Why Bollywood doesn't salute Indian Army anymore

Had our cinema treated the soldier better, perhaps public perception would have been slightly different.

 |  11-minute read |   14-08-2015
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For a nation that won two major wars between 1971 and 1999, which also included the liberation of a nation, Bangladesh, in addition to participating in military operations in Sri Lanka, Maldives and providing one of the largest UN peace contingents across the world, the response of popular culture, especially Hindi cinema, to the armed forces has been abysmal. It's not like Hindi cinema doesn't have military or war based films every now and then, but it has largely failed to look at the soldier beyond the perfunctory. Even with India's armed forces having been more active during peace than war, popular Hindi cinema doesn't think beyond war films when it thinks of the soldier. It's inability to celebrate the soldier other than being a rabble-rousing patriot has somewhere ensured that men and women in uniform can't be seen as regular characters. This is also one of the major reasons why there has been a decline in the number of films being made with military themes. 

kargil-loc_081415122412.jpg                                                                             LOC:Kargil (2003) 

In spite of films such as Haqeeqat (1964) and Upkar (1967) that explored varying sentiments of the Indian soldier from valour to despair to exhilaration during two different wars (1963 Sino-India and 1965 Indo-Pak respectively) the genre never really came into itself. With Upkar, Manoj Kumar not only answered the then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri's clarion call of "Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan (Hail the Soldier, Hail the Farmer)" but also humanised the soldier. Despite that the onscreen soldier never really transcended certain boundaries that refuse to see him/her as a rounded entity. Films such as Chetan Anand's Hindustan Ki Kasam (1973) that highlighted the IAF's important role in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation war portrayed a bit of the personal lives of Air Force officers but the mainstay of the film was still the war. Surprisingly even the years immediate to the success of the 1971 war didn't influence more films feting the soldier. It was almost a decade later that a standout film about the armed forces came along in Shashi Kapoor's Vijeta (1982). An unlikely star son debut, the film written by Dilip Chitre and Pandit Satyadev Dubey had an unusually layered narrative where Angad (Kunal Kapoor), a regular "unsure-of-his-future" middle class Indian youth, who also happens to be troubled by the marital discord between his parents (Rekha and Shashi Kapoor), joins the Air Force. Raised as a Sikh in the tradition of Punjabi Hindu families raising the elder son as Sikhs, Angad falls in love with his Christian flying instructor's (Amrish Puri) daughter (Supriya Pathak) and following an outbreak of war comes of age in the face of insurmountable odds. Directed by Govind Nahilani Vijeta remains one of the best films to explore the complexities of becoming a soldier and, in a sense, it wouldn't be incorrect to call it Top Gun before Top Gun (1986).

sarfarosh_081415122541.jpg                                                                            Sarfarosh (1999)

Post Border (1997), the film industry viewed armed forces in a different light. Perhaps it had more to do with faces such as Sunny Deol, Akshaye Kumar, Sunil Shetty and Jackie Shroff attached to the soldier and the success of the film made the prospect of films based on the soldier a viable proposition. The dash of realism that JP Dutta's Border used in depicting the battle of Longewala probably inspired films such as Sarfarosh (1999) that talked about Pakistan-aided infiltration. Sarfarosh, interestingly enough, was released just about a month before the outbreak of the Kargil war. The spate of military-based films that followed the Kargil war, for instance, Pukar (2000) and Maa Tujhe Salaam (2002), traded the studied nuance of Sarfarosh and once again went back to defining a soldier in terms of war. In fact, a dialogue referring to Kargil was inserted into Pukar a few days after it was released to possibly ride the wave.

The manner in which the Kargil war was telecast into our living rooms one would have thought that the heartfelt stories of gallantry on part of young heroes such as Captain Vikram Batra, PVC (Posthumous), Captain Anuj Nayyar MVC (Posthumous), Lt Manoj Pandey, PVC (Posthumous) and Grenadier Yogendra Singh Yadav, PVC would finally change the way Bollywood treated soldiers. The stories of the men who fought India's first televised war were perfect to introduce a new microcosm for the hero in Hindi cinema. Many of the valiant individuals hailed from regular backgrounds and across the length and breadth of the nation. And, what could have been better than the story being told by JP Dutta, the very man who changed the way Bollywood looked at the armed forces. Unfortunately, it was Dutta's LOC: Kargil (2003) that ended up practically killing any chance of treating the soldier as the hero next door.

