Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk raised questions recently about the erasure of India from the war effort – any portrayal of Indian soldiers or reference to their contribution was noticeably absent. But even in India, the country’s role in the conflict tends to be overshadowed by the major events of the Indian independence movement that coincided with the war years.
Within this larger conversation about cultural retellings of the war, it is important to look at the how India’s own film industry responded and how it was filtering the stories of the war through the prism of cinema.
The message of India’s solidarity with China and the Allies against the Japanese invasion was underscored in Dr Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani, directed by industry stalwart V Shantaram. The film depicted the real-life experiences of five Indian doctors who volunteered to go to China as part of the medical mission during the Japanese invasion. Shantaram also starred in the film as the titular Dr Dwarakanath Kotnis, regarded as a war hero in China to this day.
The poster for the film, designed by renowned Indian artist SM Pandit depicts the Buddha, serene and still, standing amid the burning remains of war as a lasting image of hope and a reminder of historical cultural bonds between China and India.
The film refers to the medical mission as India’s “duty to help our neighbour” and depicts resistance against the war as a collaborative effort that could only be successful with unity among Indians – from the farmer reaping the crop, to the doctor volunteering at the front – a message with clear parallels to the nationalist movement against the British.
War and the independence movement
A five-minute progaganda feature called Face of India was commissioned in 1942 by the British government’s Films Division that would simultaneously highlight the Allies’ war effort and India’s role in it, reinforcing a positive narrative of the Empire.
The National Archives in Kew, London, have records of the multiple versions of the script which were drafted by British documentary maker and producer Alexander Shaw, who also headed the Indian government’s Film Advisory Board (FAB) which was tasked with making propaganda features in India.
Correspondence between officials of the Ministry of Information, the Films Division and the India Office reveal that no consensus could be reached on how the film could champion India’s role in the war without also addressing the growing civil disobedience movement in India against the British. In the end the film was shelved over fears that highlighting India’s role would only validate its right to self-rule.
And there are the legacies that remain obscured in India itself, precisely because of the complicated legacy of the war within the history of India’s independence movement.
Born in Mysore, Sabu Dastagir, star of British productions such as The Elephant Boy (1937) and The Thief of Baghdad (1940), was not just the biggest Indian star in the world, he would also go on to be a distinguished war hero. Dastagir became an American citizen in 1944, joined the US Air Force as a tail gunner, and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service.
However, Dastagir’s incredible cinematic and war legacy remains largely overlooked in the land of his birth, partly because of his roles in films such as Alexander Korda’s The Drum(1938), which was protested in India for offensive caricatures of Indians and was largely perceived as British propaganda.