War films have a character of their own. In fact, filmmakers in the West have raked in billions making films on the two World Wars, Vietnam War and now global terrorism. The picture isn’t any different in India. With the country having witnessed four wars since Independence, filmmakers have time and again dished out war films. And more often than not, big-budget Hindi war films have been well received by the audience.
War films have played a somewhat pivotal role in rousing the patriotic sentiments of the public, a recent example being the super success of Uri: The Surgical Strike that released last month. Interestingly, the film didn’t boast a huge star cast. It was perhaps the high spirit that was intact among filmgoers since the actual incident which occurred on September 28-29, 2016, when Indian paratroopers killed 38 terrorists in a surgical strike following the Uri attack that claimed 18 soldiers, which eventually turned the film into a runaway success. And now, there’s once again a strong wave of patriotism in the country post the Indian Air Force’s strike following the deadly Pulwama attack.
It is possible that yet another war film is in the offing, this time on the Balakot air strike and the subsequent capture and high-drama release of wing commander Abhinandan Varthaman, who has emerged as a national hero overnight. In fact, Uri: The Surgical Strike was announced exactly a year after the actual incident and the film hit the screens in another year’s time.
But that’s how Bollywood films have been — glorifying wars and celebrating patriotism by indulging in brazen enemy bashing coupled with over-the-top action. And in doing so, our century-old film industry has failed to tell the human stories— the pain, the fear of death and post-war trauma — an area Hollywood has successfully explored time and again.
Sample this: JP Dutta’s cult classic Border released June 13, 1997. A multi-starrer based on the famous battle of Longewala during the Indo-Pak War of 1971, the film went on to become that year’s second biggest grosser. As the film ran to full houses, incidents were reported of audiences who had an adrenalin rush and often jumped off their seats every time they saw Indian soldiers spray bullets into the hearts of the enemy or deliver a dialogue that sparked a patriotic feeling.
A year later, Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan hit screens in India, another war film based on the invasion of Normandy during World War II. And the same Indian audience reacted differently this time. The film opens with a 28-minute war sequence and leaves the audiences spellbound, compelling them to stay glued to their seats. The unpredictability and violence in military warfare, the indiscriminate bloodshed, soldiers screaming in pain, limbs flying in the air, every frame in the film drags you to the battlefield and scares the gut out of you. And the masterstroke: There wasn’t a single dialogue during the entire sequence.
Buzz had it at that time that even if Spielberg had ended the film after the opening war sequence, he would still have gone on to win an Oscar. That, however, is another story.
It’s an open secret that the Hindi film industry has often aped Hollywood. War films are no different. It isn’t that Hollywood hasn’t glorified wars. Films, especially on the two World Wars and Vietnam War, have often been used as a propaganda tool by the West. But Hollywood has also churned out gems that, besides celebrating the indomitable courage of soldiers, have successfully told tales of the devastation, trauma and misery when war strikes.
The film Border was released during the 50th year of Independence. Following the Kargil War in 1999 and an alarming rise in cross-border terrorism, Bollywood started churning out big-budget war films, with Dutta himself dishing out the biggest multistarrer LOC: Kargil in 2003.
But every time, these films had the same story to tell. Shaheed-E-Kargil (2001), Ab Tumhare Hawale Watan Saathiyo (2004), Tango Charlie (2005), The Ghazi Attack (2017), Paltan (2018) and Rangoon (2017) were somewhat on similar lines, highlighting the guts and glory of the men in uniform. Others that revolved around terrorism like Mission Kashmir (2000), Yahaan (2005) and Lamhaa: The Untold Story of Kashmir (2010), or the ones which tried to tell a human story like Deewaar: Let’s Bring Our Heroes Home (2004), 1971 (2007), Kabul Express (2006) and Kya Dilli Kya Lahore (2014), either failed miserably to impress the audience or tanked at the box office because of weak screenplay and poor execution.
This was post the Kargil War. But the scene was the same earlier. Perhaps the audiences prefer war films to be high on action and low on drama. In catering to their demands, filmmakers have often failed to explore the “other side of war.” And whenever they have made an attempt to set a story against the backdrop of a war, they have ended up weaving a love story. Even the biggest of such films has tanked at the box office — Prem Pujari (1970), Hindustan Ki Kasam (1973), Lalkaar (1972) et al.
In 1975, J Om Prakash’s Aakraman, set against the backdrop of the 1965 Indo-Pak War, went on to become a money spinner. However, if analysed, Aakraman was not a typical war story but a love triangle. Truth be told, Indian filmmakers have rarely made an effort to think differently. Given that since Independence, India has lost only one war, the 1962 Sino-Indian War where the armed forces took a severe beating resulting in major casualties and devastation, filmmakers have most of the time preferred to weave stories around the three wars that India won. Perhaps, that’s the reason Chetan Anand’s Haqeeqat (1964) is still considered a masterpiece. Besides the devastation and trauma, Haqeeqat told the tragic stories and back stories of a group of soldiers during the Sino-Indian War.
Dev Anand’s Hum Dono (1961) too cannot be described as a war film, but to some extent it tries to tell the story of loss and longing of a martyr’s wife. On the other hand, Manoj Kumar’s Upkar (1961) scores high as an intelligent effort towards depicting war and how it acts as a catalyst in rattling human relationships and giving birth to illicit activities like black-marketing and bootlegging. However, there are only a handful of such films. Govind Nihalani’s Vijeta (1982), which tries to explore complications of a father-son relationship set against the 1971 Indo-Pak War, remains a gem.
A war film needs a lot of research, and Bollywood has shied away from taking that trouble. Instead, the industry has always preferred to depict Indian soldiers as superheroes indulging in over-the-top action (remember Suniel Shetty charging at the enemy with an anti-tank mine in hand in Border or Saif Ali Khan and Akshaye Khan engaged in friendly banter while firing at the enemy in LOC Kargil) and mouthing heavy-duty dialogues.
Hollywood, on the other hand, has time and again churned out masterpieces on war tactics like Paths of Glory (1957), The Longest Day (1962), Thin Red Line (1998), Black Hawk Down (1999), The Enemy at the Gates (2001), The Hurt Locker (2008) Inglorious Basterds (2009) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012).
And then there are innumerable masterpieces like All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Apocalypse Now (1979), Das Boot (1981), Platoon (1986), Schindler’s List (1993), The Pianist (2002), Hotel Rwanda (2004), Letters from Iowa Jima (2006), The Railway Man (2013), Hacksaw Ridge (2016) and Dunkirk (2017) that have successfully delved into the minds of soldiers and explored aspects like psychological trauma, pain, depression, moral awakening and fear of death. By doing so, filmmakers have often tried to give a subtle message that ultimately no one wins a war no matter how high the josh.
RITUJAAY GHOSH, OP