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.

 

An Unexpected Lesson On The Emotional Complexity Of Children

On Sunday, while watching David Lowery‘s Pete’s Dragon, my daughter turned to me during one of its late tear-jerking moments–as the titular dragon, apparently named Elliott, faces grave danger from the usual motley crew of busybodies, law enforcement types, and crass exploiters who would imprison him for all sorts of nefarious purposes–and said that ‘sometimes sad movies make you sad, they make you cry.’ (For ‘Elliott,’ substitute ‘ET‘ and you will get some idea of what was afoot in the movie.) As she said this, her lips quivered, she swallowed rapidly, and her voice quavered and broke. She might even have dropped an actual tear. A short while later, as poor Elliott was further mistreated, she burst into tears and burrowed face down into the couch, snuggling up against her mother.

I watched this behavior with some astonishment–before I ran to offer her some consolation to the effect that this being a Hollywood movie, I could predict with some confidence that Elliott was going to be just fine. Indeed he was.

But my surprise and astonishment remained. For some reason, even though tears and crying are an all too frequent occurrence in my four-year old’s life–as they are in those of most others like her–I had not considered that she could be moved to tears by a melodramatic or melancholy movie. Tears on being denied sundry goodies, yes; tears in response to physical injury, perceived or imaginary, yes; but tears in response to the misfortunes of others, tears that originated in sympathy or empathy, no. Perhaps I was learning yet another lesson about the emotional complexity of children; perhaps I had not been paying sufficient attention to my child’s responses on previous, similar, occasions (she has often, of course, been frightened or awed by the images she has seen during her ‘weekly movie treat’); in either case, I had been educated. And impressed.

It is not entirely clear to me why I did not think children as young as my daughter could have had the reaction she did to cinematic and cultural offerings. After all, as I noted above, they are extraordinarily sensitive; and lacking a full arsenal of linguistic and emotional resources for coping with injury, crying makes all too-frequent an appearance in their responses to external stimuli. In the case of my daughter, I was also taken aback by her announcement that she was feeling ‘sad,’ that she was going to cry. The reaction that followed this announcement, one that was also, I think, infected with a kind of sympathetic fear for Elliott’s fate, would have been far more comprehensible to me; it would have followed a pattern of spontaneous, highly emotional reactions visible elsewhere. But her–dare I say, articulate–preamble threw me off. It was evidence of a verbal and emotional maturity that I had not previously reckoned with.

This will not be the last time, obviously, that my daughter will say or do something that will surprise me. Some of these surprises will be more pleasant than others. May the tribe of those pleasures of parenting increase.

The Best Little White House In ‘Murica: Carpetbaggin’ Days Are Here Again

The Pentagon and the Secret Service are about to start paying rent–like, you know, taxpayer money–to the US President. The President’s son goes on a business trip to Uruguay, eager to cash in on his new found fame and glory–he needs, besides expensive hotels, an expensive security detail, naturally. (Who wouldn’t want to, even if only as a public, humanitarian, service, try to wipe that odd, leering rictus, the one anticipating untold wealth, off his face?) The President’s daughter’s brand of cheap knockoffs has been displaced from malls and departmental stores nationwide, thus depriving young American women of the chance to dress up like a gaudy. overladen Christmas tree; in response, the President, in a remarkable act of parent-child role swapping, holds his breath till he turns a bright shade of Twitter-bird blue, throwing a fit, and wailing, “Me wanna Nordstorm be nice! Now!” The President’s adviser tells Americans to go out and buy the President’s daughter’s baubles, thus getting an early jump on the Christmas shopping season, forgetting only to list a toll-free number and a website at the bottom of the television screen. The President’s wife is upset she can’t milk the country’s advertisement agencies for the eight years she is going to live in Trump Tower, safely ensconced in the Penthouse, throwing down bits of cake at the peasants gathered below.

