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.

 

The Plain, ‘Popular’ Speaking Of Bernie Sanders And Jeremy Corbyn

One of the highlights of the recent Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn campaigns–one, a failed attempt to secure the nomination to become the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, and the other a comparatively successful attempt by the Labour Party to derail the Tories in the United Kingdom–has been their plain speaking. Both Sanders and Corbyn relied on straightforward ‘messaging’; they spoke unapologetically about their political views and vision; they did not back down from supposedly ‘can’t-win’ electoral platforms; they did not waffle about or ‘triangulate. Wonder of wonders, they seemed perfectly cognizant of the fact that they would face political opposition, but that did not deter them from continuing to discuss and defend, in unvarnished terms, the democratic socialist and populist ‘agenda’ that was the centerpiece of their claim to become President or Prime Minister. If asked ‘Are you really saying that X?’–where X might be ‘taxing the rich’ or ‘supporting the Palestinian cause’ or ‘socialized healthcare’–the Sanders or Corbyn response, quite typically, was, “Why yes, that’s exactly what I meant, and here’s why.” (In sporting terms, Sanders and Corbyn decided to swing for the fences–rather than sitting on them. Perhaps they would lose; but they would only lose an election, not their integrity. They appeared prepared to pay that price.)

This plain-speaking, this directness, this unapologetic standing by and behind their political convictions, a rare species of political fearlessness, did not go unnoticed. Both Sanders and Corbyn attracted many young folk disenchanted–or just plain bored–by politics; they attracted many older folks turned off by the endlessly vacillating, weaselly language of conventional politics. By keeping their platforms simple, Sanders and Corbyn were not just comprehensible, they also managed to be inspiring. Years and years of being subjected to the inanity and indirection of political discourse has produced a diverse electorate that yearns for plain speaking and a kind of transparent, even if occasionally bumbling, sincerity. Sanders and Corbyn both ‘delivered’; neither are inspiring speakers; their prose is not lofty; they do not appear to have taken classes in oratory or rhetoric; but importantly, they did not appear ‘coached’ and bland and inoffensive either. They knew they would cause offense; they accepted such a cost as part of the price of doing politics, of trying to get a certain kind of message out and about. They also knew the rhetorical value of their manner of speaking.

It will remain an enduring scandal that the Democratic Party in the US could not quite see the wisdom of such plain speaking during the 2016 election season, and instead decided to throw its weight behind a candidate who could not bring herself to drop a language that appeared too cautious, too timid, too ready to compromise. Neither could the Labour Party in the United Kingdom; many of its members and leaders attacked Corbyn relentlessly in the lead-up to the election. In the US, we are left saddled with the dysfunctional presidency of Donald Trump; in the United Kingdom, a second election to resolve the uncertainty created by the unstable Tory-DUP coalition seems quite likely. One can only wonder what the political landscape would look like today if these candidates had not been sabotaged by their own parties.

There are lessons to be learned here; the politician who makes the effort to do so knows an attentive audience–and participants in political action–awaits.

Sporting Ability Does Not Correlate With Virtue: The Superbowl Confirmation

It was pretty easy cheering against the New England Patriots yesterday. I’m a New York Giants fan, and the Giants specialize in breaking Patriot hearts, in shattering Patriot dreams–think Superbowl XLII and Superbowl XLVI; the Patriots are a New England team, and New Yorkers dislike all New England teams; the Patriots and their coach, Bill Belichick are notorious benders and tweakers of the rules of the game–think ‘Deflategate‘; the Atlanta Falcons were the underdogs, aiming to bring sporting success to a city that could use some good news–Boston is blase about all its sports championships. And so on. (Bear with me while I make note of these marketing clichés.) And then, this year, there was the political subtext–which wasn’t so sub, after all. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are Trump fans; the former has been used as campaign fodder by Trump himself.

Say no more.

Apparently, we had an unambiguous moral universe set up for us. Good vs. Evil. And Evil triumphed. Moreover, Evil did so thanks to an amazing, unprecedented comeback that ensured its quarterback, coach, and team have good claims–statistical and otherwise–on being anointed one of the greatest of all time. (The Patriots’ win also allowed the obnoxious Richard Spencer‘s crowing on Twitter about how he was cheering for one of the ‘whitest’ teams in the NFL to be fruitfully rewarded.) The arc of this moral universe is long and its local curvature doesn’t seem to indicate that it is bending in the right direction.

