In July, 2020, the Indian Ministry of Defence wrote a letter to the Central Board of Film Certification advising production houses to obtain a ‘No Objection Certificate’ from the Ministry prior to releasing any film, series or form of media based on the Indian Military. Having witnessed various instances of personnel from the Armed Forces reacting to their depiction in Bollywood- the backlash by IAF personnel country wide for ‘Gunjan Saxena- The Kargil Girl’; ex servicemen associations sought legal action against the producers of the show ‘XXX-Uncensored’; Army veteran Lt Gen. Syed Ata Hasnain (retd) reacted to the poster of an upcoming film ‘Sam’ based on Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, saying that the lead actor’s uniform had the badges of rank in the wrong colour; and recently the IAF tweeted to Netflix, raising an objection to actor Anil Kapoor wearing the wrong uniform and using abusive language as an IAF officer- the step from the MoD is welcome.
Letter advising CPFC to obtain a NOC
If Bollywood was infamous for its portrayal of sexist and inappropriate heroes or for glorifying a patriarchal society, then its showcase of the Indian Armed Forces is downright shameful. For a country which boasts of one of the largest military forces in the world, one would expect the world’s largest film industry to depict them accurately. The octogenarian industry seems to have neither developed the will nor the capacity to make credible war movies. Production houses have, time and again, ruined the image of ex-servicemen as loud characters who also became the butt of jokes. He is usually shown to be the hot headed, trigger happy retired colonel or brigadier, with a gigantic moustache and several quirks. The veteran’s reel life stereotyping as a cigar-puffing and whiskey imbibing character is far removed from his real-life persona, where he actually conducts himself with dignity and decorum in both public and private life. Of course, it would be unfair to dismiss all Bollywood movies.
The notable exceptions are Haqeeqat, Prahaar and Lakshya which not only remain imprinted on the public psyche for their realistic portrayal of the Fauj and the Fauji, but also stand as benchmarks for others to follow. Haqeeqat (1964) was the first Indian motion film to be shot in Ladakh, and followed closely on the heels of the first and only India-China War (1962). The movie boasts of some iconic scenes such as when Balraj Sahani, as a Major and Company Commander, shares cigarettes with his NCOs, before briefing them by the light of a kerosene lantern in a tent, amid the foreboding gloom and darkness. Another sequence which is closer to reality is the steely determination of the exhausted and hungry Jawans, who ford icy streams with the help of a rope to scale sky-high rock faces, even as they are on the verge of physical collapse. Nothing could have conveyed the subhuman conditions under which the Indian Army fought the Chinese in freezing temperatures more expressively than these stark images in black and white, which linger long in memory. However, the film is not without its flaws, the most notable being the focus on the love story between the protagonist (an Army Captain) and a hill woman, who goes on to battle the Chinese army at the end.
Haqeeqat (1964) movie poster
The movie Prahaar- The Final Attack (1991) on the other hand, demonstrates how and why soldiers develop such extremes of endurance, even if it is through a mode of punishment. Certain sequences in the film are so realistically done that the audience ends up believing that the slightest of transgressions can invite the severest of penalties, which is what the Army does to keep everyone fighting fit. Added to this is the fact that Nana Patekar, who wrote, directed and acted in the film, spent three years at the Commando School in Belgaum to train for the film. A Bollywood director or actor investing so much time and effort for a film based on the Forces is practically unheard of, and the only other instance that comes to mind is that of actor Raj Kumar spending hours with IAF officers, learning their nuances and noting down details for his role in ‘Hindustan Ki Kasam’(1973).
Director Nana Patekar in Prahaar (1991) which he also acted in
Thankfully the movie Lakshya, which was shot on a much bigger scale and focused on Kargil, brings about a sense of authenticity that is rarely showcased in India. Not only does the movie do justice to the training at the Indian Military Academy, the drills, weapons handling, the classrooms and the passing out parade, down to the close attention drawn to the haircuts and correct uniforms, but it is also about how well the officers and the men bond together on and off the battlefield. The detailed combat sequences, beginning with an artillery barrage that lights up the night sky, come alive with an immediacy rarely experienced on the big screen. What is more, Lakshya even features a regimental medical officer for the very first time, recognizing his worth as a healer and the last resort of the dying and wounded men. A surreal scene in Lakshya remains one in which men from the 13th battalion of the Punjab Regiment climb a dizzying, thousand foot high rock face, to remove the Pakistani intruders sitting at the top and cutting off the supply lines. Midway, the protagonist manages to get atop a ledge, using his hands and feet with brilliant ability. Once the team reaches this space, the leader ascends higher and fixes the rope, from which he swings like a pendulum, dangerously, to fasten himself to an inaccessible, perpendicular crevice further away. He finally makes it on the third attempt. This edge-of-the-seat sequence is one of Lakshya’s highlights.