Back in the good ‘ol days, palefaces brought trinkets to trade with the Native Americans and sold them snake-oil instead; the Indians knew the White House, home of the The Great Father, was Snake Oil Central. The Trumps are Making America Great Again, returning us to our roots, to the frontier days, when wheeling and dealing and thuggery and plain ‘ol self-aggrandizement pushed the national dream onward and forward.  The grubby, commercial heart of the republic, of its legislative politics and foreign policy, has never been too artfully hidden; we, as citizens, know all about it. Yet, like guests at a Borat dinner party, we’ve agreed to be discreet, to make believe that nothing too sordid was underway, that gentility still emerged at the top of the pile of crass hand-in-the-till dipping. Those illusions are gone; carpetbagging season is well and truly upon us. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is the Best Little Whitehouse in ‘Murica.

Trump and his family are remarkably honest. Let us not accuse them of disingenousness; they are frank and straightforward; they tell it like it is. To paraphrase Nasser Ali’s memorable line from My Beautiful Laundrette, “My dear boy, I’m not a professional American, I’m a professional businessman!” Think of Nasser Ali, living in the White House, squeezing ‘the tits of the system,’ and you have some idea of what the Trump family is up to. The budgets are bigger; a bright political future awaits Ivanka, beginning first with the speeches that she will deliver on the Conservative Ladies’ Club dinner party circuit; this milch cow has a lot to give, and she’ll be kept in the shed for a while. Before being sent off to the slaughterhouse.

On The Dissolution Of A Personal Boundary

One of my favorite pastimes when visiting my in-laws in Ohio is to borrow one of the family cars and head to the local cinema to catch a matinée show; it’s how I catch up on the big-screen action I miss out on here in the Big Apple. The tickets are cheaper; the audiences are quieter; and there are enthusiastic babysitters to be called upon. Thanks to these various facilitations, a couple of winters ago, I was able to view Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar in its appropriate environment (i.e., not at home on a much smaller screen.)

I returned home just a tad deflated. Interstellar had been a dud: overly portentous, tedious at times, and much too enamored of its special effects. That was bad enough, but I had also noticed something peculiar about my viewing experience. A crucial component of my regular movie-watching at home had not been present: my regular partner in those adventures, my wife. I realized that built into my watching of a movie at home was her presence: when watching a scene on the screen, part of my reaction to it was caught up inextricably in a conscious and subconscious sensing of hers, whether horror, amusement, incredulity, and of course, sometimes, tears. (Sometimes my wife’s reactions are audible ones; sometimes, even as my eyes are exclusively trained on the screen, I find my thoughts turn to speculation about how she is responding to the same scene.)

That afternoon, as I had watched Interstellar alone, I found that my affective response to its offerings was curiously denuded; I felt as if they were lacking that part which was a sympathetic interaction with what would have been my wife’s responses to the movie. Somehow, over the years that my wife and I had been watching movies together, my responses to the movie-watching experience had started to include an interplay with hers. To watch a movie without my wife present was now to experience a peculiar sort of incompleteness in it. (There is also the small matter of how, once the movie was over, I was not able to engage in any kind of discussion with her about our respective takes on it.)

Such ‘boundary melting’ can be, depending on your perspective, frightening or exhilarating. Therapists ask us to be cognizant of the limits of our selves, to not let ourselves become subsumed in those of others; we worry incessantly about our ‘personal spaces;’ and of course, many couples are asked to ‘de-couple’ by counselors in an effort to get their personal relationships back on track. And yet, as the glories of truly rewarding sexual encounters remind us, the dissolution of our selves’ boundaries can be one of those rare moments during which non-mystics can have a quasi-religious experience.

A crucial aspect of the movie-watching experience at home was communication of a very particular kind, one that enriched my bare interaction with the director’s offering. That should be unsurprising, given that what we call our self arises precisely from a kind of inner communication within us.

A Literary Semester To Look Forward To

This fall semester, I will teach three classes; all feature literary components. They are: ‘Political Philosophy,’ ‘Philosophical Issues in Literature,’ and ‘Existentialism.’ The following are their course descriptions:

Political Philosophy: Shakespeare and Political Theory

In this class, we will read Shakespeare’s famous ‘history plays’—Richard II, Henry IV, Parts I & II, Henry V–as political theory texts. We will set up our reading of these texts with ‘realist’ classics from political theory—Machiavelli and Hobbes to begin with, and then after reading Shakespeare, Nietzsche–and investigate their resonances with Shakespeare’s writings. We will be primarily concerned with that prime political entity, power: its seizing, sharing, retaining, usurpation, and deployment.