Sporting ability does not seem to correlate with virtue–of any sort. This sad fact has often been noted and commented on by sports fans; moral reprobates win championships and prize money galore all the time; good guys often finish last.  Indeed, the playing of sport itself does not seem to make the world a better place. Football, the particular sport under scrutiny here, has done a great deal to suggest that it does not deserve spectatorial attention, indulgence, or tolerance so long as it continues to be an inherently unsafe activity organized and managed in an unsafe fashion. There are, after all, good reasons to believe NFL owners have systematically misrepresented the long-term dangers of the sport and will not allow an open, unbiased investigation into its longstanding concussion and traumatic brain injury problems. (The systematic misrepresentation of masculinity, the glorification of violence, the tolerance of domestic violence by the NFL’s commissioners, its serving as a propaganda arm of the military, are but some of the many other sins that are laid at the NFL’s door. The loud, sexist, drunk, NFL fan is a well-known American archetype–a frat boy in a team cap.)

This is all pretty disappointing stuff but it is also enlightening. We should not expect too much when we look at a sports field; least of all should we expect to find moral or political arguments justified there. The right of a people to nationhood will not, despite many wins for their sports teams, receive confirmation on a sports field; the success of a national ideology will not be confirmed by a win in a World Cup. The good news for the sports fan and the sports marketer is that this warning is not an easy one to take on board; sports fields are symbolic battlegrounds, and they’ll remain that way. At least till we find another domain of human endeavor that lends itself so easily to such easy exploitation by story tellers and myth makers.

Fighting The Gorsuch Nomination Is A Lost Battle; Fight It Anyway

Rather predictably, news of the Gorsuch nomination to the US Supreme Court has been greeted by considerable head-scratching among Democratic Party–and associated progressive–circles: should we fight or should we roll over, keeping the proverbial powder dry for the next battle? ‘Pragmatism’ and ‘realism’ apparently bid us to not fight this already lost battle, to not expend valuable political energy and resources on this skirmish, and to take the long view, the strategic one, the sensible one, so that the next really–I mean, really–important battle can be fought with the appropriate street-fighting intensity and fervor. (After all, if you filibuster, the Republicans will simply change the Senate rules on voting, and just nominate him anyway; give up already.)

Or something like that.

A greater misunderstanding of politics, a poorer read of the current American political situation, cannot be imagined. The Democratic Party rolled over last year to let the Republican Party carry out a wholly illicit refusal to even consider Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland; it has, thus far, in its responses to Donald Trump’s cabinet nominations performed a passable imitation of a somnolent jellyfish. It seems to care little for the passion and ire of those who are calling upon it to resist the Trump administration; it seems obsessed instead, with performing political harakiri, by refusing to indicate that it has the stomach or the gumption for politics as it is currently performed in America.

Sometimes political battles are fought, not because they will be won, but because fighting them communicates valuable information to those engaged in it. In this case: that the theft of the Supreme Court seat has been noted as such (there is no need for scare quotes around “theft”); that this party has heard its constituents and can be counted on to represent their interests; and so on. Call it virtue-signalling if you like; that is not a pejorative term in this context. Rhetoric is an indispensable component of political struggle; fighting this battle has immense rhetorical value.

Talk of premature exhaustion–before the supposedly great battles that lie over the hill, over the horizon, that will be upon us tomorrow–is premature. Those battles are yet to be fought; there will be time for recuperation and renewal. That recharging of political batteries will be aided by an inspired political base; there won’t be any powder left around for the next battle if your ammunition carriers have, at your refusal to man the ramparts and open fire, thrown their stores down the nearest ravine in disgust, telling all and sundry that their soldiers were a bunch of undisciplined lily-livered no-hopers and do not deserve their allegiance or commitment any more. (These military metaphors are getting out of hand here.)

