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Why Bollywood loves a good war

The Hindi war film is seeing a resurgence. Yet, these films, made with the involvement of the military, are largely uncritical and jingoistic

Siddharth Malhotra in ‘Shershaah’
Siddharth Malhotra in ‘Shershaah’

In an interview in 1973, critic Gene Siskel asked French director François Truffaut about the absence of violence in his films. Truffaut replied that violence in cinema is ambiguous and gave the example of war films. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen an anti-war film,” he said. “Every film about war becomes pro-war.” Truffaut might have been implying that the spectacle involved in most war films is too thrilling, even when the intention is to make war seem bleak. When we are captivated by the druggy rhythms of Apocalypse Now (1979) or the merging timelines of Dunkirk (2017), do the horrors of war take a back seat to the wonders of war portrayal?

This is a question for other film cultures. In Bollywood, there is nothing remotely resembling an anti-war film. War in Hindi cinema is almost exclusively glorious, a chance for sons (and the odd daughter) of the soil to sacrifice themselves for the greater glory of the nation. Some are more diligent in showing the violence and hardship soldiers endure, yet nearly all are obsessively committed to flag and country. Not a traditionally popular genre in India, war films have seen an uptick in recent years, along with two allied genres: the historical and the intelligence agent film. All three have a tendency towards overt nationalism—often tipping over into jingoism.

Last month, there was the Kargil War drama Shershaah and 1971 War film Bhuj, both released in the run-up to Independence Day. Earlier in the year, there were the series 1962: The War In The Hills and Jeet Ki Zid. Last year, there was Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, about the second female Indian Air Force (IAF) pilot to go into war, and the series Avrodh: The Siege Within. And in the last five years, there have been depictions of the Sino-Indian conflict (Tubelight, 2017; Paltan, 2018); World War II (Rangoon, 2017); the 1897 Battle of Saragarhi (Kesari, 2019), the 1971 India-Pakistan War (The Ghazi Attack, 2017), the Indian National Army (the series The Forgotten Army, 2020) and the military strikes on Pakistani territory in 2016 (Uri: The Surgical Strike, 2019). There are also a slew of non-fiction shorts and series about the armed forces on various OTT platforms.

Arjun Rampal in ‘Paltan’
Arjun Rampal in ‘Paltan’

To this we can add a number of recent films in which military figures play a key role. Sidharth Malhotra is an army major and Manoj Bajpayee a colonel in counter-intelligence in Aiyaary (2018), about the army housing scam. Even films that have nothing to do with war want some of that patriotic sheen. Early on in Baaghi 2 (2018), Tiger Shroff’s Special Forces captain ties a stone-pelting man to the hood of his jeep as a human shield—a crude reworking of a contentious incident involving an Indian Army Major in Kashmir. After taking out a private militia single-handedly, he ends the film in tears, cradled by a major who tells him, “The war is over.”

The genre traces its roots back to V. Shantaram’s Dr. Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani (1946), about an Indian doctor in China during the Japanese invasion of World War II. However, it was Chetan Anand’s expansive Haqeeqat (1964), set during the 1962 conflict with China, which became the ur-text for the Hindi war film. You can see its grand sweep and mixture of melodrama, nationalism and enemy caricature more than three decades later in J.P. Dutta’s Border (1997), a huge hit. Haqeeqat’s Ho Ke Majboor Mujhe Usne Bulaya Hoga, sung by soldiers remembering their families back home, inspired the yearning Sandese Aate Hain in Border.

Dutta followed this with the even more expansive LOC Kargil, whose virtues were diluted by a 250-minute runtime. But it was another film on the Kargil conflict the following year that started the modern Hindi war film cycle. Farhan Akhtar’s Lakshya presented the army as a place where wayward young men could find a purpose. Hrithik Roshan plays a slacker who joins the army on a whim and eventually becomes a war hero in the 1999 conflict with Pakistan. Over a Zoom call, the director told me that his father, Javed Akhtar, wrote the film after he read that young people no longer wanted to be army officers. In his book Bollywood Does Battle, Samir Chopra diagnoses the film as a “cinematic scold” that accuses “the Indian middle class, the journalist and indeed, all naïve lovers of peace, of not being sufficiently patriotic or prepared for national sacrifice”.

