The critical war films and Indian cinema


THE dialectics of printing, photography and cinematography produced the cinema of entertainment, instruction and insurrection in early 20th century. Rapidly, this medium embraced all subjects of modern life like print had affected human imagination during early modernity. Since the First World War cinema became integral to the ideological condition of modern living in general. In the internet age film dominates social and personal life. Billions acquire knowledge via screens and much learning happens these days in the ‘online’ mode; the Corona pandemic has reinforced this trend.

These days the knowledge available in printed books and pdfs is supplemented with information gleaned from cinema; film has become a tool to propagate truths and untruths. Film is both source and product of history. The history of this use of visual narratives goes back to the19th century when print capitalism became embedded in the bourgeois nation-state project. Following this, the imagined nations, produced by the industrial revolution and rise of the middle classes, were visualized in cinema in the 20th century. Since wars and their memories are integral to nationalism cinema has retained a special place in its discourse since the early 20th century. In this cinema, beginning with D.W. Griffith’s artistically acclaimed though overtly racist defence of southern racism and particularly the Ku Klux Klan in the Birth of a Nation (1915) set in the time of the American Civil War, armed conflict has played a politically pivotal role.

A world where military expenditure has increased the inequality within and between nations begs a question. Is an alternative to nationalist war cinema possible? Obviously not in countries where dissent is criminalized and the military venerated. Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany made realist cinema per se impossible. Realist cinema cannot usually be made under dictatorships and hyper-nationalist regimes. But even in democratic countries the question elicits uncomfortable answers because all states hide the truth. Thus, Francois Truffant, the French film maker, asserts that ‘There is no such thing as an anti-war film.’ According to him even critical war movies glorify war.1

Holocaust movies are special to the genre. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel believes that no representation is close to the real historical Auschwitz. Cinema trivializes it. So, what is the point of watching Schindler’s List, the Photographer of Mauthausen or The Boy in Striped Pyjamas? Does the nine hours long Shoah (1985) by Claude Lanzman on the Holocaust made over 11 years a trivia of trauma? Films critical of war have been accused of becoming ‘poetic attempts to use the medium as a form of protest… weaponized against themselves.’2 In sum, we are told, war films are self-destructive. This reading of war films can be applied to all cinema which focuses on trauma, rape, genocide, serial killers, blood thirsty dictators etc.

Alternatively, Edward Said believed in the deconstructive potential of cinema. In his view acclaimed films like The Battle of Algiers (1966) and Burn (1969) by the Italian director and veteran anti-Fascist Gillo Pontecorvo, a former Communist who continued to call himself a man of the left, are ‘lyrical’ and ‘redemptive’.3 As realist masterpieces they inspired directors like Costa Gavras and remain essential to our understanding of anti-colonial struggles. Said saw The Battle of Algiers six times and Stanley Kubrick, maker of the nihilistic Vietnam war film Full Metal Jacket (1987) never tired of praising it. The Battle of Algiers has been called Fanonist in orientation but does justice to a critical portrayal of the situation faced by both sides in the Algerian war.4

The dehumanization of the oppressor and the futility of war are complementary parts of one story. The importance of showing both or more sides involved in war has been highlighted by Denis Rothermel. A good anti-war film must have the following: It must show a sophisticated picture of war eschewing official propaganda. It must present war’s ‘heinousness as a norm of behaviour.’ Finally, it should show both sides of the conflict.5 Whether a war film manages to show both or more sides in a conflict it must succeed in highlighting the wasteful futility of war like Stalingrad (1993) by Joseph Vilsmaier. One of the greatest war films made, it shows the largest battle in history from the perspective of the common German soldier. Fyodor Bondarchuk’s 3D masterpiece Stalingrad (2013) presents a Russian view from below. Both films, like Enemy at the Gates (2001), should be watched to comprehend the horror of modern industrial warfare. We don’t think they are self-destructive.

