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"We fight in deep enemy territory, and one bullet can cripple our aircraft. If I ever become a prisoner of war, I will escape." Flt. Lt. Dilip Parulkar said these words to his commanding officer M S Bawa while having dinner with him one fine evening in 1968. Three years later, during the 1971 India-Pakistan war, when he was taken as a prisoner, along with 11 other Indian Air Force pilots, Parulkar did what he promised -- he escaped. Partnering Parulkar in this "adventure of lifetime" were Flt. Lt. MS Grewal and Flt. Lt. Harish Sinhji. Together, they escaped the prison camp near Rawalpindi, and made it all the way to Jamrud, the Pak-Afghan border in Pakistan's west, where they were recaptured and taken to Peshawar. They were formally released a year later. This incredible story has now been adapted into a film. "The Great Indian Escape", directed by Taranjiet Singh, was screened at the IAF auditorium here last week. It stars Raghav Rishi as Parulkar, Raaj Singh Arora as Grewal, and Asheesh Kapur as Sinhji. The movie will soon be released nation-wide. Speaking about the winter of 1971, Parulkar, who was 29 then, said he had no second thoughts about his escape. "I was very sure about it. In our Air Force duties, it is laid down, that in case you become a prisoner of war (POW), you must try and escape and join parent forces back as soon as possible. I had taken it seriously," said Parulkar, now 74. But didn't he fear the consequences? "Whatever comes has to be dealt with. Nothing matters," he said emphatically. Parulkar's Sukhoi-7 was shot down on December 10, 1971, while he was busy bombing a radar station east of Lahore. Six days later, the India-Pakistan war ended. "Initially, I had this crazy plan to capture a corporal from the Pakistan Air Force, hold his revolver to his head and tell them to fly me to Delhi. However, I reasoned it out later that they'd instead shoot both the soldier and me since they don't have that kind of importance to human lives," said Parulkar. For three months, from December to March, 1972, the IAF pilots, who were now POWs and kept in a 25 m by 40 m cells, kept quiet, because they expected to be expatriated as the war was over. "The war lasted just 13 days.
But we were stuck there for 2-3 months. Nothing was happening towards our repatriation. So, we started talking about our escape," said Grewal, aka 'Garry', who still sports a handlebar moustache. "We managed to move to the room which was most conveniently located for our escape. We started digging through the 18-inch thick wall every night using every sharp object we could muster. It took us nearly two months to remove 18 bricks, the inner plaster and the outer plaster," he said. Around 12:30 on August 13, 1972, amid a downpour, the trio -- dressed in Pathan suit and carrying bags with water, medical aid, and dry fruits and with Rs 600 among them -- were on their road to freedom. For the next 12 hours, they travelled in multiple buses and a tonga during their journey to Peshawar and from there to Jamraud. They made it through five or six checkpoints. But once in Landi Kotal, they were caught when they kept asking for Landi Khana, a railway station that was closed in 1932. They were recaptured. Three months later, by the end of November, their repatriation was announced. And on December 1, 1972, they crossed the Wagah border into their homeland. "When I came back, I joined the IAF again with the same amount of enthusiasm. To join the IAF and fly the fighter jets had been my dream since I was five and I continued doing that till I retired," said Parulkar. Singh, the director of the film, said he was fascinated by the story where IAF pilots had done something so daring as a prison-break and wanted to tell the story on the big screen. "I was intrigued by the story but also by Parulkar sir's determination. I began thinking what could be the 'fitrat' (nature) of such a man. In this movie, we have tried to replicate his 'fitrat'," he said. Singh met Parulkar, who helped him with his research, and the project was soon rolling. But why make a movie about something that happened 45 years ago? "Because our younger generation looks at heroes outside India. These are the modern Indian heroes. And we are not taught about them in schools. We are not told about them," he said. Initially, funding was an issue for the project and Singh said he was asked weird questions. "When I contacted financiers, some of them asked three questions: Is there a woman? Is there a song? How much will you fictionalise? Till these things go on in film-making, you can never tell real-life stories," said Singh. "In India, we also need a film facilitator who can facilitate government permission and verify the authenticity of events. If, as filmmakers, we have a single window for these two, it will be much easier to make films based on true stories," he said. Grewal said the movie should have been made much earlier, but, adds, "Better late than never". "What should have happened within a few months of our return is happening after 45 years. Otherwise, we are very happy. This is about highlighting that the Indian Air Force can do the kind of things that people have heard about WWI and WWII," he said. The event has already inspired two books - in English (Four miles to Freedom by Faith Johnston), and one in Marathi. Among the three heroes, Wing Commander Grewal took premature retirement in 1985, Parulkar retired as Group Captain in 1987, and Sinhji retired as Group Captain in 1993.
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