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It's Time Indian Filmmakers Told Their Own Stories Instead Of Getting Upset At The 'Dunkirk' Whitewash

Aamir Khan as Jemadar Maula Daud Khan perhaps?

01/08/2017 5:09 PM IST | Updated 01/08/2017 5:09 PM IST
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Even in its second week in India, Dunkirk has been pulling in the crowds. Warner Brothers (India) says this has been the biggest opening for an English language-only film in India raking in $2.4 million over its initial weekend.

But the war movie has also been facing some flak. One could sum it up in a simple headline. Indians – Missing in Action in Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk.

Mihir Sharma writes in Bloomberg View "Christopher Nolan's 'Dunkirk,' in cinemas now, adds to the falsehood that plucky Britons stood alone against Nazi Germany once France fell, when, in fact, hundreds of millions of imperial subjects stood, perforce, with them."

That pluck is embodied by Mr Dawson who answers the call for a civilian armada and sets across the channel in his little boat to take part in the great evacuation.

There is no room in the film for the pluck of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers from undivided India who fought for the British in that war, the largest volunteer army in history.

There is no room in the film for the pluck of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers from undivided India who fought for the British in that war, the largest volunteer army in history. Historian Yasmin Khan tells the BBC that at least four companies of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps served in France during the campaign and three contingents were evacuated from Dunkirk and one taken prisoner by the Germans.

Jemadar Maula Daud Khan won a Distinguished Service Medal for "showing magnificent courage, coolness and decision. When his troop was shelled from the ground and bombed from the air by the enemy he promptly reorganised his men and animals, got them off the road and under cover under extremely difficult conditions."

Nor does the film have any room for the many lascars who operated the merchant ships that came to rescue the British troops stranded on the beach. By 1938, one in four crewmen on merchant ships were lascars mostly from South Asia and East Africa.

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Instead the only brown to be seen in the film is the tea that plucky white Englishwomen offer the plucky white English soldiers scrambling aboard the rescue boats and ships.

Even the Indian mules, some 2,500 were shipped from Mumbai to Marseilles, do not get a cameo.

At one time you could get away with this blindingly white version of history. Now it's trickier. The subaltern has learned to speak and demand its rightful place in history.

According to the BBC, Yasmin Khan writes in her book The Raj at War that the contributions of African, Asian and Caribbean servicemen are being acknowledged by historians now. Historian John Broich tells Slate the appearance of Indian soldiers in the film "would have provided a good reminder of how utterly central the role of the Indian Army was in the war. Their service meant the difference between victory and defeat."

Even the Indian mules, some 2,500 were shipped from Mumbai to Marseilles, do not get a cameo.

Clearly this a missed opportunity for poor Dev Patel. And it's certainly legitimate to hold directors accountable for the choices they make when making a film, especially one that's about history. But beyond that, is this quite the travesty it's being made out to be?

Many Indian media have carried stories about the missing Indians.

India Today writes about Miracle of Dunkirk: Indians too were trapped with Allied forces. Mint calls it "the mother of realistic films, but it's a miserable failure in the way it airbrushes Indian soldiers out of Dunkirk." The Times of India headlines its piece as "How Nolan forgot the desis at Dunkirk". The NewsMinute writes about "How Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk missed the chance to honor Indians' role in WWII".

But let's be honest. How eagerly did Indians seize that chance to honour their own?

Nolan was not the only one who forgot the desis at Dunkirk. So did many desis themselves.

Nolan was not the only one who forgot the desis at Dunkirk. So did many desis themselves. The history of the Indians who fought that war has found scant mention in India's own films and popular books. Shrabani Basu's 'For King and Another Country' about Indian soldiers in World War I is a notable exception. We have the budget these days to make grand Bollywood films about all kinds of heroes.

There is no reason India needs to wait patiently to be included in Christopher Nolan's telling of Dunkirk or be grateful for a fleeting appearance as the turbaned man who dies within ten minutes. Indians have the resources to tell that story themselves, to control their own narrative.

Of course that's not to let Nolan off the hook. He has to be held accountable for his own choices. A film cannot be comprehensive but it can try to be inclusive. And whether Nolan intends it that way or not, his Dunkirk feeds into a false notion of WWII as a World White War where good white people defeated bad white people by fighting heroically on the seas and oceans, one the beaches and landing grounds, in the fields and in the streets. That omission is a matter of factual accuracy but it also raises vital questions in a multi-ethnic country like Britain in shaping the narrative about who belongs and who does not, who sacrificed for Britain and who is the freeloader.

As Sunny Singh asks in The Guardian "Why is it psychologically necessary that the heroic British troops be rescued only by white sailors? What would change if brave men fighting at Dunkirk wore turbans instead of helmets?" She goes on to write "Could we still see our neighbours as less than human if we also saw them fight shoulder-to-shoulder with "our boys" in the "good" war? Would we call those fleeing war "cockroaches" and demand gunboats to stop them from reaching our white cliffs if we knew they had died for the freedoms we hold so dear?"

But back home in India, before complaining about Nolan's selective colour-blindness we would do well to ask if we ourselves have done justice to those heroes.

But back home in India, before complaining about Nolan's selective colour-blindness we would do well to ask if we ourselves have done justice to those heroes. If anything this debate about Dunkirk has certainly brought more of those stories to light and I dare say few in India were aware of the three continents evacuated from Dunkirk and the one taken prisoner.

I, for one, certainly did not know that after being evacuated from Dunkirk, the Indian/Pakistani soldiers were not sent back to the subcontinent. Dipankar De Sarkar writes in Mint that they were settled in camps in Cornwall and then moved to Wales and Scotland for mountain warfare training. They spoke little English but accounts survive of their lives there between 1940 and 1943 and how they got along well with children. The gravestones of those who died are still there in English cemeteries.

"A full account of this strange encounter over three long years in Britain is waiting to be written by a historian," writes De Sarkar.

In his article he tells of another story filled with cinematic drama of how Paddy Ashdown of the Royal Indian Army Services Corps faced a court martial because he refused to ditch the Indian mules and muleteers in Dunkirk. The poor animals did not make it but the Indians got aboard the last ship that sailed out before the jetty was bombed.

All of that sounds ripe for a riveting war movie, a complicated story of war, Empire and race. It just needs someone to tell that story on screen.

A debate about whether Nolan's Dunkirk whitewashes history is perfectly legitimate but seventy years after Independence isn't it also time that Indian filmmakers took up that challenge of telling their own stories instead of yearning for a bit part in a Christopher Nolan's rendition?

Aamir Khan as Jemadar Maula Daud Khan perhaps?

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