War has always dominated cinema. Photographers prepared the ground by covering the Crimean War (1853-56) and the American Civil War (1861-65). Film-makers like Griffith converted cinema into a justification for White racism. The three-hour long white reaction to slave liberation The Birth of a Nation (1915), a mix  of aesthetics, racism and white nationalism, became a model for nationalist films elsewhere. Such films transported the narrative of nationalism from photos to cinema.

Pioneering Indian producers and directors worked in an autocratic context. They canalized their efforts into portraying cultural symbols and values via allegories of an anti-colonial yearnings. The cultural values chosen were idealistic and religious. Costume dramas highlighted medieval chivalry often saturated with religious symbolism.6 The allegories ran through the stream of modern historiography with varying consequences. Medieval conflicts were meant to symbolise modern national-colonial conflicts. Whether the semi-literate religious audiences took these films literally is an important question. On the other hand, the British produced films highlighting the colonial stereotype of Indians.

The empire cinema genre films sometimes provoked riots among the audiences.7 During the colonial era nationalist cinema was symbolic and allegorical and empire cinema represented colonial ideology. The First World War, known as the Great War (1914-18), Spanish Civil War (1936-39) and Second World War (1939-45) yielded a huge cinema archive which historians continue to use till date. More, and hitherto unpublicized, visuals of these and other noteworthy events of the 20th century keep surfacing periodically enriching our knowledge of the follies committed humans.

From the early 20th century cinema became modern ideology via feature and documentary films. Studios, outdoor shoots, costumes, sound, professional film actors, cinema halls and a film going public comprised an influential event. In the massive footage corpus, which developed war cinema has remained a favourite with audiences across the world and many critical war films are ranked quite high by experts in the list of tops films ever produced. Experts opine that photography and cinema encouraged military voyeurism indulged in by people who could ‘enjoy’ war from a distance. The fact that the devastation caused by industrialized war grew by leaps and bounds in the 20th century despite the simultaneous growth in war cinema proves that filming war or making war films rarely had the effect of turning the great majority of audiences into pacifists.

Possibly, cinematic voyeurism encourages apathy towards war and encourages the war mongers. But the opposite is also true as the case of mass protests against the Vietnam War or Israeli atrocities on the Palestinians, to take only two examples, prove. Photography also fortified colonialism. When the western public demanded photographic evidence of world events, photographers visited the colonies for exotic locales and events. Thus, the Indian Revolt of 1857 or famines became saleable commodities of European photographers. The metropolitan imagery of the tropics was enriched by a photo curating of the colonies. Wildlife and nature photography developed a kind of photographic anthropology which influenced public discourses of civilization strengthening orientalism or notions of the noble savages in general.

Periodically war films receive awards and top the popularity charts. What can explain the popularity of war films and the longevity of the war film genre? What sustains public interest in war and its filming either as feature or documentary? Do war films keep the popular fascination with war and violence alive? The answer to these questions can be sought in the relationship of war, memory and modern national and cultural existence. Contemporary and historical war and associated patriotic sacrifice is central to the imagination of the nation. Almost all nation-states are modern and draw upon military memories to sustain themselves ideologically and materially. Nationalism and war are usually combined in the mainstream war movie but the corpus of films criticizing war, and thereby undermining nationalism, is also quite large. The Indian contribution to the genre of critical war films is negligible.

Historian Arthur Marwick outlines the relationship between war and nationalism: ‘Wars loom large in the memories of ordinary human beings; particularly this is true of those who have directly encountered the intense excitement, as well as the dreadful tragedy and suffering, of war, who have been projected by war into new jobs, new experiences, and perhaps, a new sense of purpose and self-esteem, or who have been swayed by the claims both of government propagandists and idealistic activists that the horror and sacrifice of war must necessarily lead to the creation of a better world. Even if those personally involved in the second of the twentieth century’s total wars are now passing from the scene, younger generations still absorb national myths, mainly through television and simplified text books and they still feel the perennial fascination exerted by tales of human slaughter on a massive scale.8 (emphasis added)

