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Victory Day special: Why Indian cinema hasn't produced more war films

While Christopher Nolan prepares for the release of his next film on one of World War II's greatest retreats, Dunkirk, Indian cinema continues to flounder in a love hate relationship with the war film. On the 45th anniversary of India's Victory Day, we take a look at some of the reasons for the lack of Indian cinema's interest in the war epic. 

Shriram Iyengar

The war film is a complicated genre. Often, it is left up to directors with a massive sense of scale and ambition to bring these projects to reality. David Lean, Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, and Francis Coppola are names that flow off the tongue when you speak of great war films. As India enters its 7th decade as a republic, the war film remains a difficult and estranged child in Indian cinema. 

Having fought three major wars in 1962, 1971, and 1999, India has had more current action than several nations. Yet, Hindi cinema has not managed to deliver a war film that looks at human emotions in the backdrop of martial discord since Border (1997). It is telling that JP Dutta has tried to replicate the success of his war film again with LOC: Kargil, but failed to reach the same heights. 

It is not that Hindi cinema is averse to telling stories of soldiers and war. One of the earliest films to shed light on the life of a soldier was Manoj Kumar's Upkar (1967). Made at the behest of the then Prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, Upkar was the saga of a farmer who turns soldier to protect his land. It touched upon two key emotional narratives for the audience - the poverty stricken farmer and the kindly soldier. Both these characters were honourable heroes who found themselves unwanted in the changing scenario of a modern India.  

In many ways, Upkar set a tone for the idealistic depiction of the soldier in Indian cinema. Chetan Anand's Haqeeqat (1964), which released before Upkar, and is considered the finest war film made in India, also had a similar template which humanised the efforts of the soldier. The depiction of these warriors as men with families, children, struggling with poverty and unemployment, showed up in several films over the years. In many ways, it was this dichotomy that provides the flaws of Indian war films. Films like Govind Nihalani's Vijeta (1986) and Farhan Akhtar's Lakshya (2003) focussed on the military as an inspirational project that gives confused young men direction. Nana Patekar's forgotten directorial venture, Prahaar(1990) is another example. Based on his own experiences in the army, Patekar offered an insight into the discipline, camaraderie, and sense of belonging among cadres in the army. It was telling that the story brought forth the disillusionment of a disciplined army officer about the civil society he fights for. Though these films placed the personal growth of these characters in context of the battlefield, the mainstay of the film was still the individual. 

It is in this aspect that JP Dutta's Border (1997) stands out. Since Haqeeqat, it remains the only Hindi film to have successfully centred in on a war as the occassion for a collaborative human effort. In an interview with Forbes India, Dutta said, "When a soldier fights, he is not fighting for anyone specific. And it’s a part of our history. So why are we shying away from depicting our own history? The Americans use the instrument of cinema so well to build an image. They have awareness of their armed forces." The film portrayed soldiers as common, ordinary men who rise to meet extraordinary targets on the battlefield. Despite its high blown action sequences, it was the human element which was the most compelling aspect of Dutta's film. 

It is incidental that Dutta's war epic arrived a couple of years before the first live telecast battle in Indian history, the Kargil War in 1999. The immediate after effect of the war was the rise in utilising the war as a commercial plot in cinema. Films like Pukar (2000) and Ma Tujhe Salaam (2002) built on the anti-Pakistan sentiment. These films hyped the jingoism and were far removed from the humanistic elements that defined films like Upkar and Haqeeqat. Incidentally, Upkar had Pran as a disabled soldier who is cynical of overtly patriotic ideas. 

This sense of criticism about the army has been a difficult thing to address for filmmakers. Writer director Samar Khan, whose Shaurya (2008) raised some pertinent questions about the army, says, "There is a certain fear that the army is something that you cannot be critical about. If you want to make a film, you have to make a film which is only praising the army. If you take Hollywood, their films about the armed forces might not be negative, but they are in the grey area." Vishal Bhardwaj's Haider (2014) faced a lot of flak for mentioning the AFSPA, and focussing on this very grey area in the film. 

The last decade has seen films like Lakshya (2004), Jab Tak Hai Jaan (2012) and Holiday (2014). Apart from Lakshya, the other films were not based on the army, as much as in the army. The esoteric nature of the Indian army and circumventing the red tape is another reason for the absence of a landmark film on the functioning of the Indian army. Khan points out, "That (bureaucracy) is a major issue. Currently, I am working on a series with Balaji films based on the war. There are all these issues while making the film, for which you need permissions. This becomes difficult unless you have a resourceful director. Not all filmmakers can afford to make a film on such a subject. Another reason they choose the subject is because they feel that it takes too much of time."

Logistically, a war film is a pain to plan and prepare for. The research, ammunition, location hunting, makes it a very difficult project. Khan suggests that the success of Hollywood's war films lies in their ability to cooperate with the US army on research, data, and arms and ammunition. Films like Top Gun (1986) had access to aircraft carriers and the freedom to shoot fighter planes in action. That is not to say the Indian army is a no-go zone for filmmakers. Vijeta (1986), Border (1997), LOC: Kargil (2003) were all shot in collaboration with the Indian Army and Airforce. JP Dutta's reputation as one of India's finest filmmakers on the war movie rests on his stringent pursuit of authenticity. For LOC: Kargil, the filmmaker took his crew of stars to shoot in the tough terrains of Ladakh, pushing them through an army regimen. He even shot with live arms and ammunition, adding to the veracity of the film. Strangely, the film failed at the box office since it couldn't portray the most important factor: the human one. A reviewer of the film noted that 'themes cannot get much nobler than the Kargil martyrs. But subject matter alone does not cut it; for a movie to be great or even good it has to work as a 'movie', which, regrettably, JP Dutta's LOC: Kargil does not.' 

2017 is set to see a return to war films with The Ghazi Attack. Based on one of India's most successful naval action on the Pakistani submarine, PNS Ghazi, the film has already been picked up by Dharma Productions for distribution. It is a positive sign that Indian cinema is beginning to warm up to the idea of a full fledged war film. Just how much is another matter entirely.