Culture & Thought -- Film: A Lost Opportunity --- The New India-Pakistan Film Couldn't Have Worse Timing
By Salil Tripathi
16 January 2004
The Asian Wall Street Journal
(c) 2004 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Three years ago, when Bollywood filmmaker J.P. Dutta embarked on "LOC-Kargil," the mood in India seemed perfect for a jingoistic film about the 1999 India-Pakistan war that captured India's sense of injured innocence. By mid-2001, the two countries had massed nearly a million soldiers on the border. Coming within three years of their tit-for-tat nuclear tests, South Asia was on the brink of a potential catastrophe.
Had "LOC-Kargil" been released then, it would have found an enthusiastic audience in India, where soldiers had replaced Bollywood stars as heroes. Unfortunately for Mr. Dutta, however, the film was delayed because of the difficulty of shooting battle scenes in harsh mountainous terrain. The result is that the timing of the film's release in Indian theaters this winter could hardly have been worse.
Tickets went on sale at Christmas, just a week before Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's historic summit meeting in Islamabad with Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The week the film opened, Gen. Musharraf was just emerging from two assassination attempts. These attempts aroused international sympathy for the tight-rope diplomacy he has had to play, reining in fundamentalists at home and co-operating with the United States in the war on terror.
So while the colonels in the film keep referring to Pakistan as "dushman" (enemy), in the real world India and Pakistan were agreeing to re-establish road and air connections and restart cultural exchanges, and an Indian cricket team is to tour Pakistan in March.
The problem, however, is more than just timing; it is the content of the film itself. While the film is superbly photographed, it never rises above being a propagandist documentary. It spectacularly fails in explaining the background, even though it had over four hours in which to do so. Such an explanation is especially necessary in India where the population is young, and a large majority has been born with no memory of the freedom struggle or the circumstances that led to Partition.
That war had caught India by surprise: Pakistani armed forces, under the overall command of a general called Pervez Musharraf, had made incursions in Indian territory during the winter, controlling heights from which they could attack a critical national highway and shell Indian military positions and villages. Indian soldiers fought a bitter, uphill struggle to turn back the aggression later that summer.
The film's cryptic title refers to the Line of Control in the sector called Kargil in Kashmir. The Line of Control divides the former princely state of Kashmir into two unequal parts: the Indian part called Jammu and Kashmir and the Pakistani part called Azad Kashmir (Free Kashmir) in Pakistan, and Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK) in India. This line's existence personifies the checkered division of India and Pakistan. Kargil is one of the sectors at the Line of Control -- and in the spring of 1999 the Indian army discovered that Pakistani troops had made inroads into Indian territory, capturing fortifications that India had abandoned during the winter. From those strategic heights, the Pakistanis could, and did, attack an arterial Indian highway. Hence the mobilization of forces to repel the Pakistani army. To make his film, Mr. Dutta needed the cooperation of the Indian army. He received plenty of it, including many soldiers acting as soldiers -- although the meaty, speaking parts went to over a dozen Bollywood stars like Abhishek Bachchan, Akshaye Khanna, Saif Ali Khan, Sunil Shetty, and Sunjay Dutt. You also get to see the biggest display of Indian military hardware outside of the Republic Day Parade on Jan. 26.
The film begins by showing an Indian forward unit lying dead in the mountains, and slowly it dawns on the commanders in the plains that these attacks are fundamentally different from the attacks Kashmiri separatists have been making on India. Battalions and divisions get sent to different points along the Line of Control with inadequate information, and the soldiers fight valiantly, attacking Pakistani units from behind, or walking straight into a hail of bullets, continuing to shoot.
The film has no coherent narrative. The stories of the characters blend into one another, and even their love stories get repetitive. As the film meanders without plot, a certain consistency emerges: in the language the soldiers use, the uphill climb, the attacks from behind. Like the heroes of Indian myths, countless times a soldier is killed and then falls into the arms of a fellow soldier. As his eyes go lifeless, the other soldier gently closes his eyes and rises, screaming and shouting. He then showers the enemy's bunker with bullets and invokes Hindu gods.
This would be great material for a course in jingoism 101, but it is not entirely accurate. The Indian army is made up of soldiers of all faiths, and many commanders are very careful to not invoke Hindu gods. While religion is not banned from the barracks, and soldiers of all faiths visit temples along the way, the repeated invoking of Durga and Shankar and Rama, deities of the Hindu pantheon, is surprising.
Furthermore, the repeated, abusive language the Indian soldiers use to refer to the Pakistanis may be accurate, but it hardly helps to create a positive image of Indian soldiers in the Indian middle class, which had supported the troops at the time of the war. When Indian troops repeatedly stab or shoot a Pakistani soldier who is already dead, this does not reflect well either. It may even violate the laws of war.
But the film doesn't try to explore the Pakistani point of view, either. In fact, "LOC-Kargil" portrays Pakistanis in such a one-dimensional manner that it fails to grip the viewer. A few scenes of Pakistani commanders explaining their rationale, even at the risk of deleting one of the repetitive scenes taken from the Indian perspective, would have greatly enhanced the film. By not making an effort to explore Pakistani motivations, Mr. Dutta lost a major opportunity to give the film some depth.
Mr. Tripathi is a London-based writer.