The war film is a genre with obvious attractions since it allows for spectacle, action and suspense, and Sankalp Reddy’s bilingual film The Ghazi Attack (Telugu and Hindi) must be counted among the few Indian war films to harness these advantages to the full.
The war film is nominally a historical genre but few national cinemas have been able to turn the merciless gaze of history upon their own nations’ doings/experiences in war. Indian cinema is no exception and the war film in India has, generally speaking, only been an occasion for patriotic fervour; the wars with Pakistan have been especially pictured since India accredited itself well in them.
But the Indian war film dealing with Pakistan has gone through several avatars — although the historical circumstances examined remain the same — and this is due to war patriotism meaning different things at different times. The Ghazi Attack for instance, is notably different from JP Dutta’s Border (1997), which must still count as the best Indian war film hitherto.
The first Indian film to deal with war against Pakistan was Manoj Kumar’s Upkar (1967) although war only took up part of the film. Upkar came two years after the 1965 war and allegorised the relationship between India and Pakistan as that between two brothers, the younger one (played by Prem Chopra) significantly wanting partitioning of the ancestral land. Upkar had a long and convoluted story which included other elements — like agriculture and the progressive farmer, and the conflict between the farmer and the trader. Only Russian war films — like Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes are Flying (1957) — habitually bring in family drama alongside the battles but I interpret this as an acknowledgement that war affects everyone — even those not fighting at the front.
American World War II films like Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), by sticking only to combat, also suggest that war is too far away for the average citizen, that the experiences of fighting men are not emotionally shared at home. This distant view could hardly have been held during WWII but, with the US increasingly involved in wars with no participation from its citizens, warfare has become of consequence only for a few.
It would seem that the war film faded from Indian screens after the 1960s though Dev Anand’s Prem Pujari (1970) made a half-hearted attempt to revive it in 1970. The resounding victory in 1971 left virtually no mark and this can be attributed to Pakistan having been so weakened by it that it ceased to be threatening to India for over two decades for its activities to ruffle the feathers of Indian patriots. But by the 1990s, Pakistan had regained much of its lost strength and became a threat once again. But fervent patriotism in cinema was also made possible in 1990s by an indirect development. This was the economic liberalisation and the end of Nehruvian socialism in 1991, which ended the representation of social conflict in Hindi cinema. If films like Hum Aaapke Hain Koun…! (1994) denied conflict altogether by placing all classes, castes and religions within a mythical, harmonious ‘Ramrajya’, other films like 1942: A Love Story (1994) and Border responded by pushing conflict to the boundaries — i.e. with external foes. Where Vidhu Vindod Chopra turned the British into primary adversaries, JP Dutta did the same with Pakistan.
Border was made in the same format as traditionally adopted by Hindi cinema, i.e. as family drama, and this contrasted with some of its action sequences — like the killing of spies near the border — being more cinematic than anything witnessed in Hindi popular cinema. The epic structure of the film — using the families of the soldiers as well as both the army and the air force to enlarge its canvas — was also in keeping with Hindi cinema of the times, still engaged in the project of helping an undifferentiated Indian public imagine a unified nation in which different social segments played their parts. The fact that The Ghazi Attack abandons this format has been seen as an achievement by reviewers, but what this means politically is worth investigating.
The first thing about The Ghazi Attack that one notices is its conspicuous use of the English language. The extensive use of English in Hindi cinema can be traced to the segmentation of audiences in the new millennium by the multiplex revolution — when admission differentials increased considerably. It became viable for Hindi films to confine their address to Anglophone Indians, whose spending power had also increased due to the new economy boom. Many Hindi films which use English conspicuously, and may be taken to largely address Anglophone audiences, are ‘patriotic’ — like Rang De Basanti (2006) — but their attitudes cast doubt on the inclusivity of the Nation they are imagining, on whether their patriotism is directed towards an undifferentiated India – or one dominated by the upwardly mobile classes. RDB’s antipathy towards politicians is, for instance, the attitude of a middle-class which has a small use for electoral politics, since it hardly has a say in the outcome of elections.
