Fifty years after the Indo-China war, we have piled up books, interviews, papers, testimonials and documentaries on the subject, but only one major movie. Chetan Anand’s Hindi film Haqeeqat, made in 1964, influenced the handful of war dramas that followed, notably JP Dutta’s Border. Although Anand was a leftist, he suspended his scepticism and peddled the Jawaharlal Nehru government’s line that the war was a result of the back-stabbing and mean-spirited Chinese. Yet, Haqeeqat is among the few films to explore a war that most Indians want to forget.
Haqeeqat is shot on location, features back-slapping camaraderie between the soldiers and stages some spectacular battle scenes, but since it’s an Indian film, songs escape from the bunkers ever so often.
Hindi movie writers who claim to be constantly hunting for cinematic material might also want to look a disturbing outcome of the war: the shameful internment of Indian Chinese men, women and children suspected of being anti-nationals and spies in Deoli in Rajasthan. For this “haqeeqat” to emerge, writers and directors (and producers, and financiers) would have to confront harsh truths about the Indian state and expose the failings of the Army. Let’s leave both activities to former major general VK Singh for the moment and instead look at two foreign films that offer bottom-up perspectives of the absurdities of warfare and statecraft.
Italian director Mario Monicelli’s The Great War (1959) and Japanese director Yasuzo Masumura’s The Hoodlum Soldier (1965) are brilliant black comedies told from the point of view of the trenches. Both films critique the governments and military leadership of their respective countries for manipulating ordinary people into becoming cannon fodder for the enemy.
The films are unthinkable in India, which reveres its war heroes and cannot tolerate criticism of either the decision to go to war or the possibility of faulty military strategy. (Besides, what would Arnab Goswami say?) Not yet, at any rate – stranger things have happened in Indian cinema, and hopefully somebody, somewhere, is writing a screenplay about the Deoli internment camp or the real truth behind the 1962 debacle.
War is an ass and it’s the soldier who gets kicked around in The Great War. The movie is set during World War I, which is seen through the jaundiced eyes of Oreste and Giovanni, two anti-establishment soldiers who try their utmost best to shirk their soldierly duties. Rather than condemning them, the filmmaker shoots over their shoulders to question the purpose served by the battle. Bodies pile up, soldiers die futilely, families are torn apart. Meanwhile, Oreste and Giovanni keep trying to wriggle away from the action. It’s very funny and therefore, deeply moving.
Monicelli shot most of the film on outdoor locations and convincingly recreated the battlefield for the screen. The Great War was made in the fifties, but it could be happening at any point in time anywhere in the world. At least the movie ends on a semblance of hope in individuals, if not in the nation. The Hoodlum Soldier is far funnier, more wicked and more cynical. The aptly named movie critiques the Japanese response to World War II. Dark, cruel humour is the order of day as army units stationed in Manchuria prepare to face annihilation. The movie’s anti-hero is an incorrigibly anti-authoritarian soldier who couldn’t care less for emperor, flag or nation. He refuses to submit to authority despite being repeatedly disciplined and would rather cavort with prostitutes at the Army-sanctioned brothel. His punching bag, and later his buddy, is his upright but disgruntled handler. The intelligent script regards as its real enemies the hierarchy-obsessed Army elite but also the politicians and bureaucrats who put them there in the first place. War films are usually meant to inspire patriotic fervour in audiences. Both The Great War and The Hoodlum Soldier have the potential to send you straight into the arms of the pacifists.
(This weekly series, which appears on Fridays, looks at how the cinema of the past helps us make sense of the present.)