Movies based on landmark events must be preceded by sound research, near accurate depiction, especially when it comes to issues pertaining to national security.
Nothing can be more captivating than a film based on a true story. Stories about real people, places and events attract, excite and intrigue audiences. And what can be more fascinating than movies based on wars, conflict, espionage, terrorism, military inventions and discovery?
Bollywood has off and on since long been making movies based on true events pertaining to national defence and security. Two recent examples of movies based on landmark events need mentioning. Earlier this year, Bollywood released the Hindi movie Uri: The Surgical Strike, which was made and screened within two-and-a-half years of the Army’s five simultaneous retaliatory strikes carried out in September 2016 on terror camps across the Line of Control (LoC) in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK). In May 2018, Bollywood released Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran, which is based on India’s nuclear tests carried out 20 years earlier in May 1998.
Both these are defining events in contemporary Indian history. The nuclear test was in defiance of the West-dominated nuclear world order and in keeping with India’s security concerns that comprised a then overtly nuclear China and a covertly nuclear Pakistan, who in turn are all weather strategic allies with India viewed as their common adversary.
Then again, the subsequent politicisation of this event apart, the publicly announced retaliatory strikes were a landmark event, with India openly declaring its intent and capability to retaliate against the terror factories being nurtured by the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment that is insidiously engaged in slow bleeding India in Jammu and Kashmir. By conducting the strikes, India also called Pakistan’s nuclear bluff, considering that Islamabad in the past has successfully blackmailed New Delhi into caution and inaction despite its wrongdoings, citing the threatening possibility of a nuclear flare up.
Yet the fact remains that real life events may sometimes not be that interesting. It is therefore routine for filmmakers to resort to creative licence and to fabricate, over dramatise and exaggerate events. But while historians, the armed forces, key personnel from other security agencies and policymakers will not get taken in by incorrect information, most other viewers are very likely to absorb the incorrect portrayal of events.
This is where both Bollywood and the Censor Board need to be mindful. Since films are a powerful tool for creating realistic impressions, Bollywood films risk becoming real history in an era when the public, particularly the youth are not inclined to reading on their own and are greatly driven and influenced by the visual.
Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda before and during World War-II (from 1933 to 1945), would (in)famously then remark that a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth. So when people think about issues, they tend to draw upon all the knowledge they have—from movies, news, books and conversations with others. Since people are not always able to remember from where they get their information, it makes it tricky for them to separate fiction from reality.
In both Uri and Parmanu, the central role is played by an officer in the rank of major. This is far from reality. A solitary major does not plan, coordinate and lead entire groups into covert military operations. For example, leave aside any Army major, even the three Service Chiefs were unaware of the plan to conduct nuclear tests until just two days prior when on 9 May 1998 Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee informed all three in person. The only prior indication that something was possibly on was known to a very limited section of the Army, an Engineer Regiment deployed at the nuclear test site for preparing the shafts. The mission was otherwise entirely handled by a limited number of nuclear scientists and engineers working in the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), with the National Security Advisor actively in the loop.
In Parmanu, however, a solitary major is depicted as leading and coordinating a small group of AEC and DRDO scientists to conduct nuclear tests. The concept is simply too absurd and unrealistic and makes a mockery of the reality. There is no doubt that everything can never be known or depicted. Neither is that needed. But while some dramatisation is understandable, the core of the historical event must not be falsely depicted or projected in an unrealistic manner.
There is enough publicly available information on how the nuclear tests were planned and executed which the moviemakers could have so easily consulted. Or better still, Bollywood could so easily have consulted some former DRDO or AEC scientists while making Parmanu, just as Hollywood consulted former NASA scientists while making the near accurate movie Apollo 13, which depicts America’s aborted third mission to the moon. But with Parmanu being the only visual depiction on the subject so far, it is more likely that a large section of impressionistic minds will accept it to be the reality since it is a movie based on an actual event.
Similarly, the central figure in the movie Uri is again a major rank officer, who is shown to have direct access to the National Security Advisor and even the Prime Minister. The Army Chief has been relegated to the background. There is simply no mention of the military operations directorate, the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief (GOC-in-C) of the Northern Command or the GOCs of the 15 and 16 Corps in whose jurisdiction the retaliatory strikes were actually conducted. Rather, the movie has depicted the strikes as a near one-man show in which a solitary major is everything—he selects the strike team and then plans and executes the operation while working out a quiet standby arrangement with a lady Air Force officer, who unrealistically ends up flying a helicopter through the mountains at night and engaging in a fire-fight with a Pakistani military helicopter inside POK. The major reports directly to the National Security Advisor and self-invites himself and his team for dinner with the Prime Minister after the operation is over. The incident is too serious a subject to be reduced to a Rambo-type film and audiences must not end up “consuming” these films under the incorrect assumption that these movies are the truth.
Bollywood, which is known to copy films with alacrity, should learn from near accurate and yet no less entertaining Hollywood movies such as Tora Tora Tora (a US-Japanese co-production on the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbour), Downfall (a German movie which depicts the final days of Hitler and the Third Reich), Spotlight (a landmark investigation by the Boston Globe of the widespread and systematic child buse by numerous Roman Catholic priests in the Boston area) and Schindler’s List, to name a few.
Creative licence is fine. But it is smarter and intelligent if movies based on landmark and historic events are preceded by sound research, rigour and a near accurate depiction, especially when it comes to issues pertaining to national security with creative licence used in measure and with self-restraint.
Dinesh Kumar is a Chandigarh-based defence analyst.