INDIAN WAR MOVIES
Why do they fail to make the cut?
“Usne Kaha Tha” – She had asked – was a Hindi movie produced by Bimal Roy in 1960. A black and white film, directed by Moni Bhattacharjee, it was based on a highly popular Hindi short story of the times with the same title, authored by Chandradhar Sharma Guleri. Although an epic love story, in all probability, the movie could also have been the first-ever Indian war movie, because it narrates the tale of a soldier, and scenes from the Second World War form an integral part of it. As a teenager, watching the movie, it made a profound impression on me. It was a poignant tale very well told, the military part of it seamlessly flowing with the narrative. The other day, watching the movie on the internet after so many years, I could not but admire how artfully the scenes were crafted, how the iconic song, “Jaanewaale sipahi se poocho, Vo kahan ja raha hain…..” a masterly composition of Salil Choudhury, blended with the heartrending scene of the soldiers going off to a war that was not of their making. The song was banned after the Sino-Indian War of 1962, supposedly for being anti-war in content, which was a mistake. After all, Erich Maria Remarque’s classic anti-war novel of 1929, “All Quiet on The Western Front”, made into a movie in 1930, earned popularity the world over, although it was barely a decade after the Great War on which the story was set and war clouds were already gathering over Europe once again (A 2022 remake of it has earned laurels as well). War is evil, often a necessary one though, and banning works of art or literature on it will not sanitize it. Instead, the focus must be on depicting war, truthfully and realistically, artfully combining the melodramatic effect with subtlety. That is where, I reckon, Usne Kaha Tha proved a masterpiece. Another movie set in the World War II era, “Hum Dono”, released a year later had more of a Bollywood masala theme and, although was a box-office hit, does not leave an indelible mark as “Usne Kaha Tha” does.
In 1964, another Hindi movie, “Haqeeqat” hit the screen. Technically, this should be counted as the first full-length Indian war movie, because the theme itself is war. Supposedly, it was based on the iconic last stand at Rezang-La during the Sino-Indian War of 1962, by Major Shaitan Singh and his company of Kumaonese, which prevented the Chinese from capturing the crucial airfield at Chushul, putting paid to further incursion by them. There couldn’t have been a more valiant episode of that war to structure a movie on.114 out of the 120 soldiers fell fighting, after killing over a thousand of the enemy. While Major Shaitan Singh was honoured with the Param Vir Chakra, India’s highest gallantry award, thirteen of his men won various other gallantry awards, all posthumously. The movie, although peppered with a lot of melodrama to cater to the taste of Indian audience, which distorted the theme beyond recognition, did strike a chord with the national psyche, through its moving depiction of the sad realties of the war and the insurmountable odds the Indian Soldiers faced. It gave the much-needed fillip to the morale of a people shamed by a military defeat and restored their faith in their armed forces, eminently complemented by its excellent musical score. Ironically, the movie was dedicated to Jawaharlal Nehru, the chief architect of that military disaster; but then that’s another story.
While these two early movies seemed promising, heralding a thriving genre of Indian war movies, any such expectations have been belied by the Bollywood extravaganzas that were rolled out in subsequent years in the guise of war movies. India has had no dearth of wars to script screenplays from and the movie makers of the country have grown well-versed with all the modern technological tools at a par with Hollywood over the years. Yet, we cannot produce world class war movies is a sad commentary on the professionalism of our cinematic fraternity. Indeed, an odd movie raises the hopes of improvement once in a while, but there is no consistent effort by the country’s moviedom in sight to create genuinely good war movies.
What ails the Indian war movies? Let’s take the 1997 blockbuster “Border” for example. It’s everything that a war movie should not be. In the first place, the Battle of Longewala, which the movie was based on, was not the ideal choice, if they wanted to depict close quarter fighting, which it attempts to do. The actual battle was a gallant stand in the Thar Desert made by a company of the Punjab Regiment with 120 men, against an overwhelmingly superior force of two Pakistani mobile infantry brigades with about 3000 men and 40 tanks, which was also the earliest major engagement of the 1971 War in the Western Sector. While the company commander, Major Kuldip Singh Chandpuri, who was later awarded Maha Vir Chakra, showed tremendous grit in holding out against such odds, even after being given an option to withdraw, the victory in the battle was achieved more due to his intelligence and resilience than any close quarter fighting. Having been alerted of the massive enemy formation advancing on his border post during the night 4-5 December, by an advance patrol he had sent out under a young officer, he ordered the officer to keep track of the enemy and kept monitoring the information to the brigade headquarters behind, while preparing a hasty defence of his position. Swiftly planting some mines in front of the post, which was surrounded by a barbed-wire barricade, he tactically positioned his ant-tank weapons, including a jeep-mounted recoilless gun, preparing for defence. The Pakistani tanks blundered advancing at night, and stalled on loose sand, falling prey to the anti-tank fire from the post, 12 of their lot getting knocked out. Their infantry could not make headway either, misapprehending a minefield alongside the barbed-wire obstacle. The battle ended with the Pakistani formation withdrawing in disarray by daybreak. By then the Indian Air Force fighters, unable to operate at night for lack of night vision equipment, but warned and updated accurately of enemy disposition and waiting, flew in to do what they later described as a ‘turkey shoot’ of the Pakistani tanks, knocking out almost two dozen of those. The Pakistanis ended up losing 36 tanks and some 500 other vehicles, besides having two hundred of their men killed, while the Indian losses were merely two soldiers killed and an anti-tank gun destroyed. The Pakistan Army later sacked its formation commander.
