Bollywood has now latched on to surgical strikes and military campaigns as a way to garner popularity and box office successes, having practically exhausted the staple of love stories, song and dance sequences, sex and sleaze. In its long journey, the film industry has neither developed the will nor the capacity to make credible war movies. Scores of eminently forgettable productions have trivialized the image of ex-servicemen as loud characters who also double-up as the butt of jokes. He is usually a hot-headed, trigger happy retired colonel or brigadier, with an outsized moustache and several oddities. The veteran’s reel life stereotyping as a cigar-puffing and whisky imbibing character is far removed from his real-life persona, who actually conducts himself with dignity and decorum in private and public life.
The notable exceptions are Haqeeqat, Prahaar and Lakshya, which not only remain imprinted on the public psyche for their realism and portrayal of the fauji but also stand as benchmarks for others to follow. But the first is not without some notable flaws which detract from the gravity of the subject. For instance, the protagonist’s utterly pointless romancing of a hill woman and her battling the Chinese hordes by his side, until the end. What redeems the movie, however, are some of the most iconic scenes such as the one in which Balraj Sahani, as a major and company commander, shares cigarettes with his NCOs, before briefing them by the light of a kerosene lantern in a tent, amid the foreboding gloom and darkness. Or of the steely determination of exhausted and hungry jawans, who ford icy streams with the help of a rope or scale sky-high rock faces, even on the verge of physical collapse.
Nothing could have conveyed the sub-human conditions under which the Indian Army fought the Chinese in freezing temperatures more evocatively than these stark images in black and white, which linger long in memory. On the other hand, Prahaar demonstrates how and why soldiers develop such extremes of endurance, even if it be through a mode of punishment. For instance, the instructor imposes a stiff penalty on a trainee for making catcalls in a girl’s presence. The ‘guilty’ subaltern, midway into a punishing exercise, is made to heft a fellow officer on his back, along with the weight of their combined kits and rifles. Exhausted and gasping for breath, he cries for water. The roles are instantly reversed when the instructor catches the piggybacking officer red-handed in the act of emptying the contents of the water bottle into his carrier’s mouth. The entire sequence is so realistically done that the moviegoer ends up believing that the slightest of transgressions can invite the severest of penalties, which is what the Army does to keep everyone fighting fit.
Thankfully ‘Lakshya,’ which has been shot on a much bigger scale and focuses on Kargil, brings a verisimilitude seldom showcased in India, imparted by a Hollywood A-Team which undertook the cinematography. Not only does the movie do ample justice to the training at the Indian Military Academy, the drills, weapons handling, the classrooms and the passing out parade, down to the close cropped hairs and correct uniforms, it is also about how well the officers and men bond together on and off the battlefield. The detailed combat sequences, beginning with an artillery barrage that light up the night sky, come alive with an immediacy rarely experienced on the big screen. What is more, ‘Lakshya’ even features a regimental medical officer for the very first time, recognising his worth as a healer and the last resort of the dying and wounded men.
Even though the public has watched enough of hardships that soldiers underwent in Kargil and continue to do so in Siachen, thanks to a surfeit of TV documentaries, they have no idea about how faujis have to struggle every inch of the way up sheer cliff faces, using all the skills and strength at their command and vanquishing the harsh side of nature. Never before has this been showcased more graphically on the big screen than the sequence in ‘Lakshya’ in which men from 13 Punjab climb a dizzying, thousand foot high rock face, to dislodge Pakistani intruders sitting at the top and cutting off our supply lines with impunity. Midway, the protagonist manages to get atop a ledge, using his hands and feet with amazing dexterity. Once the team reaches this space, the leader ascends higher and fixes the rope, from which he swings like a pendulum, dangerously, to fasten himself to an inaccessible, perpendicular crevice further away. He finally makes it on the third attempt. The edge-of-the-seat sequence is one of ‘Lakshya’s highlights. Yet none of the critics has taken any notice of the movie’s genuine efforts to break out of Bollywood stereotypes, instead lavishing their praise on the likes of overly dramatised ‘Border’ and the ‘LoC,’ completely out of sync with war genre.
It is easy enough for actors to pose as Para Commandos and strut about in a show of flamboyance, complete with an array of ribbons and medallions pinned on their combat fatigues, especially in movies like Pukaar, Zameen, Madras Cafe, Baghi 2 and lately Uri. Should they not be humbled by the fact that only a few out of a hundred qualify for the coveted Purple Beret, which these ‘stars’ take so lightly. Uri, the movie most hyped by the media, showcases the last surgical strike with all the bravado and make believe that Bollywood could muster. There is something radically wrong with the image of the bearded hero as he swaggers through a passageway in combat fatigues, a scene repeatedly flashed on television during promos. His zombie-like posture and greyish shade of uniform unmistakably convey the impression of a security supervisor out on his rounds, not that of an infantry officer, let alone a Para Commando!
