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Navy Day special: The case of the missing navy in Hindi cinema

When it comes to patriotism on the big screen, the army remains the flagbearer while the air force picks up the tune. But the men in white are usually missing.

Shriram Iyengar

In JP Dutta’s magnum opus Border (1997), army major Kuldip Singh Chandpuri gets into an argument with an air force officer about the superiority of the two wings of the armed forces. It ends with both agreeing to a stalemate: 'Hum hi hum hain toh kya hum hain, tum hi tum ho toh kya tum ho [Great though we may be, what are we without each other]?

With that one line, JP Dutta reduced the war of 1971 to a conflict involving only the ground and air forces of India and Pakistan.

To anyone who views India’s martial history through the eyes of its filmmakers, the navy remains largely invisible. A critical arm of India’s defence forces, which safeguards a long coastline, it has virtually been ignored in films.

It remains a mystery why Hindi cinema has not explored naval battles with as much enthusiasm as it has the exploits of its army, notwithstanding The Ghazi Attack, which was released earlier this year. The 1971 war has been filmed from the army's perspective in Aakraman (1975), Border, Hindustan Ki Kasam (1999) and Ab Tumhare Hawale Watan Saathiyo (2004). In the last named, a rare film with an action sequence on the high seas, Bobby Deol plays a naval officer on a submarine. But once the vessel is sunk, the film changes pace and setting to return to the army.

Yet, in 1971, the navy was involved in two high-profile battles with Pakistan — Operation Trident and Operation Python. Neither has found a mention in cinema, much less had a film made on it.

Some of the greatest Hindi war films like Haqeeqat (1964), Border and LOC: Kargil (2003) have had their focus squarely on the land forces. A search for films on Indian naval operations leads to Films Division documentaries and Deepti Naval’s Wikipedia page! Though Naval might be proud of the connection, there is no better example of how filmmakers have ignored the navy. Even the air force got a showpiece in Vijeta (1982). In spite of general negligence, the airmen have had their share of the spotlight in films like Aradhana (1969), Lalkar (1972) and Border. After all, flying is exciting.

In contrast, the allure of the men in white has been stronger in the West. Hollywood has led the way with films about the US navy and the SEALs. From Humphrey Bogart in The Caine Mutiny (1954) and Gregory Peck in On The Beach (1959) to Richard Gere in An Officer And A Gentleman (1982) and Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men (1992), A-list stars have boarded the ship of naval blockbusters.

This may be ascribed to the US navy having been a more active participant in the country's many wars. With the US being separated from the theatres of war in the previous century by the Pacific and the Atlantic, the navy was the principal vehicle for its armed forces, helping to transport and deploy forces during World War II, the Korean war, the Vietnam war and even the first Gulf war. The Indian navy, on the other hand, acts more as a defensive shield for its vast coastline, and hasn't really seen action except in 1971.

Another factor that obstructs the navy’s cinematic presence is bureaucracy. The Indian government maintains a strangely secretive atmosphere around the navy in comparison to the army or even the air force. Permission to film on board ships is more difficult to come by, as are documents of the navy.

But the navy has not completely escaped the attention of filmmakers and has been the setting for popular backstories. In Yash Chopra's blockbuster Kaala Patthar (1979), for instance, Amitabh Bachchan is a  disgraced naval officer who is court-martialled for his inability to save his crew. It drives him to the depth of despair and into the deadly mines that shape the rest of the film.

This role of the good guy carrying a Sisyphean burden was in some ways similar to the devil-may-care attitude of Sunil Dutt's character in Yeh Rastey Hain Pyar Ke (1963), a film based on the sensational murder trial of naval officer KM Nanavati. To be on the safe side, Dutt played not a naval officer but a commercial airline pilot in Yeh Rastey.... But in Rustom (2016), a film drawing again from the Nanavati trial, Akshay Kumar played a naval officer, and a Parsi to boot. That and The Ghazi Attack have been the 'improved' representation of the navy on the big screen.

An international film, The Guardian (2006), was received with great fanfare and screened on board the INS Vikrant on 7 December 2010. Starring Ashton Kutcher and Kevin Costner as US coast guard rescue swimmers, the film was considered representative of the struggle Indian sailors face on the coast. Sad, but the navy had to turn west to find some semblance of recognition for its heroism.