According to Benedict Anderson and Eric Hobsbawm nations comprise imagined communities stitched together by print capitalism and ideologies. Mythical history and its cinematic form are essential to recreate the nation continuously. Antonio Gramsci described this as hegemony. According to Tagore nationalism is a menace to humanity and creativity.9 Nationalism’s beneficiaries are the military-industrial and politico-military complexes and service professionals and intellectuals involved in producing nation films. Since nationalism is widely projected and accepted essentially as a masculine and patriarchal discourse war comes naturally to it. Nothing like war to stimulate the hormones! Thus, how’s the josh? Analysing defeat has never been a strong characteristic of Indian war portrayals. A salient feature of Hindi cinema’s relationship with the military and war is their use as props for romantic themes.

Further, war films glorify upper caste Hindu religious and patriarchal values and superstitions common to commercial Indian cinema. The Indian war film serves a jingoistic audience which, to use Satyajit Ray’s words, is backward. In a country where mobs are aroused to riot by myths, making films critical of the military and history is impossible. In mob societies critical cinema is niche cinema appreciated by small groups of insecure people. Exceptions, as usual, prove the rule and unusually touching and realistic films like the Amrit Sagar directed 1971 (2007) are rare in the shrill Indian war cinema. This award-winning tragic film, set in 1977, highlights the predicament of Indian soldiers taken POW during the 1971 Indo-Pak War on the Western Front. There are also references to the POWs of the 1965 war who were forgotten by the state and public and left to languish in various Pakistani prisons. The story of the prisoners who never came back has recently been told once again in a well researched book by C.S. Dogra.10

Hindi films portray the military as masculine, straight, nationalist and self-sacrificing. Military families are ideal bourgeois families. Police films do the same; Shool, Ab Tak Chappan, Dabang, Singham and Sooryavanshi type films are cathartic fantasies aligned with ruling ideologies. TV crime programmes wrongly promote the police as professional. Crime Patrol etc. judiciously avoid political and big financial crimes. Films critical of the military, Shaurya, for instance, redeems the secular credentials of the army. The communally deranged CO is court martialled but the film provides an intrastructural solution to communalism in the military. In fact, the Indian Army is popularly viewed as an oppressive occupier in Kashmir, Manipur and Nagaland.

No Bombay film-maker has made a film on the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA, 1958) which negates democracy. The question of presenting a cinema of blunders in Sri Lanka (1987-9) or Kashmir (1989-2008) does not arise. This is not to say that propagandist films per se are devoid of technical excellence, artistic merit and social content. While discussing the films of the Nazi film-maker Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s favourite, a critic raises a fundamental question: can great art spring from a bad idea?11 This question is also applicable to music. Richard Wagner was loved by the Nazis. Wagner’s son in law, the Kaiser’s social anthropologist and Hitler’s ‘John the Baptist’, was the anti-Semite English social Darwinist, Houston Stewart Chamberlain. Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1934), is known for its visual effects. Her Olympia (1938) is an ode to Nazi perfect human forms based on the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

The military has been used as an adventurous playground of bourgeois love stories by Hindi cinema. Periodically they add spice to the mindless staple of middle class or faux rural song and dance Bollywood fantasies. Most of Indian stardom is politically opportunist and emanates from this cinematic opiate to which the mob is addicted. Family centred soaps run for months on channels reinforcing sexual, cultural and regressive stereotypes.

The official military uniform appeared in Hindi cinema soon after independence. From Hum Dono in the 1950s to Raj Kapoor’s triangular love story Sangam of the 1960s through to Aradhana of Rajesh Khanna fame of the early 1970s, military men have been yoked to tropes of love, fidelity, national service, honour and, above all, correct projections of masculinity. Films like Prem Pujari and Hindustan Ki Kasam were Bollywood tributes to the military conveniently featuring the petty-bourgeois character of the hero invariably shown as a young, mature, middle-level officer. This aspect is underscored by the officer culture depicted in various scenes; the ‘ballroom’ and party sequences involving romantic songs with pianos, caricatured Anglicized senior officers sporting handlebar moustaches, the bars and drinking bouts, vehicles such as jeeps driven by the heroes often quite recklessly and the tragic death of heroes.