While that was what the actual battle was like, the producers of the movie chose to depict a highly exaggerated version of intense fighting, involving heavy casualties on Indian side. While they were at liberty to use their poetic freedom to weave a story for dramatic effect, what was absurd was the total lack of professionalism of the scenes they created. Whoever heard of two opposing commanders, let alone one riding a tank, getting into a shouting match with each other? There were ridiculous scenes of infantrymen charging at tanks from front and destroying those by ramming anti-tank mines on their hulls! Elementary learning would have told the script writers that anti-tank mines are buried on tank approaches and are triggered to explode only by the weight of a tank. Also, a mine exploding under a tank when it runs over it can only disable it by shedding its tracks and not destroy it. The only sure means of an infantryman to destroy a tank is to shoot it with an antitank gun or rocket launcher, which calls for cool courage and expertise, because it requires him to wait concealed until the tank is in his range, which could be as close as 600 metres or less. Of course, infantry can disable or destroy tanks that recklessly enter a built-up area by multiple means like grenades or Molotov Cocktails, but always approaching from their sides or rear, as realistically depicted in the Spielberg classic, “Saving Private Ryan”. Some such innovation could have been justified in the movie, since the Pakistanis put their tanks in a vulnerable state bogged down close to the Indian position at night, but certainly not the senseless bravado exhibited in it. There was so much of chest thumping and theatrics in the movie that only civilians with little or no knowledge about modern warfare could have lapped it up.
Despite being a production in such poor taste, the movie turned out to be a tremendous success at the box office and won various national awards showed the overall ignorance in the country about the genre of war movies. Apologists for Bollywood can always argue that the movie gave what the larger audience loved. When I hear that argument, I am reminded of an interview I read about when I was a youngster, wherein the movie Moghul, Raj Kapoor, was asked why he preferred to turn out only song-and-dance dramas and not movies with deeper themes. His answer that as a movie producer, he sold dreams people wanted. Reading it, I wondered why he couldn’t sell better dreams? How would people know any better, unless there are better movies around? Don’t the movie makers have a social responsibility to improve the tastes of their audience? To draw a parallel, once upon a time, Indians knew only about Ambassador and Premier Padmini cars; but the new generation cars of international brands, heralded by Maruthi 800, have changed the whole public perception. So, dear movie makers, don’t hide behind the rhetoric that you are turning out what people want. You are focussed only on making money and do not want to try and be innovative, which is what art should be about. Or am I wrong in suggesting that cinema is an art form?
Indeed, a handful of movies, over the years, have made a genuine effort to bring in some realism in depicting military themes and war, somehow balancing the melodramatic ingredient, without which no Indian movie can be commercially viable. “Prahaar”, a 1991 movie made a realistic presentation of commando training; but then it was more of a socio-political drama than a war movie. Another movie “Lakhya”, made early in this millennium, although telling the fictional story of a wayward youth finding his worth as a soldier under fire, does justice in presenting scenes on the Kargil conflict. Similarly, the true-life story of Captain Vikram Batra, who made the supreme sacrifice at Kargil, recently adapted on celluloid as “Shershaah”, is a commendable attempt in telling the story with minimum melodrama. The movie “Uri, the Surgical Strike” is an instance where the combat scenes are portrayed in an absolutely realistic manner. Unfortunately, the movie gave the impression of being politically motivated, with the National Security Advisor being given too much prominence and some unwanted jingoism. While it is understandable that scenes showing NSA or the Prime Minister may be unavoidable, when the plot concerns national security, why show the NSA dealing directly with a young officer of major’s rank? And soldiers don’t shout before or after an operation like sloganeering political demonstrators. Some of the other run-of-the-mill Indian ‘war movies’ like “LOC: Kargil” and “Paltan” are so full of jingoism and chest thumping that those are not worth discussion here.
The recent movie on the iconic battle of Saragarhi, titled “Kesari”, is another instance of battle scenes being presented realistically, which indicates that our movie makers can get it right if they want. Lamentably, once again, the plot was spoiled by unwarranted jingoism. It’s a known fact of history that the officers of the British Indian Army earned the loyalty of their sepoys by treating them fairly, giving due respect to their cultural and religious sentiments. It’s altogether a different matter that the officer corps of the English East India Company’s Presidency Armies were mostly constituted of racist mercenaries, who illtreated the sepoys (deservedly getting it on their necks during the 1857 uprising). The British Indian Army, which Kitchener created in 1895 by amalgamating the three Presidency Armies, was officered by professional soldiers out of Sandhurst, and the modern Indian Army continue to follow the robust traditions of officer-to-troops relationship nurtured by them. The Indian troops remaining loyal during the two world wars were unparalleled achievements by the British officers, which can form an ideal case study in HR Management for modern experts in the area. Little do the Indians at large know that General James Wilcocks, commander of the Indian Expeditionary Force, which entered the First World War in France in 1914, lost his command for refusing to commit his troops in operations he considered too risky that would involve unacceptable casualties. No wonder his men loved him. The British officers very well knew that the loyalty of the Indian troops extended only to their regiments and officers and not to the British Crown, and tread their path carefully.
