The Bollywood War Movie And The Indian Popular Imagination  

In 1947, even as India attained independence from colonial subjugation, war broke out in Kashmir as guerrillas backed by Pakistan sought to bring it into the Pakistani fold. That war ended in stalemate after intervention by the UN. Since then, the fledgling nation of India has gone to war four more times: first, in 1962, Jawaharlal Nehru’s darkest hour, against China, a war that ended in a humiliating loss of territory and self-esteem, which left Nehru a broken man, and ultimately finished him off; then, in 1965, India and Pakistan fought their way to another inconclusive stalemate over Kashmir; in 1971, India fought a just war to bring freedom to the erstwhile East Pakistan, producing the new nation of Bangladesh in the process (war broke out on the western and eastern fronts in December 1971 and ended quickly as the Pakistan Army surrendered in Dacca two weeks later); finally, in 1999, India forced its old nemesis, Pakistan, back from the brink of nuclear war by pushing them off the occupied heights of Kargil. War is part of the story of the Indian nation; it continues to shape its present and the future. India, and its understanding of itself, has changed over the years; Bollywood has tried to keep track of these changes through its movies, in its own inimitable style. In a book project that I am working on, and for which I have just signed a contract with HarperCollins (India), I will examine how well it has succeeded in this task.  (I have begun making notes for this book and anticipate a completion date of May 31st 2018; the book will come to a compact sixty thousand words.)

In my book, I will take a close look at the depiction of war and Indian military history in Bollywood movies. I will do this by examining some selected ‘classics’ of the Bollywood war movie genre; by closely ‘reading’ these movies, I will inquire into what they say about the Indian cinematic imagination with regards to—among other things—patriotism, militarism, and nationalism, and how they act to reinforce supposed ‘Indian values’ in the process. Because Bollywood both reflects and constructs India and Indians’ self-image, this examination will reveal too the Indian popular imagination in these domains; how can Indians come to understand themselves and their nation through the Bollywood representation of war?

Surprisingly enough, despite India having waged these four wars in the space of merely fifty-one years, the Bollywood war movie genre is a relatively unpopulated one, and moreover, few of its movie have been commercial or critical successes. The Bollywood war movie is not necessarily an exemplary example of the Bollywood production; some of these movies did not rise to the level of cinematic or popular classics though their songs often did. This puzzling anomaly is matched correspondingly by the poor state of military history scholarship in India. My book aims to address this imbalance in two ways. First, by examining the Bollywood war movie itself as a movie critic might, it will show how these movies succeed or fail as movies qua movies and as war movies in particular. (Not all Bollywood war movies feature war as a central aspect, as opposed to offering a backdrop for the central character’s heroics, sometimes captured in typical Bollywood formulas of the romantic musical. This is in stark contrast to the specialized Hollywood war movie, of which there are many stellar examples in its history.) Second, by paying attention to the place of these wars in Indian popular culture, I will contribute to a broader history of these wars and their role in the construction of the idea of India. Nations are sustained by dreams and concrete achievement alike.

After a brief historical introduction to Bollywood, I will critically analyze selected movies–(Haqeeqat, 1971, Aakraman, Lalkaar, Border, Hindustan Ki Kasam, Hum Dono, Lakshya, LOC Kargil, Deewar (2004 version), Shaurya, Tango Charlie, and Vijeta)–beginning with post-WWII classics and chronologically moving on to more contemporary offerings. Along the way, I hope to uncover–in a non-academic idiom–changing ideas of the Indian nation, its peoples, and the Indian understanding of war and its relationship to Indian politics and culture as Bollywood has seen it. This book will blend cinematic and cultural criticism with military history; the wars depicted in these movies serve as factual backdrop for their critical analysis. I will read these movies like texts, examining their form and content to explore what they teach us about Bollywood’s attitudes about war, the effects of its violence on human beings, on the role of violence in human lives, on how romantic love finds expression in times of war, how bravery, cowardice, and loyalty are depicted on the screen. I will explore questions like: What does Bollywood (India) think war is? What does it think happens on a battlefield? Why is war important to India? What does Bollywood think India is, and why does it need defending from external enemies? Who are these ‘external enemies’ and why do they threaten India? How does Bollywood understand the military’s role in India and in the Indian imagination? And so on.


5 thoughts on “The Bollywood War Movie And The Indian Popular Imagination  

  1. The only tamil war movie I saw was ‘Thaye Unakkaga’ (It is for you, Mother!). All the credit goes to the original Russian (Ballad of a Soldier).

      1. It is in U-tube. I just saw it. No English subtitles, but not too difficult to follow. Also war scenes are short and at the beginning.
        There is a background song about the mother expecting his son’s visit. I can not listen to it without tears.

  2. I think the British subsidised some Tamil war movies in the hope of mobilising Tamils in South East Asia to resist the Japanese and this meant that the Madras film industry became familiar with that specific idiom, so to speak. Thus, typical melodramas focusing on the Uncle not being able to marry the niece (the preferred marriage partner for the dominant castes) would incorporate some episode of battle.
    As you may know, the Tamil film industry took over Politics in the Sixties. Interestingly, 1962 created a situation where separatism had to be dropped because film stars reinforced their popularity by raising funds for the troops. If one looks a little closer, we notice that dominant castes- or cohesive ‘subaltern’ castes like the Mahars- had a long standing demand to increase their recruitment to the Armed Services- diluting that of ‘Martial Castes’ which, among Hindus, meant disproportionate recruitment of Brahmins.

    The Dravidian parties were avowedly atheist and Socialist, so- once they dropped secessionist ideas- New Delhi didn’t really have a problem with them. They did have a problem with Bollywood taking up the Martial genre because Bose & the I.N.A didn’t fit the Congress narrative and, unlike Dravidian ideologues which only wanted regional hegemony, the P.W.A had national aspirations.

    Haqeeqat was quite successful. Why did it not create a genre? After all, the Indian military position was improving. One would have thought the Govt.- which had ways of making its displeasure felt on Bollywood- would have encouraged such films. The answer, I suppose has to do with Economics. War films make ordinary kids want to enlist. But, the demand for Army jobs far outstripped supply at a crucial time. That has changed but no indigenous idiom for the genre- except by way of melodramatic parentheses- evolved and thus a ready made market doesn’t exist. Remakes of American films- like Top Gun

    Still, the fact is our netas still fear that one neta who actually put on an Army uniform. The Gordian knot of poverty- and most Indian poverty is a self inflicted poverty trap- can too easily be cut. Bollywood has produced some films about Army men, or ex-Army men as in China Gate, using their skills to solve problems the Civil administration is too cowardly or incompetent to solve. However, to protect their investment, producers may still tread warily down that particular path.

    1. Thanks for that wonderful comment – very informative indeed. There are some interesting angles in here that I’m going to chase down to look into a bit further.

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