The nation-wide response to Donald Trump’s cabinet nominations, the visible and loud street protests, the social media coordinated and fueled opposition which has led to an unprecedented number of people calling their elected representatives for the first time, all to make known their unvarnished opinions, has sent the loudest and clearest message possible to the Democratic Party: this nomination must be resisted.

The Trump-Bannon Executive Order ‘Strategy’ And Its Rhetorical Value

The flurry of executive orders signed by Donald Trump since January 20th was designed to accomplish several objectives.

First, on attaining office, establish continuity between the ‘campaigning candidate Trump’ and ‘President Trump’ by acting to ‘implement’ the most visible campaign trail promises–the ones packing the most rhetorical punch. This should be done without regard to the legality, constitutionality, or practicality of implementation of the orders. These orders should bear the distinct impress of dynamic, purposeful action; their signings should be staged in impressive settings reeking of power; the president’s pen should resemble a sword cutting through legislative red tape. Their failure, their rollback, their rewriting, will obviously proceed in far more subtle fashion, perhaps under cover of the night. In press parlance, the whopper makes it to the front page, the correction finds its way to page seventeen. Red meat, even if tainted, needs to be thrown to the ‘base;’ the resultant feeding frenzy will keep them busy and distracted for a while. Passing laws is boring and staid; it speaks of negotiation and compromise; executive orders execute. Or at least, they seem to, which in the present circumstances might amount to the same thing–at least as far as the spectators are concerned.

Second, when these orders encounter political resistance in the form of citizens’ protests, as they almost certainly will, emphasize the source and nature of the opposition, even if these demonstrations and protests appear to be large and organized: focus on the marches in ‘elite, out-of-touch’ cities like New York and San Francisco; emphasize that the protesters are opposing action and appear happy with the status quo, in direct opposition to the dynamism of the president. (Useful idiots in the media can be relied upon to offer commentary like “these protesters seem to have made up their mind to oppose the president no matter what he does” etc. A few close-ups of women yelling slogans–to emphasize the ‘hysterical’ nature of the protests, and some of black protesters to make the claim that ‘they have nothing better to do’ will certainly make the rounds.) This will also allow the deployment of the usual ‘anti-American’ tropes.

Third, when the orders encounter legal resistance in the form of pushback from legal advisers, civil liberties lawyers, and Federal judges, emphasize again, its ‘elite’ nature: meddling, lying, lawyers; unelected activist judges imposing their self-indulgent wills on the general will of the people; law will now become synonymous with ‘red tape,’ regulations,’ and ‘rules.’ The bureaucratic nature of the legal system will be emphasized.

This is all great grist for the Bannon propaganda mill. The executive orders might not ‘work’ in one sense; they certainly will in another.

These strategies are not new; they are old and honorable members of the Republican Party’s playbook. They will, however, be implemented with unapologetic ferocity by an ideologically determined crew, using all the available machinery–sophistical and sophisticated–of modern communications at hand. The only weakness in this strategy is that it might not have anticipated the resultant ferocity of the opposition to it, and the unintended consequence of uniting an opposition that before the elections appeared disparate and disunited.

On Not Living In The ‘Real’ America

I live in Brooklyn, in New York City, but I don’t live in ‘real’ America. I’m surrounded by artifice and fantasy; specters and ghosts walk the streets. The sidewalks beneath my feet are insubstantial; it is a miracle they are able to sustain my corporeal weight. The buildings around me have been plucked straight from the pages of comic books; I walk through their walls effortlessly. There is no English spoken here; merely an incomprehensible gibberish consisting of many alien tongues.

Here, no one works for a living; no one has to get up in the morning, or evening, to go to work and earn an honest day’s, or night’s, living. Magic money is automatically deposited into our virtual bank accounts–presumably as a reward for our insubstantiality. We do not pay taxes (state or city or Federal), grocery and utility bills, rent, mortgages, road tolls, parking tickets, subway fares, alimonies, school tuition, and all of the rest. Our lives are expense-free; we do not need to balance budgets.  We do not deal with bosses and workplaces and co-workers; we do not deal with workplace conditions, good or bad. We are never fired; we merely receive the occasional raise.

