Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk forgot the Indian soldiers’ contribution, but does it matter?
Christopher Nolan’s new film, Dunkirk, is one of those rare summer blockbusters that is getting the sort of critical appreciation usually reserved for Oscar contenders. But as with most things, there have been detractors.
Writing for the Slate, which we should make clear right upfront is an outlet famous for its contrarian takes, Jon Broich did some historical fact checking.
While ‘it rates pretty high’ in terms of historical accuracy, Dunkirk is more about the soldiers’ harrowing experience than it is a traditional war epic, with backroom politics and dramatic character motivations.
The film is based on Operation Dynamo, an Allied-led evacuation of more than 400,000 soldiers trapped on the beach at Dunkirk, having been pushed into a corner by the German troops.
The Slate article points out an interesting bit of information: There were, among others, four companies of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps present at the beaches. And aside from “one French soldier who might be African” we don’t really see any of them.
The film, and Nolan’s unique structure of it, has been widely written about. He sets his story across three timeframes and three planes - land, air, and sea. Being a Brit, for whom the story of Dunkirk has taken an almost mythical stature, he chooses to tell this story exclusively from the point of view of the British.
Early on, as soldiers protest to be let onto one of the boats that’ll take them home, a British soldier is seen refusing entry to French troops. “Only Brits past this point,” he yells, repeating himself in French to be clear. Just moments before this scene, we see French troops holding back the enemy, having created a perimeter around the beach. They let in Tommy - who is essentially the audience’s surrogate as he navigates the traumatic situation in a fight to survive - over the barricade they’ve erected. “Bon voyage,” one French soldier yells, over the gunfire and explosions.
It is not until the final moments of the film that the French are mentioned again. Long story short - if anyone should be outraged at their less-than-glowing depiction in the movie, it’s the French.
According to an India Today article, the Indian troops - called Force K-9 - were tasked with transporting animals to the war zone. The 1800-strong group brought with them about 2000 animals - mostly mules - to carry arms and ammunition.
“During the eight days of evacuation, three Indian Army companies were successfully rescued from Dunkirk,” the article says. The animals, however, were left behind.
One of the evacuated officers, Jemadar Maula Dad Khan, even won a medal. His citation on the Dunkirk evacuation’s official website reads: “On 24 May 1940 when approaching Dunkerque, Jemadar Maula Dad Khan showed magnificent courage, coolness and decision. When his troop was shelled from the ground and bombed from the air by the enemy he promptly reorganised his men and animals, got them off the road and under cover under extremely difficult conditions. It was due to this initiative and the confidence he inspired that it was possible to extricate his troop without loss in men or animals.”
Most of the soldiers were Punjabi Muslims and some Pathans, according to a Times of India piece. The one company that was captured by the Germans died as POWs in a camp.
But can a film which makes the conscious choice to exclude everyone but the British from its narrative be held at fault for not mentioning the Indian contribution? Is it a film about the soldiers, or the civilians who aided in their rescue, or is about something larger? These are the questions we must ask ourselves.
Dunkirk is about an ideal - which is why none of the characters are defined beyond basic traits, like their first names and perhaps their rank. We know nothing about them. We care because the film inspires empathy. We don’t want to see human beings die a terrible death. These characters are meant to represent everyone who was involved in the operation. It is a celebration of the bravery shown by common people. And if Indians were involved, the film, however abstract it is in its ways, pays homage to them too.
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