THE MISSING INDIAN SOLDIERS IN WAR FILMS
Indian Cinema is so acutely hero oriented that it continues to ignore all the other members of the cast that make for a good film. This has not been the case of cinema elsewhere. When it came to the making of war films on themes on which the country’s history changed the course of their civilization, then cinema has focused on the role of the people and less on the leadership within the defense forces. This has been one major reason why Indian cinema has yet to come up with the first ‘great ‘war film in its compendium of over 48,000 feature films made till date, while there has been no dearth of great dramas from the war theatres in foreign films.
Some of the mesmerizing war films in the world film archives remain like, Fall of Berlin (USSR), Platoon, All Quiet on the Western Front, To Hell and Back, The Longest Day (USA), Gallipoli (Australia) Bridge on the River Kwai(UK),Two Women(Italy), Path of Glory, Saving Private Ryan, Come and See, Pearl Harbour (USA);the list runs long.
In some of the biggest battles fought in foreign lands, the Indian soldiers under colonial leadership played a significant role in turning the course of history. More than 74,200 Indian soldiers were killed in the many battles waged in Europe and Africa in the First World War, and 87,600 Indians were killed in the Second World War in the Far East, Middle East, Africa, and European theatres. Nearly one million Indian soldiers were injured in the conflicts again, and yet there is no tribute film on the vast number of war subjects to tell the audiences in India, how the Indian soldier participated.
Part of the blame rests with the peculiar politics of the day.
During the First World War, there was no true Indian leadership to question the entry of the Indians into the war theatres. Indians were truly and consciously a subject nation. We rejoiced in the war effort role played by the people from the Subcontinent despite the fact that there was no Indian above the rank of a rare Major in the whole of the War theatre during the four years of fighting.
In film Gallipoli (Australia) this battle fought in Turkey saw battalion strength of Indian soldiers participate and get killed by the hundreds, and yet in the film itself, save for a stray mention of Indian units being in the trenches, no Indian face was shown. Indians had played a major role in the defeat of the Turks which led to the relief of the Middle East from the clutches of an oppressive Ottoman Empire. Mahatma Gandhi fresh from South Africa had opposed the Indian participation and in turn to win the Muslim world, started the Khilafat Movement thereafter.
The Indian soldier played a major role repeatedly in the war theatres of Persia, Kong Kong, Italy, Singapore, Belgium, France, Germany, Burma, Malaysia, North Africa, Iraq, Palestine, Ethiopia-Eriteria, yet in world cinema he remained faceless and without tribute for the sacrifices made.
Perhaps the trend would have continued had it not been for some resident Indians in England whose families had participating members in the ranks during the Second World War, and went through the confusion of the retreat from Dunkirk, who raised a hue and cry in noticing the absence of any mention or face of any Indian soldier who was there in big numbers in film Dunkirk, made by Christopher Nolan. The film had showcased thousands remnants of the British Allied forces returning from the coast of France. This Retreat had at least four Indian regimental units including a whole battalion of animal cavalry of Mules. The film failed to make a mention of even a word suggestive of any role of the Indian soldiers.
India today has started a new homage ceremony in New Delhi to remember the sacrifices made by its soldiery in the Battle of Haifa, in Palestine. The Memorial presently remembers other conflict successes of the cavalry regiment represented in the Teen Murti Statues opposite Teen Murti House. The Indian government has added the Battle of Haifa in its tribute readings. In Haifa , now Israel, a ceremony is held at the Indian cemetery where the Indian soldiers were buried in 1918. There is no film made as yet to commemorate this historic victory. The Jews of Israel do not have funds to make war films, when the Jews of USA fund real wars for USA!
In the documentary footage on the Battle of Hong Kong and of the Battle of Singapore, there are glimpses showing Indian soldiers taking positions against the enemy, but still no mention of them for identification purposes.
In the British film, Battle for Britain. A small group of trained Indian pilots also joined the campaign forming the first batch of RIAF. The film did not mention of this participation.
In the film on Battle of Turbuk (Australia) the focus was on the role of Australian soldiers and some junior commissioned officers of the Australian army units, but what was missed was the presence in the story of the siege, was Indian soldiers who participated as part of the Allied forces to fight off the occupied German army units.
