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Cinema and Strategic Culture

A. Vinod Kumar was Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • February 12, 2013

    Cinema as a medium of mass communication has played a significant role in nation-building. With its wide reach, cinema is among the most effective portrayers of the evolution of a state and the transformation of its society. The maturing of a nation-state into a national society is reflected through the cinema and just like the other tools of socio-cultural dissemination including the media and theatre, cinema can also manifest the strategic thinking of a nation.

    Democracies encourage debate within society. Cinema becomes a powerful medium especially for those societies which are empowered to choose their destiny and discuss their strategic choices. But is such a generalisation true for all democracies? In the United States, for certain, cinema has a long history of narrating the country’s strategic affairs. In contrast, cinema in India has had a different canvas and a far different orientation.

    The world’s two largest democracies – India and United States – have had different settings even though cinema was developed around the same time in India as in the West (1912-13). While the American movie industry has been substantially effective in shaping national perceptions on strategic and security issues, Indian cinema has not really ventured into such areas and instead used different templates of daily references and colloquialism. In fact, the constructive application of cultural tools by Americans for public debates and moulding national perceptions is not restricted to the cinema alone, but includes other tools such as comics, cartoons, art and theatre.1

    American cinema has not just facilitated an understanding on these issues among its public, but also used its colossal production and distribution infrastructure to mould global perceptions on issues ranging from the World War to Cold War to nuclear wars. It is often amusingly remarked that a real nuclear war can only be fought in Hollywood movies. Productions like Trinity and Beyond, Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe, among others, were remarkable narrations on the catastrophic consequences of nuclear war, and also underlined the significance of the non-fiction genre for popular dissemination purposes. Movies like the Sum of all Fears, the Day After, On the Beach, and Peacemaker, to name a few, have projected the dangers of nuclear weapons proliferation and nuclear wars in their different manifestations. Other issues like terrorism, intelligence operations, regional conflicts, ethnic issues, etc., have all evenly figured as dominant themes in American movies in a clear illustration of how the society uses this medium to debate and critique security policies. If not such themes, globally released American movies hinge on the American way of life, denoted by the values of liberty, democracy and free enterprise.

    Critics have often described the pre-eminence of strategic issues in American movies and their distribution to a global viewership as a means of permeating America’s ideational influence and justifying its grand strategy across the globe. That the Pentagon and the State Department are known to have liaison offices in Hollywood reinstates governmental support for placing the movie industry at the vanguard of America’s cultural campaign. Though rich cinematic traditions exist in other European democracies, the handicap of language has largely inhibited their global reach, just as in the case of aesthetic screenplays from the developing countries such as India, Iran and China, among others.

    Indian cinema has had a vibrant independent existence almost since the advent of world cinema. Themes reflecting the independence movement, evolution of the nation-state, early social churning and cultural integration formed the dominant themes and were remarkably captured by the initial productions of independent India. Early Indian movies made significant contributions in moulding the national ethos and raising nationalistic fervour during the years of conflict with Pakistan and China. A handful of movies like Haqeeqat, Prem Pujari and Hum Dono have used war and conflict, or trans-border relations as the central plot, but did not invoke a narrative on strategic issues among mass viewers. A few others in the post-Kargil years (Border, LoC) were only instrumental in creating nationalist fervour. Superlative productions like Tango Charlie, Terrorist, Kannathil Mutthamital and A Wednesday underlined the fact that a small breed of filmmaking talent existed in the Indian movie industry with the intellect to tackle such themes.

    The general lack of understanding and absence of popular interest in strategic affairs has largely kept Indian cinema out of this realm. While one argument would be that the polity has mandated the political leadership and bureaucracy to decide on such sensitive issues, the other could be that the general ignorance and disinterest is a consequence of the failure of the media as a mass communication tool in disseminating an empowering narrative on strategic issues. Though public ignorance of strategic affairs may not drastically affect the policy-making process, it raises pertinent questions on the functioning of a democracy. Should strategic issues be left to the discretion of the policymaking elite? Shouldn’t a vibrant nation undertake informed debates on these issues for effective and representational decisions? Can a nation like India with a rich strategic tradition aspire to become a great power with a diminutive strategic culture shaping its contemporary course? Can cinema and other mass media tools play a role in altering this condition?

    As India celebrates a century of its cinematic culture, there is a need to elevate its quality and role to complement India’s power profile and socio-cultural aspirations. The current role it plays in promoting India’s soft power may now need a qualitative and intellectual shift.

    IDSA opened a Film Club on February 1, 2013 as part of a larger audio-visual campaign in its efforts to promote strategic thinking, a role enshrined by the Institute’s founders.

    • 1. Ferenc Morton Szasz, “Atomic Comics: Cartoonists Confront the Nuclear World,” University of Nevada Press, 2012. Also see, John Mecklin, “Buck Rogers and the atomic education of America,” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, November 13, 2012; and, Scott C. Zeman and Michael A. Amundson (eds.), “Atomic culture: how we learned to stop worrying and love the bomb,” University Press of Colorado, 2004.