This is a conflict-free land; there are no disputes, legal, political, or personal. When all is unreal, what could we possibly be quibbling about? Thus, our social and economic interactions with our fellow spirits move along smoothly on friction-free planes, with differing needs and desires effortlessly reconciled with each other.  Solomon would have been an incompetent adjudicator here; there would be no work for him; his skills would rust from disuse.

Our children are fantasies too; they do not possess substantiality beyond our dreams. We do not worry about their welfare, their schooling, their moral and material education. We care little if they go missing for a while; they are not ‘real’ after all. They do not feel pain, and neither do we. We are free from parental anxiety, the greatest blessing of all.

We have few aspirations for our lives; all has been given to us, and our lives consist merely of picking through the goodies, selecting and choosing which clothes to wear, which lunch dates to go on, which movies and which plays to see. We take vacations occasionally, venturing out into the ‘real’ America, but the hard edges of reality drive us–all too soon–back into the welcoming arms of this La La Land.  We cower under the blankets at night sometimes, offering thanks and prayers for not being subjected to reality the way so many of our fellow citizens are, unfairly and cruelly.

Our health is perfect; we do not fall ill, and die. We do not worry about that pain in the chest, that nagging sore that won’t go away. Our families do not have to pay medical bills; they do not have to sit by our bedsides,  cremate us, or lower us into the ground. Grief is besides the point; why mourn for what is not real?

We are uncertain how this zone of fantasy came about, how it managed to separate itself from the mainland of reality. But we do not question our good fate; we merely draw upon our benedictions. And plot, endlessly, to keep reality away from our lives, from this coast, far away in the hinterlands where it belongs.

Politics As Spectator Sport In A Nation That Would Call Its Dictator ‘Coach’

It had to come to this: a ‘presidential debate’ would become as television-friendly as sports, that shadow-boxing encounters replete with campaign trail inanities and evasions would be reckoned the political-show equivalent of a honest-to-goodness fifteen-round heavyweight championship bout (with figurative seconds and blood buckets close at hand.) These allusions and analogies which have retained their air of metaphor became just a little more hardened last night: the Donald Trump-Hillary Clinton debate was expected to attain ‘Super-Bowl-sized’ ratings, even as television executives rubbed their hands with glee. Television executives have always craved the ratings that sports events bring them; how could they come up with entertainment that could match that pitting of hero versus hero on a sports field (of dreams)? Putting political events in opposition to sports events had always been a ratings disaster, a sure sign that the programmer in question did not know the first thing about the American people. The best was to hope for, and actively participate in, the transformation of political conflict into horse races that could be bet on, hyped up, complete with opposing fan bases who would put the ‘fanatic’ back in ‘fan.’ We got that this year. What matter the provision of a platform to an unrepentant, authoritarian racist if ginormous ratings ensue in exchange?

It felt like a big final; visions of pennant games and football conference championships and perhaps even World Cup qualifiers danced in our minds. Bars placed signs outside on sidewalks, advertising their telecast facilities and drink specials; the crowds gathered early and packed the viewing venues, expelling latecomers to sidewalks; friends made debate party plans; drinking games were invented. Network effects dictated that the only way to feel like you belonged yesterday was to participate, to pull up a chair in front of the nearest television so that you could make sure of your participation in the water-cooler conversations come Monday, er Tuesday, morning. The bizarre had been normalized; the politics as entertainment trope received yet another confirmation. (Especially because it featured a man who has been seen performing during wrestling events in the past.)

Perhaps nothing signals our apparent powerlessness as political subjects like this spectacle does: it takes place on a television stage, in front of a crowd shushed into silence; campaign trail activities that preceded it now suddenly seem like the opening acts of the megashow that television had been waiting for all along. We sit back, appalled and fascinated, nervously munching on our popcorn, downing our drinks, inhaling on our vapes, waiting for commercials so we can take a bathroom break (before realizing you can take a break any time). Sometimes we check in with our fellow spectators on social media, generating streams of commentary and hopefully witty hot takes. After the ‘game’ talking heads–including retired stars from yesteryear and today’s brightest sports journalists–break down the big plays, some of which will feature in next morning’s edition of PoliticsCenter.

Remember, we’re the nation that would call its dictator of choice ‘coach.’