Finally we find a reasonable Indian mention in a British film, El Alemien related to the Allied campaign to get rid of the German presence in north Egypt. In the film there is a scene showing Field Marshal Montgomery surrounded by his troupe leaders and he puts a question to the Indian Major, who is the latter C-in-C of Indian army, Rajendrasinhji, on the wisdom of the planned campaign. The Indian major then gives his appreciation. Outside the field War Room in the desert, are seen Indian soldiers marching around for their ‘atmosphere’ shoot. Again in the same war zone recall in cinema, in the film Desert Rats, made in 1953, there was a fleeting mention of Indian soldiers also assisting their British units in the desert war.
The Italian Allied campaign during the Second World War saw troupes invade Sicily, then move up the Italian peninsular and then get stuck at two mid points of the land at Anzio and Monte Cassino. The Allied effort had a strong presence of US armies but they were supported by Indian officers and soldiers, specially in the capture of Anzio. In the film Battle for Anzio(USA) the sound track talks of the Indian presence in the graphic which shows how the army units were to move further towards Rome. The bravery of the Indian soldier is mentioned from the mouth of Audie Murphy in his biopic To Hell and Back who got himself the highest war honours from his country of USA, in the same battle of Anzio.
And that is all.
We have to ask ourselves why is this Nelson’s Eye on the role of the Indian soldier in the two of biggest human conflicts in world history. Do we need to now rewrite completely our own history and dig out facts purposely buried deep by vested interests.
The British historians concentrated on British leadership in battle field. No one mentions how many thousand soldier were killed in the Battle of Waterloo. All remember that Wellington won the conflict in one day. The focus remained the same even after more centuries down the Time. British imperial pride insured the youth of Britain saved the King, irrespective of human costs. We are therefore left poor to know how expensive was the battle of Imphal and that of Kohima against the Japanese when thousands of men died in battle and it took two days to collect the dead bodies alone by the victorious British Indian army. These two conflicts on the India’s eastern border have not evoked a pictorial recreation. They are plum stories to be told and retold to succeeding generations. There was another problem with Imphal and Kohima. Popular sentiment was divided in support of the conflict because of the presence of the members of the INA. In any future Indian production this issue can be a stumbling block in the making of a film version. The Indian soldier will suffer the lost opportunity. When the Second Wold War broke india had a dilmma whether to join the War or not. Gandhi was now promoting his non violence movement and opposed the idea of a conflict being waged in a battle field. He only agreed , ri allow an Indian participation in the war effortwhen he was publically rebuffed by Hitler. The US film, Mission to Moscow (1943) was timely for the purpose.
Again, the native Indian government never accepted to join the War Effort voluntarily. The Indian National Congress wanted to negotiate the participation. Finally when they did agree, the entire defense participation in the War was marked historically as the work by a bonded colonial army.
While the US USSR and UK government after the WWII, started to explain to their people how the war cost was met and why taxes were being now levied at such high levels, and also how the battles were won, the Indian Government now decided not to even mention the role of the Indian armies during the period of World history between 1938-45.
The Ministry of Defense in USA, USSR, France, UK, and Poland opened new sub head of accounts for retelling cinematically the bravery of their national armies, but no one mentioned any enemy entering Indian soil. In film Aas ka Panchhi (1961) the mere mention of a Japanese enemy on the eastern international border raised a heckle of the Indian film censors, and the word ‘japanese’ was blanked. But when the Chinese had intruded and shamed the Indians, then in film April Fool (1963) the same censors allowed a scene showing a girl cutting a birthday case figuring a Chinese soldier whose cake body is sliced half. Chetan Anand had made his film Haqeeqat (1964) dedicating it to the Indian soldiers but the film failed to impress its local audience nationwide, except in Punjab.
The Indian government has no budget to support any war movie project by the Indian film industry. It charges the depreciared factory price of each war tank and hardware used. Today however there has been some mellowing down of attitudes when war hardware is being loaned, if the insured costs are fully honoured. Even then, we have yet to see a well made war film coming out of the Indian film industry, Haqeeqat, Hum Dono, Usne Kaha Tha, LOC, Border, Vijay, Palton notwithstanding. Perhaps we need to give ourselves another decade to see the war history of Indian soldiery screened in our movie halls. We need to keep in mind that wherever we found a very good war film, they came out of those civilizations which went through the pain and wide spread destruction of their economies due to the human conflict. Indians have not been ravaged in any similar manner as a society for more than two hundred years and even then only in North India. Despite all the disruption, North Indians also do not recall the three battles of Panipat, the massacres of the conflicts during 1857, the violence of the Quit India Movement., and the many incidents of three wars with Pakistan. We have treated the Indian soldier as a mercenary, and denied him all glory, for he never said he was going to war for the Nation. Therefore he got what he deserved; a historical anonymity.