A little more than 10 minutes into Stephen Spielberg’s 2005 Oscar-nominated drama Munich, Israeli prime minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) sanctions the Mossad to assassinate the top leadership of Black September. The Palestinian group is widely held responsible for planning and executing the abduction and killing of five Israeli athletes and six coaches at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany. Taking full responsibility for the decision, Meir justifies it to her senior army officers and advisors: “Forget peace for now. We have to show them we are strong… Every civilisation finds it necessary to compromise with its own values.”
This desire for a show of strength is critiqued nearly two hours later in the film, when Hans (Hanns Zischler), one of the Mossad agents on the mission, reflects: “we have killed six of the eleven names… And to dispatch our six dispatched targets, we must have spent something close to two million dollars, right? Mrs Meir says to the Knesset, ‘The world must see that killing Jews will be from now an expensive proposition.’ But killing Palestinians isn’t exactly cheap.” When the team of assassins led by agent Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana) kill their first target, Palestinian poet and translator Wael Zwaiter, they rejoice. But, as the body count rises — of their enemies, their own, and those who are collateral victims — celebrations give way to self-doubt.
As a spy film, Munich is more from the John le Carré school than the Ian Fleming one. (In a funny twist of fate, Daniel Craig, who plays one of the assassins, Steve, would go on to portray James Bond in four films, starting Casino Royale in 2006; his fifth Bond film is scheduled to release in 2020.) In the film, the Mossad agents are neither suave, nor do they have access to very hi-tech weapons. They are mostly dressed in 1970s fashion of bellbottoms and body-hugging shirts. They seem to have no control over the intensity of the bombs they use to eliminate their targets — some are too strong; others too weak. Their bombmaker, Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), confesses that he was not trained to set up explosives but to dismantle them. The men are raked by guilt and anxiety, as they find out that they are not only hunters but also hunted.
The reason I returned to this film was another one: Uri: The Surgical Strike, which has already collected Rs 100 crore at the box office since its release on January 4, and is the second blockbuster of the year, after Ranveer Singh-starrer Simmba. Directed by debutant Aditya Dhar, the film is a fictionalised account of the “surgical strikes” carried out by the Indian army on September 28-29, 2016, as a response to the terror attack on its camp at Uri in Jammu and Kashmir on September 18 that year. At least 23 Indian soldiers were killed and 100 injured in the attack, described as the worst in two decades. In a recent interview, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke at length how the strikes were planned and executed, and what its objectives were.
Detractors of the strike have questioned its effectiveness, since cross-border terrorism has continued since then. Some have even asked if the mission can be technically called a “surgical strike”. BBC journalist M Illyas Khan, writes: “Despite the use of the term ‘surgical strikes’, the Indians definitely did not airdrop commandos to hit ‘launching pads of militants’ inside Pakistani-held territory, or conduct ground assaults deep into the Pakistan-administered side. But they did cross the Line of Control (LoC), in some cases by more than a kilometre, to hit nearby Pakistani border posts.” The article goes on to quote locals who witnessed the attack and then Pakistani defence minister Khwaja Asif, who said that at least nine of his soldiers were injured and two killed.
It is beyond the scope of this article and the expertise of this writer to debate the technicality and effectiveness of the strikes. What I can say is that the job done by our men in uniform is a difficult one, given the geo-political complexity of the subcontinent. Decisions they take to defend our borders and provide us with security may not always be the right ones, but their motivations are usually unexceptionable. Uri assigns vengeance as the motive for the army operation it valorises; its protagonist Major Vihaan Singh Shergill (Vicky Kaushal) returns to active duty after losing his brother-in-law in the attack. This is what I find deeply problematic. Another character, Govind Bharadwaj (Paresh Rawal), based on National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, declares: “Yeh ek naya Hindustan hai. Yeh ghar me ghusey gah hi aur maarey ga bhi (This is a new India. It will enter you home and kill you too.)”
The desire to imagine a new kind of India is not new — nor is this desire exclusive to our nation. In his ground-breaking work Imagined Communities (1983), Benedict Anderson writes: “A nation is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.” As a nascent nation in the 1950s and 1960s, India imagined itself to be a modern and rapidly industrialising one, as shown for instance in this song:
Written by Prem Dhawan, who was associated with the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), set to tune by Usha Khanna and sung by Mukesh, this song from Hum Hindustani (1960) became an anthem for the Nehruvian generation — and continued to be one till much later. The film industry’s love for the nation, however, was not unalloyed; I’m thinking of Pyaasa (1959) and its song Jinhe naaz hai hind par, written by Dhawan’s IPTA comrade Sahir Ludhianvi. Uri’s nationalism (shall we call it jingoism?) is a far cry — and self-consciously so — from that of its precursors. Its pride is not in the achievements of the nation but in the vengeance it can wreck on its enemies.
War films that refuse to portray the human cost of conflict are mere exercises in jingoism. The collective exhilaration that the audience in a cinema feels at witnessing their soldiers decimate the enemy is often a glamorised representation of what actually happens during a war.
One of the best critiques of films glamorising war I know of is in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, where the narrator is reprimanded by his friend’s wife for writing a book about his experiences in World War II: “You were just babies in the war... But you’re not going to write it that way... You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous war-loving dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them. And they’ll be fought by [my] babies.” Vonnegut knew what he was writing about: He had served in the war, had been captured by Germans, and had witnessed the Allied fire-bombing of Dresden. A bit of self-reflection would not do our filmmakers any harm.