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.

 

Against Their Will: Everywhere, All The Time, Drunk, In Packs

I thought I had said everything I wanted to about the horrible gang-rape case in Delhi, but I feel compelled to put down a few additional observations. They center on what made this case notable, and what perhaps needs a little more attention. In no particular order, here they are.

First, the Delhi rape would not have been news had it not included a violent, savage assault with an iron rod on the young woman that resulted in her death. Had she been ‘just’ raped and not suffered more than the ‘usual’ injuries that raped women suffer, the case would have been forgotten rather rapidly. The humdrum announcement of yet another rape, somewhere, sometime, would have been unlikely to have attracted much notice. Something exceptional is always needed to jolt us out of our normal somnolent response to them. Perhaps the number of rapists, perhaps twisted acts of degradation (our social media culture now provides ample opportunity for old-fashioned ‘notch on the belt’ bragging to acquire an added new dimension), perhaps dramatic acts of violence (as in this case), or perhaps the location or placement of the victim (an American raped abroad always makes more news than one raped right here, at home.)

Second, the rape became a cause célèbre because it happened in India’s capital, and because its victim was an aspirant to the better life. She had moved from ‘out there’ to ‘in here’, from a small town to the big city; she sought to go even further. She was enrolled in a professional course of education, one that promised her and the family she had left behind a better life. Sadly, had she been a resident of a village in India’s hinterland, perhaps a Dalit set on by ‘high-caste’ goons, her gang-rape would not have made the news. Or if it had, via  a small paragraph not on the front page. it would not have provoked the current reaction. (In Govind Nihalani‘s Aakrosh, the landless peasant Lahanya Bikhu, in the movie’s horrifying climax, kills his sister to ‘protect’ her from the landlord and his foremen who have already raped his wife and condemned him to jail.)

Third, there was an old familiar companion in this story of rape: alcohol, our most beloved legal drug, whose removal from the index prohibitorum ensured that no other drug would ever be legalized. From college campus to invaded town, from frat party to street alley, rape and alcohol often go hand in hand. Sometimes, it seems, there is nothing quite as dangerous as a group of young drunk men. If they aren’t picking fights with each other–possibly the safest outcome for all bystanders–their roving eyes turn elsewhere. Quite often, it’s a woman they fancy. And of course, they attack in packs; nothing quite makes men feel as brave as alcohol and the presence of other conspirators.

Last, as I noted in my previous post, the ubiquity of rape of worldwide (in space and time) should give pause to those keen to turn this into a uniquely Indian pathology. When Susan Brownmiller wrote Against Our Will, she did not subtitle it Indian Men, Indian Women and Rape in India.

Pearl Harbor and Tora! Tora! Tora!

Today is the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on the US fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor. My intention today is not to talk about the attack but a cinematic depiction of it: the US-Japanese production Tora! Tora! Tora! directed by Richard Fleischer and released in 1970. I saw TTT with my father and brother at the Odeon Cinema in New Delhi; I do not remember the exact date (I was not even a teenager then), but I remember my viewing of TTT very clearly.

I had been brought up in a military pilot’s household, and was an enthusiastic consumer of war comics and books. The WWII movies I had seen till then were fairly simple morality plays; gallant English and Americans took on leering Nazis and Japanese and cut them down to size with a dazzling combination of weaponry, insouciance, and moral rectitude. The violence in the movies was reasonably sanitized. War appeared in these movies the way it appeared in the comics: the sort of thing a schoolboy could get behind.

TTT changed that, and quickly. It was the first cinematic description of an Allied defeat in the Second World War that I had seen; it was extraordinarily violent (and loud; the opening scene of the flyby over the Japanese Imperial Fleet shocked even this schoolboy, brought up on military bases); and it was the first time I had seen “the US”, “America”, “the USA”, come off second-best at anything. (Strictly speaking, that might not be true; it is possible that by then I had seen the US come third in the medals tally in the 1976 Olympics at Montreal).

When I emerged from the Odeon after that matinee show, blinking, into the glare of the hot Delhi sun, I was still stunned. I had known, dimly, of Pearl Harbor, but I had not realized the carnage associated with it; the shots of USN sailors on fire still haunted me.

In the years to come, a great deal of my original naivete about war would resurface in various forms. But if that sentiment ever had a competitor in my understanding of that most intense of all political conflicts, TTT had a great deal to do with it.