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Indian Cinema needs to Redefine its idea of Patriotism

Written by Shreya Ghosh

October 1st, 2020

The national discourse around patriotism is, more often than not, conflated with subservience to the armed forces.  In film, this is exemplified with the hero male soldier -unwavering in his service. “Patriotism” , if viewed through this figure, appears absolute, romantic, and relentless. ‘Uri: The Surgical Strike‘ received rave reviews and a largely positive public opinion. If anyone were to base their idea of patriotism on the portrayal in this movie, it would be absolute and unquestioning. The Hindu’s review of the film puts this well: “Patriotism is no longer overstated, it’s implicit, a given. It’s not just about heaping unbridled violence on the “other” but about combining it with sheer efficiency, skill, intelligence, counter-intelligence and efficacy. War is not just fought at the border but “ghar mein ghuske (by entering the homes)”…The many questions surrounding the surgical strikes are not raised at all.” 

Vicky Kaushal in a still from ‘Uri: The Surgical Strike’

By failing to ever question this one dimensional idea of patriotism, dissent slowly starts to be viewed as unpatriotic. This is a distortion leads to an unquestioning citizenry, one that is more likely to turn a blind eye to injustice and imperfections in governance. An uncritical portrayal of the armed forces is dangerous because it lends to a view that the institution is beyond reproach, and those belonging to it are incapable of any wrongdoing. There is, therefore, a need to pay more critical attention to films that seem to unsettle dominant visualisations and conceptualisations of the Indian armed forces. 

Gunjan Saxena questions this blind sense of patriotism in more ways than one. Gunjan’s reason for endeavouring to enter the Air Force is not any abstract, internalised idea of serving the nation, but personal ambition. The film lays emphasis on her aspiration and her determined efforts to become what she wants, not what the nations wants of her. Despite personal ambition being a double bind here for a woman attempting to break paths and enter the armed forces, it is treated as reason enough. As a review on The Wire says, “You don’t expect a mainstream Bollywood film to adopt such a simple, pragmatic approach to nationalism. Gunjan Saxena, like its protagonist, shines the most when it tries the least.” What is even more crucial is that unlike in Uri, the idea of patriotism is not unmentioned, unquestioned or implicit. It is openly discussed when the titular character has a moment of doubt as to whether her lack of conventional patriotism renders her entry into the Air Force unethical. Not only is this important due to the answer (“No”) the film endorses, but also because it makes one think: where is this question coming from? The construction of a monolithic idea of patriotism not only hinders dissent but also de-legitimises anything outside its stringent boundaries. Conventionally constructed patriotism is so abstract, so theoretical and mystical that most refuse to see it as something that can be questioned. Gunjan Saxena, then, takes a step towards breaking down this conception of patriotism. 

Promotional Poster for ‘Gunjan Saxena – The Kargil Girl’

Moreover, the highly gendered notions prevalent in the Indian Air Force at the time (1996) are portrayed in a detailed manner. In a typical portrayal, the figure of the ideal officer, as mentioned earlier, is almost always male. The male soldier is the central figure in Uri. He endorses familial values, and thus it is in him that viewers find the ideal soldier, with the family playing a symbolic role at best. The Air Force pilot Seerat Kaur, who plays a vital role in the Surgical Strike, is committed to do justice to her martyred husband, and proclaims this even during the mission. What comes across as primary is her commitment to her husband’s patriotism, not a personal ambition which would foreground her own sense of self like Gunjan’s.

At first glance then, Gunjan Saxena seems unproblematic. But, at the end of the movie one sees an all-too-easy sweeping aside of the gender issue, with Gunjan being wholly accepted into the goodwill of her male comrades due to her bravery and commitment. The basic, structural gender issue does remain unchanged. While individual battles may end well due to merit, the structural disadvantage institutions harbour towards gender still stands.

