How accurate is New Bollywood with Military Films?

Gul Panag

Apr 05, 2019 12:48:49 IST

There has been a welcome and renewed interest in the Indian armed forces all around over the recent weeks, particularly after the recent strikes on Jaish camps. Focus has been on how the media has handled the issue, and also how new-age Bollywood films as URI have been portraying the military as compared to the past.

Hailing from an Army background, I have had the fortune of seeing people in uniform up close. There has been a qualitative improvement in the portrayal of the military lately on the Bollywood screen. The industry is still focussed on more tales of men in uniform than women, but then there are more men in these services in real life.

How accurate is New Bollywood with Military Films?

Still from the film Uri


Across media all over the world, the military tends to be used as a tool for jingoistic and nationalistic propaganda whenever right-wing governments are in power. India is no different. Talk of the portrayal of people in uniform invariably raises questions of glorification and propaganda. Let us look at glorification first. It happens everywhere. Every Hollywood war film is an assertion of the United States’ soft power and its military might. Diverting attention from the politics behind military operations, their films focus on the sufferings of soldiers at war to maximise sympathy and glory. As long as the glorification is authentic, there is no problem. The dichotomy arises when you ride on such glorification for political gains.

As far as URI is concerned, the portrayal of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval is probably not how things happen in the real world. The film made it seem like the military top brass do not take planning, strategic or operational decisions.

The emphasis on portraying the Prime Minister and the NSA as key planners and executors of the operation stood out like a jarring note in URI, an otherwise brilliant effort that I rate among the best military movies we have had since Chetan Anand’s Haqeeqat.

Having said that, making a film on a military subject in our country is not easy. There are multiple permissions to be taken, a lot of which are at the discretion of the powers that be. Given how sensitive the subject matter is, the struggle to craft a product that keeps everyone happy is not limited only to filmmaking, and the issue is not specific to the current Bharatiya Janata Party government either.

Portrayal of men in uniform has become more detailed and authentic nowadays. Beyond the obvious details, however, there are several other everyday nuances about military personnel that film makers often don’t get into. These are details that only people hailing from an armed forces background would spot.

For instance, an officer needs over half a dozen different uniforms for different occasions, ceremonies, climate conditions, and operations (In fact, expenses of the total number of uniforms required could cost up to three months’ of a young officer’s pay till a couple of years ago. ) This is an important nuance that our films often miss, and tend to show officers in the same uniform irrespective of occasion or operation.

Filmmakers are often more preoccupied with creating plot situations that can accommodate stars, songs and melodrama across themes rather than fine details. The way the hair is worn is a typical aspect that films ignore. Even URI, with so much attention to detail, had Vicky Kaushal sporting a beard that is borderline as far as appearance regulations are concerned.

However overall attention to detail has gone up. In URI, for instance, radio calls, communication protocol, uniform, action sequences, and operational details had a high degree of authenticity.

While on URI, a lot has been discussed about the state-of-the-art technology the military is shown to use. It is not out of place — the military does have such technology at its disposal now. It is almost like what the Navy SEALs and the US Marines are shown to carry in the movies.

However, in India only the Special Forces have access to such gear. A lot of the advanced gear shown during the ops is normally not accessible to soldiers across ranks.

Still, URI has raised the bar on how Bollywood will make military films henceforth, and that’s a great start.

Bollywood filmmakers have over the years started hiring retired military personnel as consultants, which has led to a vast improvement in the portrayal of the armed forces. This is the reason the efforts to portray our jawans and officers on screen seem more sincere than before.

How did this change happen? I feel the challenge of dealing with a swiftly maturing audience has brought about the change. Viewers in India today have access to world cinema and other avenues of entertainment on the internet. This has augured well for Bollywood films across genres, including ones that portray tales of the uniform.

Having said that, it is unfair to compare films of the same genre across decades, and this goes for military-themed films, too. Haqeeqat, Border and URI represent mass audiences with different mindsets. The socio-political realities of the nation, as well as the circumstances in which these films were made, were also been different.

Should films with military themes or having protagonists in uniform necessarily be politically neutral? I would look at the question in a different way. Anyone who votes is automatically taking a political stance and in the process giving up on political neutrality. This includes our film writers and directors. Why just films, there will always be an element of politics in any form of art — be it poetry, literature music or sculpture — as long as the creator is a political animal.

The truth is too many Indias coexist in India. There are people who are still living in the 18th century, many whose mindsets dwell in the 19th century, and then there is new India. The problem is the lack of a solid attempt at social reform to initiate a commonality between such varied mindsets. As long as that doesn’t happen, the definition of good cinema will be different to different people. Films about the military won’t be an exception to that rule.

(The author is an actor, entrepreneur and a hobby pilot. She hails from a third generation armed forces family)

Updated Date: Apr 08, 2019 15:37:34 IST

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