Diplomacy in Indian cinema

Foreign Policy is seldom a subject of Indian movies. That’s a pity, because there is such drama there.

Whether it is Amitabh Bacchhan in Egypt, Mithun Chakraborty in Tajikistan, Sunny Deol and Salman Khan in Afghanistan or Aishwarya Rai in France, Bollywood’s icons have found fans and admirers across borders and underline cinema as a vehicle of India’s soft power. And yet, Indian cinema shies away from featuring themes showcasing diplomacy or India’s international relations.

In the 1940s, Indian cinema made stellar films such as Dr Kotnis ki Amar Kahani (1949) that portrayed newly independent India’s expansive worldview. But starting in the early 60s, the collective imagination of the film industry arguably shrank in parallel to the relatively insular outlook of India after Nehru.

In the 1960s, when foreign currency restrictions and air fares made foreign travel a luxury for most Indians, movies like An Evening in Paris (1967), Night in London (1967) and Love in Tokyo (1966) tried to bring Indian audiences the glimpses of the world outside but largely served as tourism brochures. In the 1980s, the Tamil, Bengali and Telugu film industries followed suit with movies set largely in the US but also in Japan, with the sole aim of awing the audiences with the wealth and sophistication of the locales (some of the more recent films in this category are being set in South Africa and Australia).

However, Bollywood’s own experiments in the ‘60s and ‘70s depicting international intrigue rarely went beyond poor James Bond replicas set in foreign locales like Dharmendra’s Aankhen (1968), Dev Anand’s Prem Pujari (1970), and Amitabh Bacchhan’s The Great Gambler (1979). Indian cinema thus missed opportunities to address themes central to India’s foreign policy at pivotal moments in its post-Independence history.

In recent years, there have been a few exceptions – John Abraham’s Kabul Express (set in Afghanistan 2001), Madras Café (set in Sri Lanka 1989-91) tried to remind audiences of what has passed in India’s neighborhood in recent decades. Since Maachis (1996), Roja (1992) and Sarfarosh (1999), terrorism came to be examined repeatedly in Bollywood, to the extent that we now have a whole range of movies in recent years like D-Day and Baby that peddled alternate history. There have even been comedies that speak of cross-border commonalities like Filmistan (2012). One film, Airlift (2016) which dramatized the largest civilian evacuation in history – that of Indian expats from Kuwait in 1991 – was a box office success. And yet, the big production houses in Bollywood continue to shy away from making more movies that could not just entertain but educate the masses on critical moments of India’s recent past.

Why is it necessary to bring living history to the big screen? Because when the public is relatively more aware of foreign policy challenges, political leaders will find it easier to take more informed and more courageous decisions. Witness the ground swell of support that just one movie – Border (1997) – generated for the armed forces. While a movie showcasing diplomacy may not stir up the same levels of adrenalin (or jingoistic nationalism that we could do without) as a war movie, it could well promote critical thinking on issues involving foreign policy. Movies that showcase key triumphs and failures in diplomacy also serve as accessible history lessons for future generations. The undercurrent of diplomacy in movies set against a historical backdrop like Dr. Strangelove (1964), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) or The Quiet American (2002) leave a mark in the minds of generations of viewers. Because choices in foreign policy are less about black versus white, and more about choosing the right shade of grey.

Secondly, there is barely enough understanding in India of the importance of foreign policy and how diplomacy that shapes and manages foreign policy works in practice (One could say this is the case in most countries, but frankly in a globalized and increasingly uncertain world, this will not be the norm for much longer). The low number of RTIs filed with the Ministry of External Affairs in comparison to other ministries, and even the relatively superficial nature of the RTI queries is one example of the state of affairs. This situation is only partly attributable to the the small size of the foreign service corps and the opaque nature of foreign policy formulation (wherein a relatively small Delhi-based elite shapes India’s position on most global issues). There is a genuine lack of interest and awareness among the population that merits a course correction.

Cinema, the most loved art form in India today, can then fill in many of these gaps by subtly informing Indian audiences about foreign policy-making processes, and by even triggering debates about contemporary policy challenges. Given Bollywood’s international appeal, it can even better inform foreign audiences about India’s policy choices. In recent years, Bollywood has started to touch upon sensitive themes on the periphery of diplomacy such as people-to-people relations (Bajrangi Bhaijaan), human trafficking (Kaafila), and corruption in defense procurement (Rang De Basanti). Why not a more focused and better-researched effort showcasing diplomacy or in using the backdrop of diplomacy?

One does not have to look far for potential themes. One wonders of the potential of movies on subjects such as the diplomatic lead-up to the Bangladesh war (1971); Operation Brasstacks (1987) when South Asia came close to catastrophic war; the way political will and military skill combined in the success of Operation Cactus (1988) in the Maldives; the negotiation of the landmark Shimla Accord (1972); the Talbott-Singh talks that led to the post-2000 thaw in US-India relations or even the way the Doklam stand-off (2017) was negotiated to a peaceful end. Even the extraordinary acts of internal diplomacy such as the negotiation of the Bodo Accord (1993) provide storylines that promise celluloid glory.

And lest anyone question commercial viability, one only needs to look at how international cinema has successfully molded true accounts of diplomacy into crowd-pullers. Take for instance “Thirteen Days” which showcases the Cuban missile crisis negotiations through the eyes of John F. Kennedy’s advisor Ted Sorensen, “The Fog of War” – the docu-movie on the debates that went into the US involvement in the Vietnam War, “Charlie Wilson’s War” on the US involvement in Afghanistan of the ‘80s, “Diplomacy” on a Swedish diplomat’s efforts to stop retreating Nazis from destroying Paris and more recently “The Darkest Hour” on Churchill’s stewardship of British policy debates during the Battle of Britain. Fictionalized narratives involving diplomacy as a theme that succeeded at the box office include the French movie “The French Minister” (2013) imagining a speechwriter shaping the French position on the Iraq War, the Korean film “Shiri” (1999) about a fictional plot to derail reunification talks between North and South Korea, the British film “War Book” (2014) an all-too-real crisis simulation following a nuclear war in South Asia, the British film “In the loop” (2009) set around a fictional US-UK spat over going to war, the Egyptian comedy “Sifara fil Amara” (2005) over an Egyptian’s social debates after the Israeli embassy moves next door to him, and the British drama “The Girl in the Café” (2005) about summit politics of international aid. All these movies succeeded by various degrees in making diplomacy and its imperatives (intentionally or otherwise) more accessible to their citizens.

For Indian cinema to rediscover commercial success in foreign policy-related themes, perhaps we need the government to start being more open about the history of our post-independence foreign policy. In addition, the government would do well to incentivize movies involving foreign policy/living history narratives through tax-free status, favorable funding and access – as part of a long-term investment in a better-informed populace. Last but not least, given that it often takes just one Director to set a trend rolling in motion in Bollywood, it’s upto the dream merchants of Indian cinema to take up the challenge of bringing Diplomacy to the multiplex.