How Indian cinema loses the plot when it comes to Kashmir and Pakistan!
Clambering out of a US Air Force transport plane somewhere on the Cambodian border, 19-year old Chris Taylor, played by Charlie Sheen, who has dropped out of college to volunteer for the war in Vietnam, is greeted by the sight of body bags of US soldiers to be ferried home. Soon, he discovers that the members of the platoon were fighting among themselves when they were supposed to fight the enemy.
“Really man, you volunteered for this shit?” a black soldier tells Charlie Sheen. The dialogue became emblematic of the movie, Platoon.
Imagine a Rajput Indian soldier (assume Ranveer Kapoor is playing the part) being told the same thing by a Kashmir veteran (let us say a dalit from Bihar played by Nawaz-ud-din Siddiqui) upon landing in Kashmir. There is every likelihood that the nationalistic brigandage will gherao the homes of the actors and extract, by threats and violence, a pathetic apology out of the director.
No doubt, Hollywood has its repertoire of sophisticated war propaganda masquerading as cinema, but what can beat the Bollywood’s religion-like embrace of jingoism?
Humayun Qaiser, Director Radio Kashmir, who watched Platoon at Srinagar’s Broadway cinema as a young man says he was “mesmerised” by the movie.
“The movie is brutally honest unlike Indian movies. It shows that war brings hopelessness and has the potential to dehumanise a soldier. A brilliant and brave attempt by Oliver Stone,” says Qaisar.
A sequel, which broadly mocks the shrill patriotism of the Vietnam war was the 1989 release Born on the Fourth of July, again directed by Oliver Stone three years after Platoon. It is a biographical war drama based on the bestselling autobiography of the same name by Vietnam War veteran Ron Kovic, brilliantly played by Tom Cruise.
Another epic Hollywood movie on the Vietnam War that lashes out at US foreign policy is Apocalypse Now. In his review, film critic Roger Ebert wrote: “Apocalypse Now achieves greatness not by analysing our experience in Vietnam, but by recreating, in characters and images, something of that experience.”
Faheem Jeelani Gundroo, a UAE-based Kashmiri film buff, feels that sometimes, very rarely though, even Hollywood has to toe the official line out of sheer commercial reasons.
“Cinema is essentially a medium of playing into public’s imagination. Studios like Sony and MGM have businesses to run. So commercialisation and playing to the gallery can never ever be weeded out. It was a part of the Hollywood in the early decades of the twentieth century. Both Rambo movies, II and III, were nothing but a brute display of American machismo in Vietnam and Afghanistan. But around the same time, studios also produced movies like Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July which smothers any apprehension about war heroes,” he says.
There were anti-war protests by singers like John Lennon, refusal to go to war in Vietnam by great sports personalities like Muhammad Ali and veterans like Kovic. With the anti-war protests breathing down their necks, Hollywood filmmakers had to toe the anti-war line. Green Beret was blasted by critics and boycotted by students. From the days of the civil war, for the first time, the American society, which believes in ‘all for one and one for all’, was divided in its opinion.
Humayun Qaiser feels that some of the movies about the World Wars and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have their fair share of jingoism as they tow along the official narrative of the US government.
“Take the case of Iraq and Afghanistan wars. A US soldier is portrayed as nothing short of an angel and every effort is put to use to show the occupied populace as villainous and fanatic bandits,” says Qaiser.
Sameer Bhat, a Kashmiri-origin journalist working as Deputy Editor at the Gulf News, says that Hollywood also has churned out pedestrian movies but many quality scripts and a humanising approach counterweigh them.
“Hollywood also has its share of middling war movies, but they also have good scripts and invest in good writers, some of whom value human struggles. Bollywood and many other cinemas have no such tradition. Apart from an indie movie here and there, no conscientious attempt at conflict /war movie has been made by the mainstream Indian cinema. I do not see that trend change in India anytime soon,” says Bhat, who is also working on his debut novel set in Kashmir of the 90s.
War is part of the story of the Indian nation; it continues to shape its present and the future. The idea of the Indian nation chiefly depends on patriotism, militarism and nationalism. It also entails the perpetual hatred for its bête noire, Pakistan. Indian cinema avowedly swears by these principles and if, and that happens very rarely, it dares to question these principles there is an overriding censor board to wield its scissors.
Speaking of war films produced by Bollywood, we recently had Tubelight, which revolved around the 1962 war. But the plausibility factor with the movie was pretty low. Compared to Tubelight, Chetan Bhagat’S Haqeeqat (1964) not only looks but also feels convincing. This is the story of the Sino-Indian War of 1962, a watershed in modern Indian history, a war that demonstrates to the world the infirmity of the doctrine of Panchsheel without a powerful and equipped armory to back it. Haqeeqat is the story of sons of the Indian mothers who were sent to be the sacrificial lambs for the great Chinese feast while the citizens of the nation they defended celebrated Diwali and the government they represented was busy providing aid to Congo and Korea.
