Tubelight: Understanding the sentiments of the anti-war film by looking at Hollywood, WW II
Kabir Khan’s Tubelight has been lauded for being an ‘anti-war’ film, especially since it has arrived just when the entire nation is being swept by waves of anti-Pakistan jingoism and war rhetoric. Tubelight expresses feelings at odds with the belligerent ones in the public space today, not taking an anti-war position vis-à-vis Pakistan, but using the India-China war of 1962 as the context on which to mount its sentiments.
An anti-war mainstream Hindi film dealing with India and Pakistan would be a noble gesture today but one imagines that making a film of the kind would be extremely difficult. This leads us to ask whether the sentiments of a jingoistic war film and an anti-war film do not both depend on their choosing suitable settings.
Hollywood would find it equally difficult to make a pacifist film set in the war with Nazi Germany and a jingoistic film set in WWI. For an illustration of attitudes towards war being contextually dictated, Steven Spielberg made the chauvinistic Saving Private Ryan (1998) about the Yanks in Europe in WWII but also directed the anti-war film War Horse (2011) set in WWI. Though people are quick to acknowledge all war as inherently bad, there are stable mythologies around actual wars that prevent an attitude towards one war from being carried over to another. WWII is a war which has been represented in different ways and looking at the representations will help us grasp this.
Also read on Firstpost — The Ghazi Attack: The Indian war film has changed, even if the enemy has stayed the same
World War II involved so many countries that a number of cinemas from around the world make war films about it. There are British/American films set in Europe (The Longest Day, 1962) or the Far East (The Thin Red Line, 1998); there are Japanese films giving us their own side of the Far East experience (The Burmese Harp, 1956); there are western European films about the war with Germany (Soldier of Orange, 1977), Russian (Come and See, 1985) or Central European films (Closely Watched Trains, 1966) dealing with the Eastern Front; there are French films about resistance and collaboration (The Last Metro, 1980); there are German war films dealing with the war on land and sea (Das Boot, 1981) and Italian films set in WWII (Two Women, 1960). Apart from these there are holocaust films — which are not quite ‘war films’ although they are set in wartime — and films dealing with the nuclear bombing of Japan (Black Rain, 1989). All these films deal with a single war but their approaches vary, depending on the events depicted as well as the mythologies subsequently constructed around them.
WWII was a unique war not only because there was a complete victory for one side over the other but the major power on the losing side (Germany) was also morally discredited in a way that few nations have been — even in its own eyes. This means that most portrayals of German doings are one-sided and have remained so. Hollywood hardly fails to present the Germans in WWII in the poorest moral light — unless it takes their viewpoint and sets the story on the Eastern Front, the enemy being Russia (Cross of Iron, 1977). In the latter scenario, the Germans (played by Hollywood stars) are granted full humanity; still, it is the German army (Wehrmacht) which is now represented and not the SS/Gestapo or the Nazi party. In most of these Hollywood films, a clear line is drawn between the two and the fighting German’s dislike of the Nazis made evident. This post-war ‘sympathy’ for German soldiers in Hollywood can be associated with West Germany (FRG) joining NATO against the Soviet Union.
Hollywood behaves differently while dealing with the Japanese although the Japanese army was also known for its cruelty — and the reason is that Hiroshima and Nagasaki put America morally on the back foot. It is this ambivalence towards Japan that allows an anti-war WWII film like The Thin Red Line. The portrayal of the Japanese in Chinese films (City of Life and Death, 2009) is substantially different.
Eastern Europe suffered enormously against Germany and most Russian or central European films are more preoccupied with their own suffering than with war heroism (the way of Hollywood). Western Europe had a rather mixed experience with the war, collaborators often outnumbering patriots, and this explains the frequent comic/satirical edge to films from Holland (Soldier of Orange) and France. There are also a number of French comedies constructed around WWII (La Traversée de Paris, 1956).
Coming to WWII films from the defeated side, most films from Germany, Japan and Italy are humanistic and grim in their emphasis, being preoccupied with the misery (rather than heroism) of the soldier’s lot. Military defeat makes a country’s cinema look at war with humanistic horror, while distant triumphs promote jingoism. Civilian suffering in war also works against chauvinism as evidenced in Russian cinema. Hollywood’s WWII machismo owes to its civilian population being insulated from war’s effects.
Indian war films have, by and large, been jingoistic as evidenced not only in the recent The Ghazi Attack but also in earlier films ranging from Upkar (1967) to Border (1997). India’s civilians have not experienced actual war and that makes jingoism popular and warmongering easy. Not surprisingly, all the above Indian films deal with war against Pakistan, in which India emerged creditably. The one film in which war gets a more sober portrayal — Haqeeqat (1964) — is set in the India-China war of 1962 during which India’s military confidence was badly mauled. When one wishes to make an ‘anti-war’ statement like that in Tubelight, therefore, one finds oneself revisiting that war rather than one against Pakistan.
Tubelight, reportedly inspired by a film called Little Boy (2015), is set in Kumaon and begins before Independence. Laxman (Salman Khan) is nicknamed ‘Tubelight’ because of his mental slowness. He has a younger brother, Bharat, from whom he is inseparable and the highpoint of their childhood is Mahatma Gandhi coming to their town and personally talking to them. The India-China war erupts when the two grow up and Bharat (Sohail Khan) enlists and goes off, leaving behind Laxman who is judged unfit for military duty. The film now introduces a widowed Chinese woman Liling (Zhu Zhu) and her son Guo, who Laxman befriends. Mother and son are met with hostility locally but Laxman comes to their rescue. Their chief adversary is Narayan, who has not been admitted into the military for being knock-kneed. The rest of the film deals with Laxman’s dealings with the two even as Bharat fights on the battlefield, is taken for dead until he emerges from it, alive but with his memory impaired.
Tubelight is obviously trying to draw parallels for today but only with doubtful results. Knock-kneed Narayan is in the position of today’s vigilantes — cow, anthem and now cricket — but his doings touch few chords and the film’s universal message is bland. The reason is perhaps that the actual animosities one carries within oneself are not put to rest by broad humanism. One’s violent hatred of one’s neighbour is not quelled by Gandhi’s message of universal brotherhood. One’s social animosities follow trajectories which have specific causes and depend on social stimuli linked to actual situations while universal messages have their origins in the collective wisdom of humankind; one can therefore preach universal justice generally even as one endorses the encounter killings of deemed terrorists.
Also, for a message of brotherhood to be effective a film needs to bring in experiences the audience will recognise. As just one instance of Tubelight’s failings, Liling and Guo are actually Chinese; few Indians harbour emotions towards Chinese émigrés since they rarely meet them. If, instead, the two (characters) had been from the Northeast and were only taken to be Chinese, it might have touched chords since people from places like Manipur and Nagaland are constantly discriminated against racially and face hostility. Showing Pakistanis in good light in a Hindi film might be impossible today but this other course would be easy. Such a strategy would have made the film more relevant. After all, there are other animosities one must acknowledge — other than towards ‘Pakistan and its agents’.
Lastly, Salman Khan has tried to speak out sanely and publicly in today’s vitiated atmosphere and one guesses that his ‘holy fool’ role in Tubelight — a simpleton speaking wisdom — only tries to extend it to the screen. But a difficulty with the film is its dwelling so much on the star, as though the messenger was so much more important than the message. The message is perhaps too general and clichéd for it to carry any significance, but if Salman Khan had not tried to be the message, the film might have at least spoken.
MK Raghavendra is a Swarna Kamal winning film scholar and author of The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016).