The Indian war movie’s most prominent weaknesses are where the cinematic rubber meets the road, in its depiction of military combat. The Indian film industry has a distinct understanding of what transpires on a battlefield and it only bears a passing relationship to the realities of warfare or the conduct of military operations in any theatre of war. Military history aficionados will complain of the lack of realism and the poor level of military detail in the Indian war movie: Guns and weapons not in use in the relevant historical period are shown, uniforms, stripes, and insignia are wrong, conversations about military tactics are elementary and superficial, battle scenes are clumsily staged and directed.

The military content generated by the armed forces for Indian war movies consists of perfunctory war games or firepower demonstrations doubling as ostensible battle scenes. This results in superficial and awkward battle sequences; those of Border, Lakshya and LOC: Kargil pale in comparison to those of modern ‘mainstream’ productions like Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers. In earlier movies, like Aakraman and Hindustan Ki Kasam, there is no attempt to stage a war scene; the filmmakers merely record Indian Army exercises and take-offs, landings and formation flights by the IAF.

Occasionally, the Indian war movie gets it right: Aakraman shows the correct uniforms for the Pakistani and Indian Army; Hindustan Ki Kasam, Border, and Vijeta exploit spectacular visuals of fighter jets taking off, landing, and flying; Vijeta incorporates excellent technical detail on flying training and the handling of flight emergencies; LOC: Kargil shows the legendary Bofors guns in action and is filled to the brim with military iconography; The Ghazi Attack offers a technically detailed and plausible depiction of submarine warfare. But these are of scant comfort in a domain touched all too often by cinematic clumsiness.

The Ghazi Attack (2017),

The makers of the Indian war movie were not lacking for an example to emulate in their depiction of combat. For his Sholay, one of Indian cinema’s biggest hits of all time, Ramesh Sippy employed specialized stunt directors and crew to render its action sequences involving fights on trains, horseback stunts, and pitched gun battles. The makers of Indian war movies might have found a similar investment in technical apparatus and specialized directorial assistance for combat scenes profitable at the box office. Instead, the cooperation the armed forces rendered the filmmakers – one acknowledged in the opening frames of each of the movies under consideration – appears a matter of access to bases, military equipment, and help in staging war scenes; military technical advisers have not directed, nor vetted, the military accuracy of the screen depictions of combat.

As K.S. Nair notes, ‘Indian war films have not had much input or influence from veterans that have resulted in significant script, narrative or tone changes.’ Neither have the directors of the Indian war movie actively consulted, and worked in cooperation with, military historians.

In sharp contrast, Steven Spielberg’s ‘creative aides and consultants’ on Saving Private Ryan include the historian Stephen Ambrose and Dale Dye, a retired Marine Corps captain. Dye also served as the technical military adviser for HBO’s twin series on World War II, Band of Brothers and The Pacific. The latter was based on personal accounts written by veterans of the campaign in the Pacific; the former on Stephen Ambrose’s book. The difference in the quality of the battle scenes in those productions and in Indian war movies demonstrates what may be achieved by cooperation between a dedicated director working from a historical source and military advisers committed to an accurate depiction of the realities of war on the screen.

Saving Private Ryan (1998).

For Indian filmmakers though, cooperation with the military is a double-edged sword; the military can, like any other branch of a notoriously bureaucratic government, generate material and formal obstacles to their movie’s completion. Films not made on services’ premises or using stock footage sourced from the military do not require a review by the services, but those dealing with services’-related topics do. Such review work is done by an officer with no filmmaking or history background, who might instead pedantically nit-pick over obscure points; a review is no index of quality or accuracy, and only adds to the overheads of production.

Cooperation with the armed forces was required for Indian war movies; the forces complied, enthused by ‘free’ public relations, an ironic acquiescence given that security arrangements at military bases and the Indian Secrets Act prevent adequate military histories from being written. A journalist or professional historian writing on the Indian armed forces will find access to historical records blocked by junior officers or Ministry of Defence officials hesitant to hand over the keys to the historical stores, but a television producer seeking spectacular footage of military hardware and chiselled men in crew-cuts for a documentary or a video brochure is likely to be rewarded. The superficial understanding of the armed forces, their operations and their relationship with the Indian republic, that results is visible in the sentimental militarism and skimpy historical detail of Indian war movies.

Complaints about war movies produced in India – mine included – are drawn from a familiar pool of indictments of historical feature films: Implausible plot devices, poor characterization of historical figures and inaccurate history. The excellence of the ‘classic’ Hollywood war movie is not merely a matter of access to material resources and budgets; it tells the story better, with more nuance, and emotional and historical depth. The Indian film industry’s budgets – though skewed by actor salaries with little left over for special effects – are not minimal as is evident in its productions’ expensive dance sequences with overseas locations, and large casts of extras and backup dancers.

Sandese Aate Hai, Border (1997).

The Indian film industry knows other components of its ‘package’ offer greater box-office attractions than technically adept action sequences. Certainly, Border’s audiences cared little for the historical details of the screen action. But otherwise, the lack of commercial success of Indian war movies suggest viewers have often found them failing to provide entertainment too. These are the same audiences who routinely turn Hollywood action movies – sometimes dubbed in Hindi – into bestsellers in Indian markets.

An awareness that modern Indian viewers access first-run Hollywood action and thriller movies has forced Indian filmmakers to employ a modern idiom for their recent productions. As the visual effects, technical iconography and action scenes of Uri: The Surgical Strike demonstrate, the contemporary Indian war filmmaker is committed to a far more technically polished ‘product’, with greater accuracy of technical detail; in Uri: The Surgical Strike, these are impressively on target. The officers and enlisted men resemble paratrooper commandoes; their uniforms, armaments, military procedures and operations are largely accurately depicted. The staggering commercial success of Uri: The Surgical Strike suggests that a slick action movie functioning as a propaganda vehicle, one that selectively calls upon particular aspects of the Indian film formula, is the future of the Indian war movie.

Uri: The Surgical Strike (2019).

Excerpted with permission from Bollywood Does Battle – The War Movie and the Indian Popular Imagination, Samir Chopra, HarperCollins India.