The rot started with Major Saab, as a bearded Bachchan, a company commander, goes about heckling cadets at the National Defence Academy (NDA). The movie justifies the display of beard by inserting a line that the practice was not followed in the Army. However, Major Saab glorifies rebellion, insubordination and vandalism, sacrilege in a soldier’s code, projecting an extremely distorted version of life at the Academy. Can “gentlemen cadets” who breach discipline, harangue the instructor, stage frequent escapades or settle scores with the underworld or indulge in love affairs, be fit enough to lead the Indian Army. Yet this is what has been postulated in ‘Major Saab.’ “An officer of the rank of Major was shown living in a huge house which in fact is the official residence of the Commandant of the NDA,” (a serving Lt General), writes strategic expert and blogger Maj Gen Mrinal Suman. “The whole movie was a very poor projection of the military ethos, culture and functioning and showed it as a law-flouting organisation,” he concludes.
Significantly, the protagonist in Uri has admitted being inspired by movies like Border, Prahaar and Saving Private Ryan. One fails to fathom how a pot-bellied extra in Border, sporting an ill-fitting jungle hat and even a tighter uniform and miscast as the battalion’s commanding officer, could serve as an inspiration! Unfortunately, the movie’s male lead, hurling abuses at the enemy’s armoured columns, behaves more like a local tough rather than a responsible military commander. On the other hand, Prahaar turns the spotlight even more intensely on the soldier’s psyche and his dilemmas, actuated by the harsh real world, which neither seem as uncomplicated nor as ordered as his past life in uniform. The soldiers, their uniforms and training look so real in Prahaar that nobody can assert that they are not army men, unlike some cardboard cut-outs that win mainstream media’s instant approval. It is doubtful whether any of this has rubbed off on Uri.
Lastly, Saving Private Ryan, easily the most graphic and realistic portrayal of war in entire cinematic history, represents a paradigm shift in how these movies are conceived, visualised and shot. It has inspired hundreds of movies worldwide, with varying degrees of success, but hardly any in India, with the possible exception of Lakshya. Spielberg had his technical team even shoot at animal carcases to register how a bullet impacted flesh. Tom Hanks and the supporting cast too have performed so convincingly after undergoing only a week of boot camp under a retired Marine officer that it speaks volumes about their commitment and Spielberg’s cinematic genius. On the other hand, producers of Uri claim that their cast went through six or seven months of ‘rigorous training’ in Mumbai, none of which is visible in the movie, except in scenes featuring parades, paying homage to martyrs and crying “How’s the josh. It’s high sir.”
Despite all the fireworks, combat sequences in Uri appear too mechanical and contrived to be convincing! Compare it with the Chinese movie Assembly, which exposes viewers to the horrors of close combat, as bullets and shrapnel rip into human flesh. The movie, matching the best in Hollywood, is dozens of notches more real than the likes of Uri. Chinese film makers have learnt their lessons diligently, but Bollywood lags way behind. The distinction between appearance and reality is also blurred in the final sequence of ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ when a close-up of a stocky figure on a lead Tiger tank appears on the screen, huge sunglasses wrapped around his peaked cap. The image immediately clinches his identity as Field Marshal Rommel who led from the front. The cameo, linking the legendary Desert Fox with the fate of US Rangers, is a prime example of artistic licence plausible enough, even if historically inaccurate.
Can the world’s largest film industry, churning out scores of big-budget movies annually, wash its hands off the real world? This might pass muster in the name of mass entertainment because a formula-driven set-up can blithely dispense with authenticity or verisimilitude. But when film-makers overlook these factors in themes based on war or military operations, they unwittingly step into a minefield of faux passes. For instance, Georgette patches, introduced in 2004, make their appearance on the collars of a brigadier in Haider, set in 1995. Junior artistes, in various stages of obesity, parlayed infantry officers. The movie questioned AFPSA’s role in Kashmir. If the Army bore such ill will towards the state, will someone explain why it mounted unprecedented rescue operations to extract hundreds of thousands from the jaws of death, during the floods there.
Filmmakers might argue that a factual presentation might put off cine-goers, so they have to sweeten movies with layers of make-believe or fantasy. But then how it is possible for movies like Saving Private Ryan,‘The Thin Red Line, A Bridge Too Far, Assembly and TV serials like Band of Brothers, Generation Wars to succeed beyond expectations. Significantly, Europe and China are far ahead of Bollywood in terms of cinematic excellence and production values, besides assimilating the latest in technology. For instance, Generation Wars, a German TV serial based on World War II, won accolades in the US for its thematic brilliance and graphic realism in combat sequences, after being released as a two-part movie! Chinese and Korean filmmakers are also catching up with their Hollywood counterparts.
Sudip Talukdar is an author and strategic affairs columnist. This article first appeared in the Indian Defence Review, Net Edition, 19 June 2019.