With its clever appeals to patriotism and realistic action sequences, Lakshya not only signalled the advent of the slick, focused Hindi war drama but also proved to be a good recruiting tool. In 2017, Akhtar visited the Indian Military Academy in Dehradun for the first time since shooting there. He was talking to the cadets when his guide asked the audience how many of them were there because they had seen Lakshya. “Almost 60-70% of that hall put their hands up,” Akhtar told me. “My hair is standing as I am talking to you about it.”

Country above all

The genre took a turn with the release—and unexpected success—of Uri in 2019. Aditya Dhar’s film replaced the muted patriotism of Lakshya with the hard nationalism of Border while creating a scarily efficient visual and aural aesthetic. Dhar researched the subject for six months before approaching the Additional Directorate General of Public Information (ADGPI) for approval. By then he had heard rumours of big studios planning their own Uri projects with stars attached. Dhar’s work paid off, though, with the ADGPI giving them a go-ahead. “They told us, 12 studios approached us to make a film on Uri, but none of them had a script, you were the only one who had done the research.”

Vicky Kaushal in ‘Uri: The Surgical Strike’
Vicky Kaushal in ‘Uri: The Surgical Strike’

Uri was praised for its taut action and vision of the Indian Army as a skilled fighting force, though the biggest cultural takeaway might have been Vicky Kaushal’s barked exhortation of “How’s the josh?”, and his troops’ reply of “High, sir” (Dhar said he picked the phrase up as a child around army canteens). Soon after the film became a hit, everyone was saying “How’s the josh”, including several Union government ministers. This isn’t surprising, for Uri broke with war film convention by allowing politicians a measure of the limelight—Prime Minister Narendra Modi and national security adviser Ajit Doval in particular— instead of keeping them as voices on a phone.

Syed Ata Hasnain, a retired lieutenant general who commanded the 15 Army Corps in Jammu and Kashmir, has reservations about Uri’s accuracy, but says its success reflected the mood of the nation. “The surging nationalism which came in after the coming of the BJP in 2014, it needed to be attached to a symbol,” he told me over Skype. “(The) Uri (strike) became that symbol.”

“Inherently I am a very patriotic person, who wanted to get into the army,” Dhar tells me. He poured these feelings into his film, having the Modi stand-in tell Kaushal’s Major Vihaan, who wants to retire and take care of his Alzheimer’s-stricken mother, “Aakhir desh bhi toh maa hai (the country is a mother too).” This might seem a bit on-the-nose but one has to remember that in Border, Suniel Shetty’s assistant commandant Bhairon Singh risks a fist-fight with a superior officer who says the desert is nothing but sand and scorpions (when it’s actually Singh’s “mother”). That film also has a soldier who, when given a chance to return to his cancer patient wife, opts to stay with the unit, saying, “I can leave my wife in any condition, but not my country”.

You can see the effect of Uri on Shershaah, especially the scene where captain Vikram Batra (Malhotra) enters a militant stronghold and cleans it out like an FPS game. But unlike the taciturn Uri, Vishnu Vardhan’s film—about real-life Kargil hero Batra, also played by Abhishek Bachchan in LOC Kargil—literally wears its love for country on its sleeve. An early scene shows a young Batra dressed in army uniform, saluting the Tricolour at school; one of the last shows his coffin draped with the flag.

