered?
Initially, when I had read the story and met Dilip, I was naive enough to think it would all be a cakewalk. The last thing on my mind was finance. It was in March 2014 that we started work on the story. Ten months later, when we started contacting actors and production houses, we met with a dead end.
Almost a year went by with things making no headway. And then, at the Film Bazaar in Goa, I happened to hear Shekhar Kapur talk about problems creative people face as they move from one production house to the other with a script. His words: ‘Look at what you have and just make the story in whatever resources you can drum up’, did the trick. With the start of the New Year, we set up a Facebook page asking for support from family and friends. Well-wishers guided us but also warned that the amount required to make a feature film could be difficult to gather with crowd funding. So, we also started seeking independent investors and, within no time, had our co-producer Sanjay Reddy on board. Despite several other challenges, we persisted. After all, this film had to be made.