While LOC: Kargil's narrative covers the stories of the individuals such as the young man of 24, Captain Vikram Batra, who made the supreme sacrifice for his nation and even in the face of death he mock the enemy that as Madhuri Dixit was busy he decided to come over. The Param Veer Chakra awardee, Captain Batra, had promised his family to return from the war for sure, but he wasn't certain if he would come hoisting the tricolor or wrapped in it. He captured a strategic point and even though gravely injured while fighting three enemy soldiers in hand-to-hand combat, he decided to lead the next mission nudging his Subedar sahab at the last moment to come in front because the man had a wife and children back home. Like in life, Captain Batra's death, too, inspired his men and they charged with rage towards the enemy. When asked why did he want to join the Army, Lt Manoj Pandey replied "I want to win the Param Veer Chakra" and he kept his word. Given the task to clear enemy positions in the night so that daylight wouldn't make his battalion vulnerable the next morning, Lt Pandey moved his men in two groups under intense firing. He led the charge from one side and killed two enemy soldiers on the first bunker position that he cleared, moved to the second where he killed two more before he was fired upon his shoulders and legs while he attacked the third bunker yet he carried on. He threw a grenade and was fatally shot on his forehead but even in his final words "Na chhodnu (Don't spare' in Nepalese as he was in Gorkha Rifles)", Lt Pandey never gave up. Delhi boy Captain Anuj Nayyar led the charge on Pimple Complex once he saw his company commander get injured. He stormed the enemy bunkers and braved enemy fire to silence a machine gun that had almost halted Indian troops. Captain Nayyar had written many letters to his family and in one of them the 23-year old promised that till the last enemy was there he'd keep breathing and not die without fulfilling his duties for the country. Among the heroes, the story of Grenadier Yogendra Singh Yadav is a moving heroic tale beyond the description of words and perhaps an entire film unto itself. He volunteered to scale a 16,500-foot high cliff that housed an enemy bunker in the face of bullets and climbed the last 60 feet even after being hit by three bullets. Once he reached the top he threw the rope for the rest of the men, crawled to the bunker and hurled a grenade that made it possible for the rest of the platoon to climb up. Later Grenadier Yadav charged to the second bunker and in a hand-to-hand combat killed four Pakistani soldiers and made it possible for Tiger Hill to be captured by India. What's more, believed to be dead for no one could possibly sustain such injuries, Grenadier Yadav was conferred the Param Vir Chakra, the highest Indian military honour, posthumously but was later, in fact, found to be alive as it was the death of his namesake that cause the confusion.

But by the time Dutta's four-hours and 15-minute long film ended much of the humane aspect of these young men got lost in the crowd. The mega-budgeted spectacle had big stars portraying the men - Ajay Devgan (Lt Manoj Pandey), Abhishek Bachchan (Captain Vikram Batra), Saif Ali Khan (Captain Anuj Nayyar) - but the bevy of names that accompanied and the collective narratives took away the emotion even though Dutta showed bits of their backstories. The trouble with Bollywood while looking at the soldier is that it tends to view at them only in the context of war but when a man or woman joins the armed forces they don't cease to be the person they were before donning the uniform. They have full-blown lives with homes, families, friends, and neighbors and there is an entire world that exists, which a film like LOC: Kargil tried to pack into a few songs and set pieces. Captain Batra or Captain Anuj Nayyar or Lt Manoj Pandey were of the same age as Saheed Bhagat Singh and perhaps had the same love for their motherland but look at the difference with which the two stories are approached.

The failure of LOC: Kargil distanced mainstream Hindi cinema from the armed forces and since then most films on the subject have been war films and such. The continual portrayal of the soldier as someone extraordinary has in turn distanced the average Indian citizen from seeing men and women in the armed forces as ordinary people with a beating heart. Most contemporary non-fiction literature that explores them usually sees them as unnecessary accessories to life in places such as J&K or the Northeast. Juxtapose this with the politicians beginning with Pt Jawaharlal Nehru who merrily downgraded the status of the armed forces including the service chiefs where, as early as 1951 they became junior to the chief ministers. Today, the three chiefs are placed at the 12th slot, which is lower than a nameless cabinet secretary. What explains the armed forces' selfless dedication to the nation when post-1971 the then PM Indira Gandhi didn't think twice before releasing over 90,000 Pakistani prisoners of war along with returning more than 13,000sqkm of land that Indian troops had seized as soon as the signing of the Simla Agreement, which many believed to be far too lenient to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. There are stories in the newspapers about the serving Chief of Army Staff planning a "coup" and the onus is on the armed forces to "clear" the air instead of the journalists presenting evidence.

When it comes to armed forces, it's their depiction in popular culture of the nation that gives the populace a chance to understand them. But in India most of it isn't bothered about chronicling the nameless soldier's contribution and, in certain cases even questioning some of their rights such as the One Rank One Pension (OROP). Very simply, OROP implies equal amount of pension for having served in the same rank and also having rendered the same length of service. This used to be the basis for determining pensions and benefits till 1973 when the then Congress government headed by Indira Gandhi terminated it following the third pay commission. The armed forces have been protesting ever since against the discrepancy but following the sixth pay commission it became glaring - a sepoy retired prior to 1996 got 82 per cent lower pension than a counterpart who retired post-2006 and a Major got 53 per cent lower pension than one who retired post 2006.

In the heart of the national capital, soldiers who gave the best years of their lives for the nation are agitating for the implementation of OROP that has been granted to them by a ruling of the Supreme Court. Instead of seeing it as an ode to the unknown soldier, who has ensured our safety ever since the birth of the modern republic of India, we couldn't be bothered less. It's not only war that armed forces fight for our safety, but also rescue missions they undertake during natural disasters or any national emergency. But when was the last time you saw a film where an army man or woman was doing something as normal as enjoying a cappuccino? While it would be stupid to put the blame squarely on Bollywood, but had our cinema treated the soldier better perhaps the common perception would have been slightly different. At least, no one would have had a problem with the soldier getting a little respect without pleading for it.


Gautam Chintamani Gautam Chintamani @gchintamani

Cinephile, observer of society and technology and author of the of Dark Star: The Loneliness of Being Rajesh Khanna.

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