The Ghazi Attack is about an incident just before the 1971 war when the Pakistani submarine Ghazi was prowling in the Bay of Bengal with the intention of sinking the INS Vikranth, India’s only aircraft carrier, which might have tilted the military balance since it was expected to present an obstacle to the Pakistani navy in the country’s efforts to quell the rebellion in East Pakistan. In actual fact, the PNS Ghazi was destroyed mysteriously – either from the mines it was laying or by an Indian frigate – but the film fictionalises the episode by having an Indian submarine S21 track the better-equipped Ghazi down against all odds and destroy it. Kay Kay Mennon plays Captain Ranvijay Singh while Rana Daggubati the officer who takes over when the captain is killed. The film is tightly made and technically proficient. Rarely have Indian films generated so much suspense and excitement. My interest in the film is, however, elsewhere.
War films are normally adventure films and The Ghazi Attack is no exception. But what is ultimately a problem is that, rather than be content with this, it emphasises its patriotic side by having demonstrations of fervour from its protagonists, the most obvious scene being the sailors singing ‘Saare Jahan Se Accha…’ and the National Anthem before they destroy the PNS Ghazi.
This brings us to a contentious issue in the present day around the singing of the National Anthem. Traditionally, the National Anthem was sung to remind us of the Independent Nation in the midst of our everyday preoccupations since it was instituted by our founding fathers. It was natural that it should be sung only at chosen moments (like a flag hosting) and the understanding was that Indians would, while singing it, be reminded that they were part of an inclusive national community. Singing the National Anthem was not a demonstration of patriotism – perhaps not needed since we were Indians as a matter of fact – but a reminder that we were together. If this view is allowed, the National Anthem sung by the sailors on S21 emerges as people remindingthemselves that they are part of a national community, i.e. that their act is in itself not ‘for the nation’ — when the fact that they are risking much to attack an enemy vessel should have been reminder enough that they are acting for it. Military men in combat perhaps do not need to be reminded of the Nation just as a fish does not need to be reminded of water.
Where Upkar and Border, by extending their canvases to epic proportions, implied that every citizen is wittingly or unwittingly involved in the Nation at war, The Ghazi Attack deliberately confines its scope to military men. This, I suggest, should be regarded as a significant development by Indians. In order to see its true implications, one should compare it to sports patriotism (as in Dangal). In the sports film one sees the sportsperson only from a distance, i.e. one knows that one can never truly be affected, personally, by the sportsperson’s success or failure. When The Ghazi Attack follows the same strategy the question is whether it is not placing war at the same distance from the audience as sport. Is it not implying that war (to the audience) is as distant as sport and not something which might actually affect them?
Given the nature of their appeal it can be argued that both Dangal and The Ghazi Attack target/address the same Anglophone segment as their primary constituency. Both films are patriotic and demonstrate their patriotism through fervent singing of the National Anthem at moments of victory. Apart from standing at attention at the commencement of any film, the singing of the National Anthem, when it is made part of the fiction has the audience standing up again, and this response is sought by both Dangal and The Ghazi Attack when the Anthem is deliberately sung (in its entirety) in their narratives. In The Ghazi Attack the National Anthem is sung once and played by an orchestra the second time and it may be anticipated that audiences will stand up three times in all. The Supreme Court has made only the first time mandatory but with anthem-vigilantes at large, one must be prudent if one wishes to get home without injury.
To conclude, it would appear from today’s patriotic cinema that we are beset by a deeply paradoxical situation. On the one hand, we (of the educated classes) have little faith in the inclusive Nation in which everyone plays a part and have replaced it with an Anglophone nation, which claims, falsely, to include everyone. Secondly, we are not confident of the durability of the imagined Nation since we wish to be reminded of it as frequently as possible through the singing of the National Anthem. The central irony is perhaps that it is when the national spirit is weakest and least inclusive that we are most strident in our demand for nationalist fervour.