Shershaah looks restrained in front of the excesses of The Ghazi Attack and Bhuj. The former is a competent submarine drama—indebted to the 1995 Gene Hackman-Denzel Washington film, Crimson Tide—about the sinking of the dreaded Pakistani sub PNS Ghazi in 1971 by the Indian S21 (there are competing stories about whether this actually happened). In a tense scene, instead of concentrating on the job at hand, the crew of S21 sings Saare Jahaan Se Accha, followed by Jana Gana Mana, which is picked up by the Ghazi’s radio and drives the Pakistani commander crazy. In Bhuj, there always seems to be a Tricolour fluttering behind Ajay Devgn’s IAF squadron leader; even the flatbed truck he drives in a flamboyant action sequence has a flag on its bonnet. There’s country-love to spare: an intense patriotic song in the climactic battle (“In every life I want to be a soldier of my motherland…”) is followed two minutes later by a happier one leading into the end credits (“Nothing is more valuable than the soil of my country…”).

Ajay Devgn in ‘Bhuj’
Ajay Devgn in ‘Bhuj’

It’s tempting to frame these films as a counterpart to China’s chest-thumping Wolf Warrior. The success of the 2015 film and its sequel, about a sniper in the People’s Liberation Army who is recruited for a special task force, led to the coining of “Wolf Warrior diplomacy” for the more aggressive style of foreign policy that has emerged under Xi Jinping. But there’s a difference: The Indian military in Hindi films only defends its borders (or in the case of Uri, makes brief excursions beyond). It’s the spy film that takes India to the world (Ek Tha Tiger, 2012; Tiger Zinda Hai, 2017; Bell Bottom, 2021), or the occasional civilian action hero (Airlift, 2016; Baaghi 3, 2020).

The army is watching

Hindi cinema has shown a willingness to remake certain kinds of war films. The sprawling canvas of The Longest Day (1962) is replicated in Haqeeqat, Border and LOC Kargil. Amrit Sagar’s fine prisoner-of-war drama 1971 (2007) draws inspiration from 1957’s The Bridge On The River Kwai (to the extent of incorporating the Colonel Bogey March in its score). Uri shows clear signs of being made post-Zero Dark Thirty (2012). Yet, there’s an unwillingness to examine the psychological effects of war on soldiers—a consistent theme in modern American film. Only Uri, among recent films, convincingly shows a soldier’s civilian life— and even that plays like military life (that “chapter” is titled “An unsettling peace”).

Lt. Gen. Hasnain feels the Indian moviegoing public isn’t mature enough to accept depictions of weakness in its military. “The Indian Army is put on a pedestal,” he told me. “And no one wants to lower that. The moment you start showing a soldier who has achieved tremendously but has come back mentally scarred, people ask, what kind of soldier is he? The idea of a soldier is that he’s a superman.” This might be why we are yet to make something on the level of Come And See (1985) or Waltz With Bashir (2008), films about the total devastation of war.

A still from ‘Lakshya’
A still from ‘Lakshya’

There’s another kind of war narrative Hindi cinema doesn’t deal in. Many of the films cited as the best war films ever are unambiguously critical of US military involvement abroad, locating the excesses of a nation in the actions of marauding soldiers. Where is our Platoon, our Casualties Of War, even our M*A*S*H? Hindi films are rarely critical of the army; even defeats and missteps are presented as victories.

The biggest barrier might well be the involvement of the military itself in the movie-making process. The army’s website mentions clearly: “All TV serials, documentaries, commercial and training films related to Army require clearance of Army HQ and/or Ministry of Defence.” How are army films supposed to be critical when you are applying to them for a green light?

An allied problem is the difficulty of making war films on a certain scale without military help. “The props are all from the army—vehicles, camps, tentage, weapons,” Lt. Gen.Hasnain says. Vishnu Vardhan says flatly: “You cannot make a film (like Shershaah) without the support of the army.” General Y.K. Joshi, who was consulted on the film,would only speak to them once they got clearance from the defence ministry (at the script stage, and later). The army then supplied the production with material and logistical help, including a major and a retired colonel as on-set experts. Dhar had a similar experience on Uri. “We had heard how army films had gotten details like badges and salutes wrong,” he tells me. “I needed that assistance from the army to do it as correctly as possible.”

