It is so difficult to spot a naval uniform in a Bollywood film that one could easily give up hope of seeing the men in white on the big screen. In many ways, the naval uniform and its depiction reflected changing societies better than other military attire, popping up in cabaret songs in 1950s films as well as denoting a coastal town and therefore, by inference, the presence of foreign sailors passing through.
But an even rarer phenomenon is an Indian film that draws in the country’s rich history of naval warfare. Indian ships have made their presence felt since the time of the Cholas in the South and Maratha Admiral Kanohji Angre’s reign during the 17th and 18th centuries. But even the post-independence exploits of the Indian navy rarely found a mention in cinematic celebrations of military exploits. Instead, the few films that did show the men in white were dismissive of their presence.
And yet, the Indian Navy played a key role in at least four major military operations after 1947. Each operation would have done very well on the screen. These are real stories, dramatic and vigorous and coming at key points in military history.
For instance, the operation to liberate Goa in 1961 saw the Indian navy taken on the Portuguese. In 1971, missile boats carried out a historic assault on Karachi. By 1987, the Indian Navy was steaming into Maldives as part of Operation Cactus, a successful bid to remove mercenaries from Maldives who had overthrown the regime of President Abdul Gayoom. In 1988, the Navy was deeply involved in Operation Pawan during India’s disastrous operation in Sri Lanka. But it also saw the Navy play a sterling role as it deployed its first Special Forces, then called the Indian Marine Special Forces and later rechristened Marine Commandos or MARCOS. The actions of the Naval Special Forces won it the Mahavir Chakra, the second-highest military gallantry award in war.
One upcoming movie revisits the sinking of the Pakistani submarine PNS Ghazi in 1971. The Ghazi Attack, a Telugu-Hindi bilingual production, has been directed by Sankalp and stars Kay Kay Menon, Rana Dagubatti, Om Puri, Atul Kulkarni and Taapsee Pannu. The movie will be released on February 17.
In 1971, the Navy played an exceptional role and ensured that Pakistan would feel the brunt of a war that was declared after Pakistani jet fighters screamed into Indian air space and attacked forward air fields. India declared war, and the Indian Navy began preparations for an audacious attack on the Karachi harbour that pulverised the Pakistani navy. But unknown to the Indian navy, the Pakistanis had already launched a pre-emptive operation in the Bay of Bengal off the coast of Vishakhapatnam.
The headquarters of the Indian Navy’s Eastern Command, this was also home of INS Vikrant, the Navy’s sole aircraft carrier. By November 14, 1971, PNS Ghazi had already set sail and arrived off Vishakhapatnam, all set to hunt for INS Vikrant. But what the officers inside the Pakistani submarine didn’t know was that the aircraft carrier had been moved nearly a thousand nautical miles to the Andaman Islands. With its prey gone, PNS Ghazi continued to hunt for Indian Naval vessels without much success.
On December 3, 1971, INS Akshay set off on a patrol from Vishakhapatnam when it came upon the debris of PNS Ghazi. The submarine had drowned, killing everyone on board, and it looked like a blast had ripped through its hull, sinking it within minutes. Originally an American boat built during World War II, PNS Ghazi was one of four submarines that had been deployed against India. Muted claims that the Indian Navy had sunk the boat were never officially made. As many neutral accounts argued, the submarine sank due to internal explosions. Either way, this would prove to be a huge win for India.
The chequered history of PNS Ghazi contains enough drama for a movie. From the trailer, it appears that The Ghazi Attack depicts a brave Indian submarine crew that is sent to the Bay of Bengal to hunt for PNS Ghazi for 18 days. It also throws in a woman rescued by the submarine, which apparently surfaces during war time to pick up some survivors at sea.
All this sounds incredible, and it isn’t clear why India needed its version of Tom Clancy’s The Hunt For Red October, the Hollywood submarine drama that capitalised on the Cold war rivalry between the Americans and the Soviets. The general consensus is that the Pakistani submarine drowned due to an accident, probably created by its munitions blowing up inadvertently.
If the movie does indeed attribute the submarine’s destruction to a heroic Indian crew, it won’t be the first time that Indian naval history has been twisted or mutilated for dramatic results. Take the Akshay Kumar-starrer Rustom, which was based on the Nanavati scandal in which a Naval officer killed his wife’s lover. The case led to the abolishment of the jury system in India after Nanavati was acquitted even though evidence pointed clearly at his guilt.
There have been other depictions of the Indian Navy in Hindi cinema, some bordering on the comical. Sunny Deol took on the role of a Naval MARCOS in Yash Chopra’s Darr (1993). Ashok Kaul’s forgettable Param Vir Chakra (1995) must have made the Navy cringe with embarrassment. For the smallest armed forces in India, the Navy has been a bit of mystery. To be ignored and be supplanted by a fictitious narrative is the unkindest of cuts.