Existentialism:

Rare is the philosophical doctrine that straddles literature and philosophy as effortlessly as existentialism. Sometimes thought to be a purely French twentieth-century phenomenon, existentialism is both a philosophical position with a long pedigree and a literary movement with global presence and presence. In this class, we will examine literary and philosophical works in an effort to unpack existentialism’s central theses, understand their significance, and evaluate the works from a moral, political and metaphysical perspective. Among other things, we will explore why existentialism is held to be an atheist philosophy, why it resonates with Buddhism, and how it avoids charges of nihilism.

Philosophical Issues in Literature: The Legal Novel

In this class we will read several ‘legal novels’ closely to examine their particular literary take on issues of philosophical significance: What is the nature of law? Why do we obey the law? What obligations does it impose on us? Must we always obey the law? How we should interpret a legal text? What is the relationship between law and morality? What is the moral and political significance of the gap between the theory and the practice of the law? Are the pretensions of the law a sham? Is the law just an instrument of the strong to keep the weak in check? Can the law ever find the ‘truth’ in its courts? And so on.

Reading List:

I have taught both ‘Political Philosophy‘ and ‘Philosophical Issues in Literature‘ before but this semester’s syllabi are new. ‘Existentialism’ is a new venture for me. Which means that I have three new classes to teach this semester, a task intimidating and exciting in equal measure. Moreover, I have never taught Shakespeare before, so I face a particularly interesting challenge in taking that task on. (I have recommended that my students watch Sam Mendes‘ The Hollow Crown to supplement their readings of the history plays; these cinematic versions are absolutely superb and bring Shakespeare’s words and characters to life most vividly.)

Much could go wrong in the weeks ahead; but if things come off the way I’ve hoped and planned, this could be one of my best semesters of teaching here at Brooklyn College. Well then, once more into the breach, my dear friends.

The Battle Of Winterfell And The Napoleonic Wars

The prelude to the Battle of Winterfell looked familiar: two armies arrayed at dawn, glaring suspiciously at each other across a patch of land soon to be called a battlefield, horses nervously and impatiently pawing at the ground in front of them, weary soldiers waiting for the slaughter and carnage that has always been the grunt’s fate, and finally, kings and generals sizing up the scene, waiting for the moment when they would cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war. So did the battle itself: brutal hacking fights with sword and spear and hand, bloody confusion, piles of bodies, men crushed to death, and then, finally, a decisive cavalry charge.

Those with an interest in military history–and within it, the gory details of the Napoleonic Wars–will have visualized many such scenes in their readings. (The extensive use of bows and arrows and the phalanx in the Battle of Winterfell makes it resemble older battles of the medieval and Roman eras too.) In Sergei Bondarchuk‘s epic Waterloo, the opening scenes of the battle–before the first French artillery barrage–show the resemblance of the prelude to combat quite clearly. Moreover, as in Bondarchuk’s production, the makers of Game of Thrones were decidedly old-fashioned: they relied, even if not as heavily as Bondarchuk, on actual masses of men, materiel, and horses. (Bondarchuk, of course, had no recourse to digital effects the way the makers of Game of Thrones do.)

The many descriptions of famous battles of the Napoleonic era, such as, for instance, those of the Battle of Borodino during the fatal Russian campaign in 1812–which Napoleon himself described as the ‘most terrible’ of his long and storied career–in turn, were re-invoked while watching the Battle of Winterfell. Consider, for instance, the following:

Inside the redoubt, horsemen and foot soldiers, gripped by a frenzy of slaughter, were butchering each other without any semblance of order…

The Raievski Redoubt presented a gruesome sight. ‘The redoubt and the area around it offered an aspect which exceeded the worst horrors one could ever dream of,’ according to an officer of the Vistula Legion, which had come up in support of the attacking force. ‘The approaches, the ditches and the earthwork itself had disappeared under a mound of dead and dying, of an average depth of 6 to 8 men, heaped one upon the other.

