An average Indian soldier is everything that every Hindi film hero is supposed to be but only real. There is much more to an Army man than the unapologetic pop patriotic son of soil kind of depiction that Bollywood glees itself on. For a nation's army that won two major wars between 1971 and 1999 besides taking part in military operations in Sri Lanka, Maldives and providing one of the largest UN Peace Contingents across the world, its cinema has never really been interested in it. India's military forces have been more active during peace than at war and yet Hindi cinema doesn't think beyond war films when it thinks of the soldier.
In spite of its rather detached relationship with the military every decade would invariably end up seeing one film that somewhere explores the person within the uniform. Chetan Anand's Haqeeqat (1964) is one of the best on-screen depiction of the Indian soldier and manages to keep the viewer riveted even after decades. Set against the 1962 Sino-India War Haqeeqat is the story of a small platoon of Indian soldiers who hold on to an outpost till their last breadth. A courageous Captain, Bahadur Singh (Dharmendra) and his Ladakhi girlfriend decide to engage the enemy till his platoon retreats to safety. Chetan Anand's decision to shoot on the North West Frontier Province gives Haqeeqat the kind of authenticity often missing from such films and the portrayal of the soldiers (Balraj Sahni, Vijay Anand and Dharmendra) makes it heart wrenching. The film scene where an Indian soldier's bayonet tears through Mao's Little Red Book is one the best scenes ever to show the clash of ideologies.
The 1970s witnessed independent India's greatest moment with Pakistan's unconditional surrender in the 1971 war. While Border (1997) remains the most popular film on the 1971 War it largely concentrated on the Army's role in the war with Pakistan. It's in that context that Hindustan Ki Kasam (1973) stands apart form all other military films as it narrates Indian Air Force's contribution in the triumph. The film starts with a Pakistani Air Force's air raid on an Indian air base and follows the Indian Air Force's (IAF) mission to destroy the enemy's radar that blocks the radios of Indian pilots during combat. In spite of its heroism and a very 1970s campy feel, Hindustan Ki Kasam is often overshadowed by its director, Chetan Anand's earlier classic Haqeeqat. Hindustan Ki Kasam shines thanks to some really breathtaking visuals of dogfights and bombings featuring airplanes like Sukhoi-7s, Mig-21s, Sabres, and Gnats.
The advent of Parallel Cinema and the palpable new sensibility regarding on-screen reality, the 1980s could have ideally been the best decade for films on the army. While star fathers picked up safe projects like Love Story (1981), Rocky (1981) and Betaab (1983) to launch their sons, Shashi Kapoor went against the grain and produced a different coming of age story. In Vijeta (1982) Angad (Kunal Kapoor) is a regular Indian confused about his future but unlike most he ends up joining the Air Force. Written by Dilip Chitre and Satyadev Dubey Vijeta's plot is very different, almost complex, when compared to other mainstream films - Anagad's parents (Rekha and Shashi Kapoor) were Hindu but he is raised as a Sikh and falls in love with his Christian flying instructor's (Amrish Puri) daughter (Surpiya Pathak). Like Hindustan Ki Kasam, Vijeta, too, highlights the Air Force's mission during 1971 War and has some excellent aerial photography performed by IAF No. 4 Squadron known as the Oorials.
By the 1990s the dark games played by bureaucrats and intelligence agencies provided more fodder than the patriotism of men in uniform. Bollywood doesn't like to ruffle feathers and prefers to keep things simple which is one of the reasons that it always stuck to popular perception while depicting history. Somewhere in the 1990s real events inspired films like Sarforsh (1999) to change the popular stance and call it how it really was but the reality that inspired Sarfarosh didn't rub off as much as it could. The reality of its success is what ended up propelling films like Gaddar, Maa Tujhe Salaam, and Kohraam that tried naming names but chose a high-decibel jingoistic approach rather Sarfarosh's studied nuance.
There is something seriously wrong with the manner in which filmmakers approach army. The low number of films notwithstanding it's the inappropriate portrayal that harms more and what makes it worse is the yardstick that Bollywood has for the genre. It just refuses to look beyond J.P. Dutta's Border when it has to consider anything on Army. Border was based on real men and real events but it isn't a patch on Nana Patekar's Prahaar: The Final Attack (1991) when one talks about representing the soldier on screen but as Prahaar was a failure and Border wasn't the trade has its road charted. So when it has to think of a film on amry it follows the standard template - budgets that run into hundreds of crores, stars who bring their own baggage and loads of pop patriotism otherwise known as things as idea killers. Riding on the success of Border Dutta was given nothing less than a carte blanche when he set out to make LOC: Kargil (2003) but the result was a mess that practically strangled the future of army films in Bollywood.
The thing that really hurts is that Bollywood's apathy seems to have rubbed on to the documentary filmmakers and somewhere even the Army as no one's really committed to chronicling the Indian soldier's contribution. Something like the Indian Peace Keeping Force that was actively engaged in Sri Lanka would inspire writers and filmmakers in any other country but the 1200 casualties that Indian Army suffered for someone else's war fails to find any mention in popular Indian art forms. This abject indifference towards the men and women who ensure that the common man on the streets of every Indian city goes about life as if nothing's wrong is responsible for erasing the real images of a war fought just 13 years ago. We all saw the Kargil War live and now we think of it as a reality show so can we really blame Bollywood for thinking of the soldier as nothing less than a war machine?
Gautam Chintamani is an award-winning writer/filmmaker with over a decade of experience across print and electronic mediums.
(The views expressed by the author are personal)
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