Going by the fairy tales of Bollywood, officers make romantic husbands found irresistible by ideal, glamorous and loyal women. A portrayal of ‘straying’ women would challenge this patriarchal idyll. Widows and frustrating widowhood comprise important margins of Hindi cinema in any case.12 Hence a war widow remarrying or an officer wife having an affair are taboo to Bollywood.

Till recent times Hindi war cinema has been a love story disguised in military colours. Manoj Kumar’s Upkaar, made soon after the Indo-Pak war of 1965 is a crude tribute to Lal Bahadur Shastri’s slogan Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan. The film was also influenced by the famine-like conditions and shortages prevalent in India before the green revolution. One song in it alludes to the social ills responsible for and produced by these shortages and the black market spawned by them. The Upkaar hero is the archetype North Indian kisan who dons the uniform when the nation needs him; the kisan becomes the jawan. While he is fighting the Pakistanis, things go wrong in his village. Greedy urban enemies from within conspire against the culturally purity of the village. The victorious jawan returns to set the house, a metaphor for the nation, in order. Upkaar drove home the romantic notion that Bharat is essentially rural. There is a love story in the film, but the message is overtly cultural and political.

But Upkaar cannot be called a war movie. The border war is peripheral to the film centred on definitions of Indian culture expanded in Poorab Aur Paschim later by Manoj Kumar. Upkaar presents the protagonist as a rural stereotype. The hero of Upkaar could not have been a Dalit proletarian or anyone else but a kisan; an upper caste peasant proprietor resolutely opposed to the violation, alienation or division of his land meaning his mother.5 This kisan-jawan is the rural counterpart of the public school educated urban petty bourgeois military officer bound together in mutual respect for family, tradition and nation. The gender equations governed by norms essential to the patriarchal nation-state remain the same.13

The war film Haqeeqat made soon after the Sino-Indian War of 1962 revolves around the heroic battle of Rezangla-Chushul. It stereotypes both Indians and Chinese and justifies Indian presence in Ladakh through a love affair between the Major destined to die at Rezangla and a chaste local girl who suffers in Chinese hands. This brief affair, during which the hero promises the girl a prosperous life in mainland India, is a metaphor for Ladakh’s union and future with India. Recent slick Bollywood war releases and police films stereotype Muslims. Films on medieval warriors and battles are often badly researched, incorrect and ridiculous.14

Most Second World War films are heroic narratives and depict monumental history. They have romantic sub-plots, but their equipment is authentic and direction is good although the portrayal of war in them squares with dominant Allied and masculine perspectives. The Longest Day, for example, shows the 1944 Normandy landings in significant detail with adequate coverage given
to the reactions of the German General Staff. Soviet films are also good, although they focus on showing the exploits of the Red Army against the German invaders. Other films, without being critical of war per se, offer insights missing from Bollywood’s amateur dabbling in military history.

Other dimensions of war have also been explored by western filmmakers. Films made in the 1970s included the Great Escape which narrates the story of a valiant escape of allied POWs from a German POW camp. Escape from Sorbibor unlike Schindler’s List shows a group of enterprising POWs and Jews as agents of history. The film is based on real events in which a daredevil Soviet POW played a major role. Hell in the Pacific is a humanist film about a Japanese soldier and an American serviceman marooned on an island in the Pacific Ocean. These two don’t understand each other’s languages but this barrier is soon overcome and a friendship based on mutual respect and cooperation for survival develops. Unfortunately, this egalitarian relationship, with its message of universal humanism ends when the two are discovered by their respective sides towards the end. The film is a powerful critique of the divisions caused among human beings by ideas of civilization and nationalism.

