Most Americans are familiar with the fanfare of Fourth of July: the sudden burst of patriotism, digging dusty flags out of boxes from the basement and digging through drawers for that one good red shirt.
Most Americans are much less patriotic on September 28th. But in India, September 28th marks a unique day of national pride: Surgical Strike Day.
The day marks the occurrence of a 2016 Indian targeted strike conducted by the government of the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi in retaliation to recent terrorist attacks on Indian base in Uri. The retaliatory attacks killed under 100 soldiers, and targeted Pakistan troops along the border (as the Indian government placed blame on Pakistan for the terrorist attacks).
Was Pakistan really to blame? Were the retaliatory attacks truly successful? Were they justified? None of these questions have clear cut answers. But what’s undeniable is that the retaliatory attacks have come to occupy a unique social and political niche that makes them a dangerous tool for nationalism.
The 2019 film “Uri: The Surgical Strike,” depicted a dramatized version of the events described above. While some amount of drama is inevitable in any film adaptation of true events, the movie leaned in heavily to tropes that glorified the attacks. From stereotypical portrayals of Muslim characters, to glorification of torture, to the constant “Jai Hind” chants from our main characters, the movie makes a clear attempt to play on its target audiences’ feelings of nationalism. The film makes time for an entire scene dedicated to soldiers being reminded that India is a “mother” who must be protected, while brushing over the large Indian intelligence gaps that surrounded the initial Uri attack. Promotion for the film even went so far as to ask viewers to “interrogate a terrorist” on Google Assistant with commands like “beat him”, “punch him” and “cut off finger.”
The film is a moving work of cinema – as someone with zero national affiliation to India, even I felt ready to serve my country in the fight against terrorism after watching. But it’s also undoubtedly a political piece as well. Prime Minister Modi, who has often been criticized for nationalist and xenophobic rhetoric and policy, has drawn on the cultural image of the surgical strikes in order to strengthen his platform. In a comparison to his opposition party, Modi specifically highlighted his governments actions, saying “Terrorists attacked Mumbai, what happened after it? In our government, Uri happened, what happened after it? This is the change. The fire that was in the hearts of our jawans, it was in the heart of the PM too, Surgical Strike was the result.”
The political weaponization of the film has also coincided roughly with election cycles. In the 2016 election cycle, the strikes were featured heavily on Modi’s election posters. 2 years after the incident (around the time of another important election), Modi released video footage of the strikes. Around the same time, under suspected pressure from Modi’s government, universities began to mandate celebration of “Surgical Strike Day.”
In the grand scheme of India-Pakistan conflict, the surgical strikes were far from the most impactful, or the most worthy of celebration (for example, the liberation of Bangladesh, the capture of the Haji Pir Pass, and the Battle of Asal Uttar were all much larger, more impressive, and more impactful Indian military victories). And while the attacks were supposedly meant to deter future Pakistani (and/or terrorist) aggression, the track record shows they largely failed in that regard.
The connection between the Indian film industry and the government (specifically Modi and his political party, the BJP) is deeply political. Nationalist war movies cannot be analyzed in a vacuum. Instead, they must be seen as evidence of the symbiotic relationship between the government and certain filmmakers. Modi publicizes films such as Uri, while films such as Uri glorify Modi and his nationalist style of government.
The problem is deeper than just Uri. War films are a central aspect of the Bollywood film industry, and many fall prey to similar problems. Even when less obvious, small details can ingrain the nationalist tendencies that Modi preys upon for re-election (for example, note the contrast in warm and cool colors between scenes of the Indian submarine and the Pakistani submarine in the movie “The Ghazi Attack”).
A scene inside the Indian submarine
A scene inside the Pakistani submarine
While there is nothing wrong with enjoying a good war movie, it’s important to watch media like this critically. While this article focused on Indian war movies, most countries have their own share of pro-war nationalism seep into its media (and America is no exception). The self-reinforcing relationship between nationalist media and nationalist governments is especially dangerous because the representations we observe in movies can invade our subconscious, and infect the way we view others outside of the movie screen. Dehumanization of majority Muslim populations in film lays the groundwork for nationalist policies (for example, the Indian Citizenship Amendment Act, which grants citizenship eligibility privileges for non-Muslim immigrants over Muslim immigrants from certain countries). It’s even more dangerous because many war films, Uri especially, are fantastic films. We should not underestimate the power of a well-made film with a poorly-conceived message.
4 thoughts on “When War Movies Come to Life”
Hi Sam! I really like how you use Uri: Surgical Strike to talk about the larger issue of war movies implicitly being supportive of nationalist and authoritarian agendas. Your mediation of Modi’s actions and his support of popularizing a controversial event is a really great summarization. I didn’t know about any of this, but you made it very accessible through discussing the movie. The thing that I liked the most is your point about how war movies can be really great movies and still support and promote incredibly bad messages. This applies to not just all war movies, but all media, and when we evaluate media, we need to keep in mind not just the composition of the movie and the explicit messages, but also the implicit and controversial messages of the piece that we should evaluate critically within the context of the moment it was made and who leverages it politically after its production.
Hi Sam, this is a really interesting post! Until reading this article, and perhaps because we live in a country where movie propaganda is not as prevalent (or evident), I was struck by the implication that “Uri: Surgical Strike” was likely produced to promote Modi’s government and campaign, albeit under the guise of the seemingly harmless “based on true story” film genre. Perhaps I’ve always taken it for granted that movie writers, producers, and directors thoroughly research true events in an unbiased manner before producing such films to provide audiences with a dramatized, but accurate rendition of events. Although I like to think there’s more separation between the government and for-profit industries like the film industry, your blog is a good reminder that nothing is guaranteed.
Hi Sam! Thank you for your post. While reading you blog I couldn’t help but think about the conversation we had in class about what “patriotism” really means/ really looks like. I think it’s interesting that you describe Prime Minister Modi to have been criticized for “nationalist and xenophobic rhetoric and policy.” I think these terms are two very different things. Putting one’s own country’s interest first is drastically different than actively disliking or discriminating against other countries. I associate the term “nationalism” with “patriotism” but I don’t associate “xenophobia” with “patriotism.” I also think that it’s really interesting how you included that the connection between the Indian film industry and the government is deeply political. This is very worrying to me. Media and politics should be distinct; I think it’s pretty dangerous when one influences the other.
Thank you for sharing this piece with us Sam! This was an interesting dive into war movies not only in India but all over the world, and it illuminated an issue I’ve been curious about for a while very well. I read an article just yesterday that talked about the power of storytelling—and, like you said, especially heart-wrenching, moving storytelling—as a dangerous tool in spreading violent or simply incorrect narratives because they are so effective in reaching into their viewers’ hearts and minds. We are so quick to be led by our emotions, when—like the movie we watched for class today illuminated—our emotions are also quick to fall into traps set for them by people who wish to dictate our behaviors for nefarious purposes. It’s interesting to consider what a more ethical war movie might look like, or if ethics and war movies simply cannot fit together overall.