The army involvement continues after the film is made. The examining committee of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) can seek “expert opinion on subjects… relating to defence or foreign relations”, according to the governing Cinematograph (Certification) Rules, 1983 (in 2006, the military top brass cleared Rang De Basanti after the CBFC referred it to them). In July last year, a letter from the ministry of defence said some films were “distorting the image of the Indian Army” and that producers of any such films or series were “advised” to obtain a no-objection certificate from the ministry before telecast. Bhuj was screened for the air force and army, its star, Devgn, admitting in an interview to The Quint: “It’s not that after you make the film, you go to them saying ‘Okay, this is what we made’. First, they have to okay the script, so it has become a process.”

Winning smaller battles

Bhuj signalled what could be a new trend, linking patriotism in the armed forces to (Hindu) religiosity. Sonakshi Sinha references a series of gods to motivate the villagers to help rebuild the destroyed airbase. She compares the fight against Pakistan to the Pandavas’ battle against the Kauravas, and fires a flaming arrow at a Raavan effigy, leading a chant of “Jai Sri Ram”. Later, there’s a song about Lord Ganesha, with the whole base participating. This is consistent with what’s happening in the Hindi historical film—Padmaavat (2018), Manikarnika (2019), Tanhaji (2020)— where aggressive militarism coincides with majoritarianism.

There’s a lot that ails the genre—but which recent Hindi war films show the way forward? The most satisfying title in the last two decades remains Lakshya, with its muted performances, its bildungsroman structure, and the relatively un-jingoistic treatment of what was then a fresh conflict (it says something about public taste, though, that Lakshya was a modest hit, whereas Shershaah—another film about a likeable young man in the 1999 war, less intelligently written, more transparent in its patriotic overtures—has smashed records on Amazon Prime). Gunjan Saxena was also able to suggest, through a scene between the protagonist and her retired army colonel father, that true patriotism lies in doing one’s job.

Janhvi Kapoor in ‘Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl’
Janhvi Kapoor in ‘Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl’

Some films have managed a more fully realised portrayal of the “enemy”. 1971 has a terrific ensemble cast that includes Manoj Bajpayee, Deepak Dobriyal, Manav Kaul and Kumud Mishra, but it’s Piyush Mishra as a smart, conscientious Pakistani colonel who remains its more interesting addition to the genre (it’s a far cry from the racism of Paltan, where the Chinese are clownish savages, their commanding officer introduced in one scene with the sounding of a gong). And in Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi (2018)—which leads, as per the timeline of the 1971 war, into the events of The Ghazi Attack—the Pakistani army family that Alia Bhatt’s Indian spy marries into is cultured and patriotic.

Only two films in recent memory have managed a critical portrait of army personnel. One is Shaurya (2008), an unofficial remake of A Few Good Men, with Kay Kay Menon in the Jack Nicholson role, playing a xenophobic brigadier who covers up a war crime. And the Indian Army in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider (2014) is shown as an oppressive force, using torture and murder to keep the Kashmiri population under control.

Bhardwaj also directed one of the more interesting war films in recent times. In Rangoon (2017), World War II is the colourful backdrop rather than the entire sum of the movie. A muddy battlefield is the setting for a love scene. A silent film star in Burma sings about Hitler. The Indian National Army—then attacking our borders—is the hero. The national anthem sung is the Hindustani version, Subh Sukh Chain, not the Sanskritised Jana Gana Mana. It’s a fascinating example of where the war narrative can go if you loosen the reins a little.

The war film has a bright immediate future in Bollywood. Varun Dhawan will play Param Vir Chakra-winner Arun Khetarpal in Sriram Raghavan’s next, Ekkis. Kangana Ranaut is shooting for Tejas, in which she plays an IAF fighter pilot. Meghna Gulzar is directing Sam Bahadur, a biopic of Sam Manekshaw, with Vicky Kaushal in the lead. Hopefully, we are at an inflection point for the genre, where war becomes the jumping-off point for a variety of stories and approaches, not just biopics. And, from time to time, perhaps we should ask ourselves why the genre is seeing a surge, why war is being sold to us so enthusiastically, and who benefits from it.

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