The armed forces are far from faultless. The atrocities perpetuated by the army in Kashmir very rarely finds its way into mainstream film. A 1993 report compiled by the Physicians for Human Rights and the Asia Watch division of the Human Rights Watch says, “Indian troops have increasingly targeted civilians in an effort to crush support for the guerrilla forces. Summary executions, rape, torture and deliberate assaults on health care workers have been part of this campaign, which has largely gone unnoticed by the outside world. In October 1992, Asia Watch and Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) sent a delegation to Kashmir to document human rights abuses and violations of the laws of war by Indian security forces. They also investigated incidents of abuse by armed militant groups who have also attacked civilians.” In Haider, which is set in Kashmir, the armed forces and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) are critiqued, yet the film is barely discussed outside the trappings of adaptation and Hamlet. There are no mainstream movies critiquing the AFSPA in the north-eastern states, and in general minimal dialogue on the implications of the act. “In simple terms, AFSPA gives armed forces the power to maintain public order in “disturbed areas”. They have the authority to prohibit a gathering of five or more persons in an area, can use force or even open fire after giving due warning if they feel a person is in contravention of the law. If reasonable suspicion exists, the army can also arrest a person without a warrant; enter or search a premises without a warrant; and ban the possession of firearms.” The implications of this act need to be explored more widely in film to facilitate such debate in one way. 

Films like Lakshya and War have been about male protagonists with women as plot instruments or symbolic presences at best. Romila, the protagonist’s romantic interest in Lakshya, is only portrayed as a motivation to facilitate Karan’s entry into the army, and then to provide the shock and pain that enables him to change and commit himself to his work. By the end, she again becomes the romantic interest in the film, fulfilling the “coming of age” or character arc of the protagonist. War revolves around two male protagonists. Naina, Hrithik Roshan’s character’s love interest, is used by him to facilitate his mission, and ends up losing her life in doing so. Raazi is worth mentioning (even though the protagonist is an aspiring agent and not an armed forces officer) because not only is the protagonist a woman, but the very concepts of patriotism, the impersonal and unfeeling patriot, and the destruction to people and interpersonal relationships these cause, are critiqued. The protagonist, Sehmat, is constantly instructed to be absolutely, unquestioningly patriotic. After being forced to cause the death of many people who hinder her mission in any way and realising that the absolutism of patriotism she has been taught has no space for sympathy or individual life, she confronts the senior agent who has trained her, and removes herself from the mission and the life of an agent, refusing to carry on the destruction this work demands.

As viewers, we tend to see the Indian armed forces uncritically and end up expecting uncritical portrayals. Indeed, how many people would be comfortable or appreciative had the armed forces in film been portrayed in a more nuanced way? It would have brought up questions that would invariably unsettle audiences, and for good reason. On the 1st of August, 2020, the Ministry of Defence wrote to Central Board of Fil m Certification stating that all web series on OTT platforms need to get a no objection certificate from the MoD on content depicting the Armed forces. This need for an NoC seems to stem from an anxiety, one shared by audiences as well. Any departure from idealization could be signed off as “insulting” and a “distortion’.

Not only is this concerning because it enforces an idealised portrayal of the army, but also because it will entirely curtail free expression in cinema. Even if there is a desire or effort to go beyond uncritical portrayals of the armed forces, the ability to do so might be taken away. . Creators’ and audiences’ rights and needs to explore any portrayals of these institutions that dissent to the dominant modes can potentially be denied. Further, even if there is criticism, a safe ending might be used to subvert it in order to not come under heavy censorship.  

It is vital to question the singularity of what we are being presented with, because dissenting voices keep democracy alive.  A consistently singular idea of patriotism on screen will do nothing but stifle them.

Experience Further: ‘Roobaroo’ comes from ‘Rang de Basanti’, a movie which deviates from the dominant manner of seeing patriotism, and dares to envision patriotism as tied to dissent and revolution. Pathbreaking in terms of its vision, the movie has given us a number of songs, of hope, celebration, protest, mourning, etc. Roobaroo is a song that contains and celebrates the aspects of passion and hope. AR Rahman and Naresh Iyer’s talent makes for a musical piece imbued with joyful spirit, spirit that has the potential of driving dissent.

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