How India’s armed forces have become Bollywood’s new poster boys

一世ndia’s military will take a starring role this summer. 在 12 八月, in time for Independence day on the 15th, Amazon Prime’s big Hindi release is Shershaah, the biopic of the revered figure of Captain Vikram Batra, posthumously awarded India’s top military honour, the Param Vir Chakra, after he died fighting Pakistani troops in the heights of Kargil in 1999. “Shershaah” (which means “King of Lions”) was Batra’s code-name during radio communications.

Shershaah is one in a long and popular tradition of Indian military films – the Kargil war alone has inspired eight box-office hits – and launches the day after another big-budget production, Bhuj: The Pride of India, about the behind-enemy-lines construction of an airstrip by the Indian air force, with the help of 300 village women, during the 1971 war with Pakistan that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh. September will see the release of Ekkees (Twenty One), a biopic of the youngest recipient of the Param Vir Chakra, Second Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal, who died in the same conflict.

This present spate of war movies reflects India’s increasing militarism in recent years, and is firmly entwined with contemporary political concerns. In contrast to the previous government’s policy of “strategic restraint”, current prime minister Narendra Modi has made much of military confrontation with Pakistan. 在 2019, Modi apparently ordered an airstrike on a base in Balakot in Pakistan after a bomb attack against Indian soldiers in Kashmir; three years earlier, he had authorised a special forces raid in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, following grenade attacks on Indian forces. 确实, Modi’s 2019 re-election campaign was founded on his retaliation at Balakot; styling himself India’s chowkidar – “watchman” – he was re-elected by a landslide. But Pakistan isn’t the only neighbour India feuds with. Last summer saw lethal hand-to-hand skirmishing in the mountains at Galwan, on the border with China, when India lost 20 soldiers while intelligence sources estimated China suffered at least 43 casualties. The topic of war, mountain warfare especially, is at the forefront of the public’s mind.

Shershaah revisits what remains the highest-altitude war fought by any army in history. The Kargil war was also – following the opening of India’s economy during the 1990s and the arrival of multi-channel satellite television, rolling news and the internet – “India’s first televised war”, according to Sidharth Malhotra, who stars as Batra. Even before his death, Batra had become a national hero when he spoke to a young TV reporter from the news channel NDTV about his battlefield promotion to captain, while recuperating from illness in a field hospital. In that interview, Batra revealed that his war-cry had been, Yeh dil maange more! (“The heart desires more!”), taken from a popular Pepsi advert at the time. The slogan is now more famous for Batra’s use than for any cola; while the reporter, Barkha Dutt, has gone on to become one of the country’s most famous and outspoken journalists – India’s version of Christiane Amanpour.

“We saw it play out step by step,” says Abhijit Iyer-Mitra, senior fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi. “His entire life was played out on TV, they even went and spoke to his parents … The public had this connection with all these young boys. We were all glued to our TV sets.”

The Kargil war has been depicted on-screen several times, but Shershaah is the first movie shot in the region close to where the fighting took place – a bare lunarscape, covered in sharp, broken rocks that slide underfoot – and gives a sense of how difficult the conditions were. “It was the toughest mountain war ever fought,” says its Tamil director, Vishnuvardhan. “We couldn’t shoot at the actual location, because it’s at 16,000 feet and the oxygen level is too low. We managed to film only between 12 和 14,000 feet … But we were able to understand the terrain and difficulties they were facing. Even at that altitude, everyone from the talent to the technicians were losing their breath.”

The other big war movies of this year, Bhuj and Ekkees, are set during the 1971 conflict with Pakistan, 哪一个, in the Indian mind, defines the relationship between the two powers. The geopolitical complexities, civilian slaughter and refugee crisis – over 10 million people fled to India – and the political and economic crisis this caused in India, leading to Indira Gandhi declaring the two-year Emergency in 1975, have rarely made it to the Bollywood screen, which prefers commercial action tales of individual courage.

Unlike the military engagements with China or the failed peacekeeping operation in Sri Lanka undertaken between 1987-90, India’s wars with Pakistan are privileged by Bollywood “because we always win,” says Iyer-Mitra. Such films are “used by India in much the same way as war movies are by the US military, for recruitment and propaganda. You’re assured of the military’s co-operation.” The army gave its full support to the production of Shershaah, sending two officers on location to assist.

The military is one of the few institutions whose makeup reflects India’s vast multi-ethnic and multi-religious population. Public support for it transcends regional and communal loyalties. Batra, the subject of Shershaah, had grown up imbibing the romance of the military with his twin brother, Vishal, watching the Sunday-morning TV action-series, Param Vir Chakra, named after the honour he received on dying. Both had wanted to be soldiers, but after being rejected by the army, Vishal became a banker and has supported the production. “It’s a moment of pride,” he says of watching his brother played by Malhotra. “We had a lovely childhood and spent 20 years of life together. The country knows my brother as Shershaah, but will now get to know him as Vikram.”

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