“It was this war which virtually broke Nehru’s heart to such an extent that he never recovered from that and died soon after,” Pranay Bhagat, an Indian movie critic, wrote in Planet Bollywood.
The movie depicts how sometimes soldiers act as mere pawns in international diplomacy and in preserving the image of a country.
After the eruption of militancy in Kashmir in the early 90s, the jingoism in Indian movies got shriller as Pakistan became the focal point of the national hatred. Rather than depicting the hopelessness and misery that war brings, the movies, heavy on hyperbole, began eulogising the individual braveries of soldiers, a lot of it self-serving imagination.
One of the pioneering examples is the movie Border (1997) based on the Battle of Longewala during the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971. It was produced and directed by JP Dutta. The film starred an ensemble cast of Sunny Deol, Sunil Shetty, Akshay Khanna and Jackie Shroff in pivotal roles. It was screened retrospective on 13 August 2016 at the Independence Day Film Festival jointly presented by the Indian Directorate of Film Festivals and Ministry of Defense, commemorating the 70th Indian Independence Day. It was the highest grossing Bollywood film of the year 1997.
This film portrays anything but reality. On numerous occasions, it playfully defies and dodges logic. It is, perhaps, the only war movie with almost an hour reserved for songs. In one of the combat scenes, Sunny Deol is strolling about his post when he yells at his Pakistani counterpart: “Oye tu Ghulam Dastageer haina, Lahore ka gunda, gandi nali ki paidayish – you, aren’t you Ghulam Dastageer, the rowdy from Lahore, bred in a gutter?”
Only the xenophobia of extreme form can afford a soldier the time for such dialogues in the heat of a battle that can also be heard above the voice of bullets and shells. It seems that sharp shooters of both armies revel in the lofty rhetoric because they do nothing when the officers are hurling invectives at each other.
“The crucial difference lies in how Bollywood plays to crass commercialisation. I mean you have a veteran filmmaker in JP Dutta directing a war movie Border, where the lead character hurls cheap dialogues at his Pakistani counterpart on Longewala border post. When the real Major Kuldip Singh Chandpuri was asked about it, he rubbished all the claims in the movie. He said ‘war is a dirty business and only brings hopelessness. There is no hero-playing in war’,” says Faheem Gundroo.
Hilal Mir, senior editor at Greater Kashmir, says no Bollywood movie will ever come close to depicting the reality of Kashmir, be it the 90s or other periods.
“Jingoism is more pronounced when it comes to Pakistan and Kashmir. I think this jingoism is absent or very subdued when the ‘Other’ is the erstwhile British Raj or the China of Haqeeqat. The real life example of this jingoism is belligerent rhetoric vis-a-vis Pakistan and restraint vis-a-vis China. If Bollywood’s idea of war is driven by patriotism and jingoism, then facts don’t matter. What happened in Kargil is very well known but you can always paint over the facts in a movie and get away with it. After all, they can always say it is only a movie,” says Mir.
Noted human rights activist Khurram Parvez says Bollywood movies, which have Kashmir as the central or peripheral theme, never breach the established state narrative. Even though some movies, on the face of it, says Khurram, appear sympathetic to the Kashmiris, their storyline is so de-contextualised that the final result is a horribly anti-Kashmir narrative.
“The world view of a movie production house in India, or the one they pretend to have, is that Kashmiris have no mind of their own and they are misled by Pakistan. Indian moviemakers have denigrated their own standard by making idiotic films on Kashmir. We Kashmiris know the reality. The Indian public is misled by the filmmakers,” says Khurram.
“The result is that the rising jingoism conveyed through the movies has complicated the Kashmir issue. Even if the Indian government wants to come up with a solution it would be taking a huge risk given the monolithic propaganda floated through electronic media and cinema,” he adds.
Take the case of the movies made on Kargil War. Movies like LOC Kargil and Lakshya are classic examples of hyperbole. These movies make no mention of the ill-preparedness of the Indian army or the red-tapism the kith and kin of the fallen soldiers had to face in as far as allotment of petrol pumps is concerned, facts later depicted in a series of reports titled Lessons From Kargil published by a leading Indian daily.
From a military strategy point of view, it is a known fact that it was a war that could never have been won, had the United States not intervened, given the steepness of the heights the Pakistanis were occupying.
The first movie to show conflict in Kashmir was the Mani Ratnam directed Roja (1992). It featured an Indian army officer (Arvind Swamy) being kidnapped by militants and the struggles of his south-Indian wife Roja (Madhoo) to trace him. Interestingly, this movie was watched in Kashmir by everyone with keen interest, even by the militants of the time. Khurram Parvez describes the phenomenon as ‘valley mentality’.
“Our political ambitions apart, it is a fact we live in a valley surrounded by mountains. We are ever keen to know who is saying what about us. When Roja was released, the militant leadership thought entire India was talking about them, which was not the case. The quality and the content of that attention was missing. Most of the Kashmiris, unaware that the movie maligned the Kashmir cause, were happy that they got the required attention,” says Khurram.