Set in the context of the Second World War and made with resources Hollywood producers can command Schindler’s List’s imagery of the liquidation Jews remains unsurpassed. Schindler, a German businessman who saved the lives of eleven hundred Polish Jews, was essayed by inimitable Liam Neeson. In Germany its screening set off the discovery of many local Schindlers. Nonetheless, the film has been criticized for Americanizing the Holocaust with Hollywood techniques and traditions of making heroic historical. Perhaps the hand of the US Jewish lobby is discerned in the making of Schindler’s List, but even a contemporary critique notices that it shows the transformation of an ‘opportunist, gambler, and philanderer... into Schindler the heroic rescuer.’ The film highlights the horrors of genocide despite its subjective portrayal of Jews as victims.

This film can be watched with Shoah, the longest documentary on the Holocaust by the French film-maker Claude Lanzmann. Shoah (1985) relies heavily on interviews done over a long period with the witnesses, victims, executors and historians of the holocaust to highlight the apparent professional normalcy of the final solution.15 It has interviews with well known Holocaust historians woven into the footage and is indeed a masterpiece. In comparison, Hindi war films comprise state propaganda which eschew real military experiences. Hence films evade disasters like the IPKF intervention in Sri Lanka (1987-89) or the military failures in the North East despite the AFSPA being in force. No proper visual history India’s wars from below exists or is possible in today’s political atmosphere.

Consequently, Indian producers, terrified of the state, succumb to self-censorship. As B.D. Garga observes: ‘Papa knows what is best, so papa begins to think for the rest of us. This paternalism has extended itself to most spheres of our social, moral, intellectual and even dietary attitudes… The financial risks of film-making being what they are, the fear of the censors (governmental) and censure (from pressure groups) together with an extremely vague code whose social policy is one of hypocrisy and hush-hush and whose criteria are susceptible to the sensibilities (or the lack of it) of morons, compels the producers to play safe.’ In sum, the future of meaningful war cinema in India is bleak.


1. Tom Brook, ‘Is There Any Such Thing as an “Anti-War Film”?’, a film be truly anti war (Sourced on 13.10.21).

2.  Adam Nayman, ‘1917 and The Trouble With War Movies’, The Ringer – (Sourced on 13.10.21).

3. For Said’s recorded comments and Pontecorvo’s self-reflection on the making of these films see>The Eqbal Ahmad Project>videos (Sourced on 24.10.21).

4. Haider Eid and Khaled Ghazel, ‘Footprints of Fanon in Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers and Sembene Ousamne’s Xala’, English in Africa 35(2), October 2008, pp. 151-161, published by Rhodes University.

5. Tom Brook, ‘Is There Any Such Thing As An “Anti-War Film”?’, a film be truly anti war (Sourced on 13.10.21).

6. For more on this see Anirudh Deshpande, Class Power and Consciousness in Indian Cinema and Television. Primus Books, New Delhi, 2009.

7 For details see Prem Chowdhry, Colonial India and the Making of Empire Cinema: Image, Ideology and Identity. Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2000.

8. From the Introduction of Arthur Marwick (ed.), Total War and Social Change. Macmillan, London, 1988.

9. Nationalism. Prakash Books, New Delhi, 2021, p. 100.

10. Chander Suta Dogra, Missing in Action: The Prisoners Who Never Came Back. Harper Collins, India, 2020.

11. Indrajit Hazra, ‘Camera Obscura’, Hindustan Times, New Delhi, 2 October 2003.

12. This contrasts with the policy of getting service widows remarried.

13. Upkaar redeems the urban through gender; the city-bred female doctor marries the hero. Thus, India is subsumed by Bharat.

14. Shraddha Kumbhojkar’s commentary on Indie Journal, YouTube, Historian Reacts to Bajirao Mastani, 26 December 2021.

15. Miriam Bratu Hansen, ‘Schindler’s List is Not Shoah: The Second Commandment, Popular Modernism and Public Memory’, in Marcia Landy, The Historical Film: History and Memory in Media. The Athlone Press, London, 2001. Critics argue that it shows the Jews from the German perspective and is ‘concerned with survival, the survival of individuals, rather than the fact of death, the death of an entire people of peoples’ (p. 205). She asserts that Spielberg concentrates on evolving Schindler’s character from the banal to heroic whereas the Jews appear stereotyped.