The Battle of Saragarhi fought barely two years later after the British Indian Army was created, was the first major engagement any unit of it was involved in, and proved the mother of all battles, setting the benchmark for generations of Indian soldiers to reap glory under fire. Manufacturing a scene wherein a British officer insults Havildar Ishar Singh, passing disparaging remarks about India and Indians, which supposedly motivates the NCO to prove the officer wrong that leads him to the historic feat, is an unwarranted misrepresentation of facts. An Indian soldier fights as a matter of honour. And at Saragarhi, it was an exclusively Sikh unit in action. Sikh soldiers, as they have proved time and time again under fire, does not need any other motivation to fight than that they are Sikhs. They are so much honour bound to the martial traditions of their community, fighting to their last round and last drop of blood is a matter of faith for them. Therefore, any suggestion that they were provoked to fight by taunts is out of place and displays absolute ignorance of soldierly ethos.
In yet another meaningless deviation from facts, the youngest of the 21 brave-hearts of Saragarhi, Signaller Gurmukh Singh, is depicted as being burned out of his tower, whereas his end was far more heroic and poignant. When the Pashtuns finally managed to storm the fort and overwhelm the garrison or what was left of it at 1530 hours, Gurmukh sent his last transmission to Fort Lockhart, “Main Gate breached – Down to one – Request Permission to dismount and join the fight.” Permission duly granted, the youngster dismantled his heliograph device, picked up his rifle and went down to the fort and the fight, the last to join. And he went at it with incredible tenacity. Troops at Fort Lockhart saw him disappear into the mass of tribesmen but could hear his repeated battle cries, as he stood there alone bayoneting all around, in a grand finale to the magnificent feat of arms. Legend has it that he took down 20 tribesmen on his own before they could slay him. The end of Gurmukh Singh was the most poignant part of the story. The script writer does not seem to have grasped the essence of collective bravery that made the battle so iconic and tread the hero-centric path Bollywood revels in, focussing on Ishar Singh more than necessary. Indeed, Ishar Singh was a great leader, but a script had to be all-inclusive. In fact, the death of Ishar Sngh is also shown wrong. He wasn’t one to be cornered within the fort. Instead, badly wounded though, he had charged at the Pashtuns gushing in through the lone breach, along with only two of his comrades still on their feet and met his gallant end. “Kesari” is one instance where a movie ended up portraying a fight less heroic than what it actually was.
Jingoism and hyper nationalism do not figure in the making of a soldier. The very fact that he has chosen a career that demands him to risk his life and limbs in the cause of his country stands testimony to his patriotism and he prides himself in being counted upon as a sentinel of the country’s freedom. However, he does not wear all that on his sleeve, while doing his duty. If our film makers make a genuine effort to comprehend the unique sentiments that make a soldier fight, and begin to portray them as the human beings they are and not as super heroes for box-office effect, I’m sure they can produce world class war movies, because we have neither a shortage of wars that they can write their scripts on, nor are we lacking in talent and wherewithal in various facets of movie making.
Let me summarise the unique soldierly sentiment that prompts monumental acts of heroism with two examples, one fictional from a movie and another a real-life one. In a memorable scene in the 2014 Hollywood war movie “Fury”, Brad Pitt in his lead role as a sergeant in the US tank corps, finds himself in a dilemmatic situation with a single immobilised tank with its armaments still intact, facing an overwhelming enemy horde advancing on him. His crew wants to abandon the tank and ‘go home’, whereas he feels honour bound to carry on the fight as long as he can. ‘This is my home’, he tells the crew. ‘And this where I will stay’, motivating them to join him. But for one youngster who survives providentially, the entire crew perishes in their heroic last stand. No one sang ‘America the Great’ there. At home, in a real-life instance during the 1971 War, we had Second Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal, facing an enemy tank column, with his single immobilized tank, being ordered by his commanding officer to abandon his tank, and the young officer’s iconic last transmission in response ‘My gun is still firing Sir’, before being killed in action. Both these utterances symbolize the unique mindset of a soldier, which makes it sacrilegious for him to abandon his post while there is still a fighting chance, however thin it may be, be it an infantryman holding an outpost, a tank man or a gunner in action, the captain of a warship in battle or a fighter pilot on a mission. Added to this is the all-important factor of collective bravery, the proverbial attitude of ‘all for one, and one for all’ which creates the esprit de corps. For a war movie to be truly successful, it must reflect these essential elements that motivate a soldier to fight regardless of the risks. Patriotism is there, but that is not what comes to the fore when the fight is on and the chips are down.