Hilal Mir concedes that in the near future no Bollywood movie would ever depict the reality of Kashmir.
“ Bollywood might make a movie showing human rights abuses in Kashmir but it can and will always water it down or balance the truth with falsehoods by pointing to their hobbyhorse, ‘Pakistan sponsored terrorism’. Also, the aim would be to appropriate the agency of Kashmiris to show ‘them ‘as our own people’. No Bollywood movie will ever come close to depicting the reality of Kashmir, be it the 90s or other periods,” says Mir.
Kashmiri filmmaker Mushtaq Ali Ahmad Khan says the Indian movies centered on Kashmir lack impartiality and if anyone ever attempts it the “honest” way, the Indian public will see to it that his efforts fail at the box office.
“Most of the Indian films are not close to the truth. There is too much melodrama and very little realism. People in India get to see what they like to see. Basically and essentially, people into cinema should be honest, sincere, impartial and with utmost integrity but such filmmakers are a rarity and generally fail at the box office,” he says.
Faheem Jeelani Gundroo feels that Indian cinema is shrill in its chest-thumping and ludicrously outlandish in parading bravado of its soldiers.
“What to expect of a cinema where a person like Pahlaj Nihalani can be the censor board chief? Shall we expect that kind of cinema to produce doyens like Oliver Stone or Costa Gavras? The movie Maa Tujhe Salam is an excellent example. Here the heroics of Sunny Deol can put a 007 to shame. It is ludicrous how he single-handedly fights the Pakistan’s army on the border, and guns them down like ninepins, takes a couple of dozen bullets, survives and stands to salute the tricolor. Now beat that!” Gundroo says.
Humayun Qaisar feels that the thrust on individual heroism is the main problem
“War is a situation of collective grief and hopelessness. Individual heroism does not count. Indian cinema focuses on an individual’s exploits, thus the quality depiction of war eludes it,” says Qaisar.
One movie that raised the question of human rights abuse by the Indian army is the Samar Khan directed Shaurya (2008). Inspired by the Hollywood movie, A few Good Men, it is a courtroom drama starring Kay Kay Menon, Rahul Bose, Javed Jaffrey, Deepak Dobriyal and Minisha Lamba. The film revolves around the court martial of a Muslim soldier in the Indian army for shooting his commanding officer. The film is set against the backdrop of the Kashmir conflict.
Despite having typical Indian movie elements of melodrama, absolutely unnecessary songs, difficult-to-digest climax etc., it packs a punch. The Rob Reiner courtroom drama is more about its characters. Shaurya is more about the issue it is trying to highlight.
An Indian movie critic wrote about the movie:
“Shaurya dishes out a strong flavor of anti-fundamentalism with a negligible measure of sermons. That in itself is a rarity. While it might not rise up to the standards of A Few Good Men, it has intense moments that work.”
Khurram Parvez, however, believes that Shaurya is a dishonest film that aims at presenting the vibrancy, discipline and fearlessness of the Indian army through a particular court martial case.
“For Kashmiris, the court martial is a Kangaroo court. Shaurya tends to lend credibility to the process of court martial,” says Khurram.
Khurram stresses that film should not be de-contextualized as around the year 2006 the Central Bureau of Investigation produced a charge sheet against the Indian army in the infamous Pathribal case. The army had murdered five civilians and labeled them as foreign militants who were responsible for the massacre of 35 Sikhs in Chittisinghpora village in March 2000. The CBI wanted a civilian court to pronounce a verdict on the case.
“Shaurya was released in 2008 and in 2013 the Supreme Court decided that a court martial will decide the Pathribal fake encounter case. That is why I insist that no movie on Kashmir should be watched out of context,” Khurram says.
Another movie whose screenplay was written by journalist and writer Basharat Peer, and which some believe came close to depicting the reality of Kashmir, is the Vishal Bharadwaj-directed Haider (2014). It stars Shahid Kapoor as the titular protagonist and co-stars Tabu, Shraddha Kapoor and Kay Kay Menon. Irfan Khan appears in an extended special appearance. The film is both a modern-day adaptation of William Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet and an adaptation of Basharat Peer’s memoir Curfewed Night set in the insurgency-hit Kashmir of the nineties.
Sameer Bhat says that even Haider, despite its somewhat believable storyline, did not do justice to the hype that it created.
“The film’s theme was revenge, which any novice can tell you is not the case in Kashmir. The Kashmir problem is essentially about aspirations and a series of broken promises. Not revenge. Retribution is very Shakespearean an idea that produced Hamlet and its countless adaptations. Haider was, well, boilerplate,” he says.
Khurram Parvez remembers the day Vishal Bharadwaj approached him with the idea that he wanted to make a movie on Kashmir. He recalls telling Bharadwaj that no Bollywood movie on Kashmir can ever be objective.
“I told Vishal that the movie he was going to make would be his perspective on Kashmir and his introduction to the Kashmir problem. And that we will judge him based on how he perceives Kashmir and the Kashmir problem. Undoubtedly the movie exuded the inherent bias that all previous movies did.”