Actor Hrithik Roshan in Lakshya
A number of other films must be mentioned here for certain details they portrayed accurately- ‘Aakraman’ shows the correct uniforms for the Pakistani and Indian Army; ‘Hindustan Ki Kasam’, ‘Border’, and ‘Vijeta’ exploit spectacular visuals of fighter jets taking off, landing, and flying; ‘Vijeta’ incorporates excellent technical detail on flying training and the handling of flight emergencies; ‘LOC: Kargil’ shows the legendary Bofors guns in action and is filled to the brim with military iconography; ‘The Ghazi Attack’ offers a technically detailed and plausible depiction of submarine warfare.
The Ghazi Attack (2017) movie poster
Of course, there are only a select few films which portray certain aspects of the military accurately. When it comes to taking liberties and wrongful portrayal, one is reminded of a plethora of films. ‘Uri: The Surgical Strike’ (2019) received wide acclaim, but what many people failed to notice was the simple fact that the uniform donned by the actors was inaccurate. The scene of the terror attack in the film appears to have been exaggerated with sophisticated mess halls and barracks and a tank in the background. The film shows that the planning and control of the operation was under the civilian authority at the Integrated Defence Staff, whereas, in reality, it is the Military Operations Directorate who control it. Witnessing the protagonist, a Major, promise his superior officer of bringing back every man unharmed is reminiscent of a Hindi film hero, and does not fit into the context of a complex military operation.
Uri: The Surgical Strike (2019)
Another movie, which was very recently a topic of controversy, ‘Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl’ depicts the men in uniform indulging in explicit discrimination and attempts to block a fellow lady officer’s career by taunts and misogyny. If the perception and interpretation of the officer in question towards her fellow officers may be ignored, there are still large glaring facts in the film which are grossly inaccurate. A multitude of officers from the same batch as the concerned officer have spoken, on record, about how the IAF provided all requisite facilities, and a free and fair working environment. Another astonishing lie was that of the concerned officer receiving the Shaurya Chakra, the highest gallantry medal awarded by the government, when in reality she did not. Not only is this a blatant and unnecessary lie, it is also disrespectful to other Shaurya Chakra awardees and the institution itself. The selection process, through which lakhs of young aspirants struggle every year, has been made a joke, and is shown rather crudely. To wrongfully depict the use of Cheetah helicopters during combat and pilots being taken hostage during Kargil is an insult to those who actually laid down their lives during the 1999 War.
Flt. Lt. Gunjan Saxena with actress Janhvi Kapoor who played the role of Lt/ Saxena in the 2020 film
Another film, ‘Major Saab’ (1998) had the Company Commander abusing nonchalantly, heckling cadets at the prestigious National Defence Academy, and appeared to glorify rebellion, disobedience and disrespect, projecting an extremely distorted version of life at the Academy. Although the movie justifies the use of a beard in the film by inserting a dialogue which mentions how the practice is not followed in the Army, the film overall comes across as a poor projection of the military ethos, culture and functioning.
Actors Amitabh Bachchan and Ajay Devgn in the film Major Saab (1998)
Numerous other films failed to accurately display the uniforms worn by the officers- ‘Rustom’ (2016), ‘Jab Tak Hai Jaan’ (2012) and ‘Holiday- A soldier is never off duty’ (2014), to name a few. Another example that comes to mind is ‘Border’ (1997) which showcases tanks jumping up like toys after passing over an anti-tank mine, a depiction far from reality.
Wrong uniform worn by actor Akshay Kumar in movie Rustom (2016). Source: India Today
Filmmakers possess creative liberty, which they make utmost use of. However, misusing this right is an insult to the sentiments of the Military forces, and consequently the millions of people whose lives they are safeguarding, and must be put to an end. It is not justifiable if the creators claim they were ‘unaware’, it is their duty to research thoroughly as a part of their profession, and they are answerable to the viewers who pay to watch their work. When filmmakers overlook these factors in themes based on war or military operations, they unknowingly step into a dangerous zone of faux pas. Filmmakers might believe that the audience is unaware of the details and thus they can save time and resources by indulging in make-belief and fantasy. For a majority of the audience, these films and works of media are the only window into the lives of the military- which makes the inaccuracy even more grave. Consequently, what the filmmakers fail to realize is that not only are they committing an injustice to their art, but also disrespecting the formidable Forces of this nation, who shield us from the enemy. Filmmakers must realize that the soldier they’re depicting on screen is not a nameless entity in uniform and respect the institution they stand for. It is high time that these generalized distortions, sweeping stereotypes and misinformed filmmaking is put to an end before it causes damage to the fabric of our country.