Military & Aerospace

Is Bollywood out of sync with Indian soldiery?
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 19 Jun , 2019

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 subhuman 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 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, recognizing 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 dramatized ‘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 Maroon 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 Pvt 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. In ‘Prahaar,’ the soldiers, their uniforms and training look so real 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, visualized 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 the 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 eye protective glasses 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, 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.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

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Sudip Talukdar

is an author and strategic affairs columnist.

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6 thoughts on “Is Bollywood out of sync with Indian soldiery?

  1. Meghna Gulzar who is producing a film on Field Marshal Manekshaw, has issued a photograph widely publicised by the print media, which depicts Vicky Kaushal as Sam Bahadur. On comparing the two photographs, it becomes apparent that the sleeves of Field Marshal’s shirt are neatly cuffed above the elbow, while those of the actor with the wooden face hang about loosely around his elbows. He did not have the sense to wear the beret correctly as a Pakistani officer in the mvoie ‘Raazi.’ This only bears out what this columnist has been obeserving for long. One can never expect Bollywood to pay attention to details, much less verisimilitude and authencity. Bollywood wallahs have seldom details of the military life correctly.

  2. As the last sequence of Saving Private Ryan plays out on the big screen, the rumble of the Tiger tanks, spearheading the German assault group, led by none other than Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, can be heard clearly in the distance. Even as one of the behemoths rolls closer to the positions held by the US Army Rangers, the earth trembles and heaves, moving rocks from the periphery of the hastily dug up trenches into its interiors. Here the marvel of the movie’s sound engineering stands revealed in all its glory, especially to those with discerning ears. It demonstrates how the tank’s seemingly single note actually is actually a complex of sighing, rumbling and clanking sounds. All these three strands are separated and combined into a composite whole, which is a testimony to Steven Spielberg’s cinematic genius. Only a filmmaker of his stature and calibre could have come up with such an exact detailing in both the scenes.

    The backdrop against which all these events take place is what appears to be the ruins of a gigantic cathedral, with a high tower. The sprawling bombed-out structure and the brooding atmosphere that envelopes it just overwhelms the viewer with a sense of overpowering desolation. Add to it the plaintive notes emerging from a 1940s style record player, sung by a songstress in French, which conveys a sense of the impending tragedy—the death of the protagonist, Capt John Miller, who becomes instrumental in saving the last surviving of Ryan brothers. The movie is lifted by the understated yet hauntingly beautiful background score.

  3. Finally, some one raised the concern in a perfect way. Hope those idiots of bollywood, who can make 1000s of great military blockbusters, could learn something. But I doubt. their intention is ride the popularity wave and make money.

  4. Governments both at the Centre and states and elements within the MoD never seem to support or encourage film makers who can deliver genuine war movies. For that matter, even Bollywood is too incestuous and cliquish to consider talent and remains mired in substandard stuff, featuring a Khan or an Abdullah. Have film makers come up with one credible film on 1965 war or on Kargil. JP Dutta one of the more allegedly ‘respectable’ film makers, went to the town, shouting from the rooftops how he glorified the Indian Army in up with an eminently forgettable movie like ‘Paltan,’ based on Nathu La.

  5. The author has rightly analysed the apathy of film making on the Armed Forces, decade after the decade Bollywood believes in the sensationalism, often copy paste and apply without any serious discourse rather hastily and willingly on the audience. The piecemeal approach without much research. Contrasts this look at the making of ‘Saving Private Ryan’ Speilberg chose to put his characters Tom Hanks and other co-actors in real life war exercises before making this epic war movie.
    Bollywood has to give serious thinking while making films on the subject of Armed forces.- Dicky

  6. Reviews of movies based on warfare or military campaigns by the mainstream media has degenerated into political commentary. These write-ups are heavily slanted in favour of various agendas, including corporate ones, driven by rampant profits and brazen glorification of sex, sleaze and adultery. Bollywood celebrities are often described as “soft targets,” when in fact they are the most pampered lot, whose arrogance is equally matched by their money power and pro Pakistan sentiments. They have instant access to the most powerful politicians. Even those in the military brass are overawed by these film makers and starlets, treating them like royalty. No wonder films like Major Saab and similar rubbish pass muster. Most of the media space is taken up by who wore what and where, what they had for dinner or how they enjoyed an outing with a dog or with any of their multitude of boyfriends. This is nothing but the sheer trivialization of the readers.

    Mainstream TV channels mint a lot of money by doing programs on the Indian Army in Siachen and elsewhere, by inviting actors and actresses with a low IQ. even when their credentials are highly questionable. Some of the actresses act like foolish school girls and have nothing intelligible to utter. A popular TV channel avoids glorifying the unsung heroes of the Indian Army because it is heavily biased against a specific group of officers. An eminently forgettable film like ‘Tubelight,’ featuring the Sino-Indian war, again featured a protagonist who grew a beard of a particular cut and shape, proclaiming his religious identity. How long will we tolerate this nonsense?

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