The Lifeguard Horse was deployed to the left of the Guard Cavalry. Its four squadrons were formed in one line, squadron by squadron with intervals. When the trumpets crashed out with brazen voice the two outfits began their magnificient advance. The fighting itself took place on a rye field and the onrush on both sides was so terrific that some of the most forward horses and men went down like poppies in a hurricane.

Because I mentioned the Battle of Waterloo, let me close with the final key resemblance between a Napoleonic conflict and the Battle of Winterfell. The latter was ended by the arrival of the Arryn cavalry (a surreptitious supporting force arranged by Sansa Stark and Littlefinger.) The Battle of Waterloo–the last Napoleonic battle–was brought to its conclusion by the arrival of the Prussian forces led by General Blücher; till then, even though Wellington‘s forces had seemed ascendant, a final coup de grace had not been delivered. Wellington himself desperately awaited relief; as he grimly noted, “Night or the Prussians must come.” When they did, it must have seemed like a scene right out of the movies. Or a television show.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Franchise Slumbers

I saw my first Star Wars in December 1981; my brother had bought us a brace of tickets as a welcome-home treat. (I had been away at boarding-school.) I enjoyed every minute of it, from the opening gunfight, right down to the destruction of the Death Star. I  looked forward to the sequels with some eagerness.

The sequels, sadly, were a bit of a bore. By the time the Return of the Jedi had rolled around, I was burned out on the franchise. But I wasn’t immune to its marketing prowess. When Star Wars was resurrected in the fin de siècle, I dutifully returned to the theaters, only to be scared off by the colossal incompetence on display in The Phantom Menace. I let myself be suckered again to watch the Attack of the Clones, but after that experience–where I’m not sure I made it through the entire movie–I was determined to not be fooled again, and did not watch Revenge of the Sith, a decision I do not regret in the slightest.

Clearly my resolve has weakened over the years, and so, this past week,  I found myself in a movie-hall watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I should have displayed greater resolve and stayed away.

It’s all here for the faithful: lightsabers, droids, Hans Solo, Chewie, stormtroopers, Death Stars–bigger and badder, an exotic menagerie of creatures, and so on. A great deal else is recycled: there is a bar scene, there is an attack on a Death Star, which always seems to have one fatally vulnerable point, a tall baddie dressed in black who breathes heavily and who has gone over to the Dark Side a long time ago, there is father-son conflict, a droid who has a personality of sorts, and contains a capsule with vital intelligence, thus becoming the most valuable object around, there are fights on pathways overhanging deep chasms, there is an air raid by tiny fighters on a Big Death Star, there is a Yoda-like figure–there is, as you can tell, very little imagination and creativity displayed by the ‘story writing’ team. There is also the usual inconsistent scaling and physics: objects which appear gigantic suddenly shrink, lightsabers sometimes burn, sometimes they don’t, sometimes they cut through objects, sometimes they don’t. The Force Awakens does showcase has a few lines which aspire to wittiness, and which appeared to inspire a few titters from the faithful around me, (especially when they were uttered by that rogue, Hans Solo.) But otherwise, there’s slim pickings here.

It’s all much of a muchness, really, serving to demonstrate once again, that no matter how much money you throw at the silver screen, and how fancy you get with the gimmickry, nothing quite makes a conventional feature film like a good story.  One thing The Force Awakens gets right, as do many other members of the franchise, are some beautiful set pieces of spacecraft: sometimes ruins in the desert, their cavernous interiors the setting for exploration or high-speed chases, sometimes on static display, sometimes in close-up, sometimes from afar. This astonishing visual art is perhaps the franchise’s greatest contribution to cinema. One can only hope that some enterprising hacker will collate these into a highlights reel and make it available online (before the Disney Legal Warriors come after him.)

The force isn’t with this one, but then it hasn’t been with the franchise for a while.