Depicting a ‘balanced’ narrative isn’t a mainstream film’s responsibility
It seems as if most of Pakistan’s esteemed film critics – some sharing their insights via illustrious publications, others generous enough to do so on social media – have never seen a Pakistani movie, a war movie or in some cases any movie, in their lives. While reading the reviews of Waar, one feels as if Bilal Lashari has filmed a remake of Gadar for the Pakistani cinema aficionados. But here one does not get to see Shaan uprooting hand pumps or driving a truck like Sebastian Vettel drives his Red Bull.
A typical critique of the movie goes somewhat like this: Waar is a propaganda movie. The actors have fake English accents. Pakistanis easily believe conspiracy theories so propaganda is dangerous, especially when it is coupled with fake accents. There is propaganda against India and RAW because the bad guys in the movie are Indians. The Pakistani military and police are showed as good guys because Pakistan Army has funded this propaganda movie. Both the good guys and bad guys in the propaganda film have equally fake accents. The end.
All of the above in impeccably woven words and picturesque expression, of course.
But hang on, the military of one country depicted as the good guys, and the intelligence agency of the rival country as the bad guys in an action thriller? Shocking.
Maybe our knowledgeable film critics have been spoilt by the barrage of cinematic masterstrokes that Lollywood churns out on an annual basis. However, for average Joes like me Waar was a ‘slightly’ better cinematic experience than the Gujjar, Jutt and Goonda flicks that have symbolised Pakistani cinema in recent decades. But the latter, of course, never ever tried to portray Indians as bad guys. Ever.
‘Beggars can’t be choosers’ is an aphorism that one can use for Pakistan in most realms. But we’re easily the most high maintenance beggars the world has ever seen.
Let’s get the obvious off the table first: Waar could have been better. The script could have had more continuity and originality and more focus on character development. Some of the actors could’ve done slightly better jobs and if the film had more realism and less clichés it would’ve been better for the overall product as well. Yup, Waar could definitely have been better.
But can anyone really disagree with the fact that how much better Waar already is from even the best that Pakistan cinema has had to offer, is prodigiously more than how much better it needed to be to earn the label of a genuinely world class film?
One fails to comprehend then, as to why the movie critics would prefer to dedicate 95 percent of their reviews (or tweets) deriding Waar for what they deemed were its criminal shortcomings, the most glaring of which was ‘propaganda’.
Castigating a war movie over propaganda is akin to criticising it for promoting violence or guns. Propaganda, like guns, is an integral tool of war. And while wars were fought when there weren’t any guns, not a single war has been fought in human history that was devoid of propaganda. This is precisely why the lion’s share of Hollywood, Bollywood or war films from any other neck of the woods, have skewed narratives. The same goes for a lot of political action-thrillers.
This year’s Olympus Has Fallen, that portrayed what looked like the ‘North Korean Taliban’ targeting the American president and taking over the White House all for the reunification of the Korean Peninsula, did not get mauled by the US critics for its propaganda. And yes Waar is easily better than Olympus Has Fallen, a Hollywood movie that had a $70 million budget and starred Morgan Freeman.
Top Gun, The Fall of Berlin, Propaganda, Bon Voyage, Jud Süß and Border are some of the biggest films from their respective countries and were all propaganda movies. Three of the biggest Hollywood successes of last year Argo, Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty were all pretty blatant propaganda films.
Again, most war movies propagate propaganda, and show only one side of the picture. Even Clint Eastwood needed to make two different movies to depict the Battle of Iwo Jima showcasing American and Japanese viewpoints separately. And this is because highlighting a ‘balanced’ viewpoint in a war film renders its creation futile, and its constancy with the war genre, questionable.
A ‘neutral’ war film would almost always go down the ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ route, basically becoming an anti-war film.
And it wasn’t as if Waar pretends to unearth any ‘hidden truths’. It depicts what most Pakistanis already believe, what the official stance of the Pakistani government is and puts forward ‘our side of the story’ for the world – hence, the use of the English language in the film.
All those who entered the cinemas believing that India orchestrates terrorism in Pakistan would have left the cinema with the same belief, without any additional ammunition, and those who don’t buy that assertion obviously left the cinemas with their ‘sanity’ intact. However, in the intervening 130 minutes, what both groups of people got was the opportunity to witness some of the best cinematography, action sequences, background score, visual and sound effects in the history of Pakistan cinema to go with the overall entertainment. And entertainment is precisely what the movie had promised and not the depiction of ‘truth’ – probably because it is a mainstream movie and not a documentary.
A question for all those apprehensive about the propaganda in the movie: how many people commenting on Waar in various forums are expressing their gratitude for the film for ‘enlightening them’ about the War on Terror? And how many sound overwhelmed by the cinematic experience conjured by a Pakistani movie? Seemingly, the only people actually affected by Waar’s propaganda are the movie critics clamouring about the aftereffects of the propaganda.
Granted, biased narratives need to be replaced by balanced ones, but that is not the responsibility of a mainstream movie. It’s the duty of people in the media and the publications criticising Waar for being too pro-establishment when they have spent decades flying the flags of the military in dictatorial regimes. And who still can’t publish honest pieces about the Pakistan military’s role in the War on Terror, fearing a call from the you know who.
And yet they somehow expected Waar to do that on their behalf.
If you’re hell bent on solely focusing on the narrative presented in the movie, then how about a thumbs up for depicting the Taliban and tribal warlords as terrorists? And how about one for portraying madrassas, where Islam is preached and the Quran is taught, as their sanctuaries? Yes, it might have been too obvious an account for the esteemed critics, but one can’t undermine the importance of putting an anti-Taliban narrative in the mainstream. But while the anti-India propaganda was highlighted in all film critiques, the anti-Taliban ‘propaganda’ was ignored, probably because it goes with the personal viewpoints of the critics.
When you’re critiquing a movie, you’re not supposed to judge it in accordance with your own viewpoint, no matter how well qualified it might be. I might be as patriotic as a cactus plant, and Waar might have instilled as much Pakistani nationalism as Captain America generated American nationalism with me, but I can’t deny that Waar would strike a chord with the Pakistani nationalist.
Waar vied to propagate nationalism and patriotism, which in itself is an inherent part of propaganda. Please don’t put the burden of righting the wrongs of our founding fathers, our government or the military on the young shoulders of Bilal Lashari. All he was supposed to do was make a good film. And he ended up making what without a shadow of a doubt is a landmark for Pakistani cinema.
Anyone disagreeing with that is either incredibly prejudiced or suspiciously fond of watching heroines obliterate farmlands with their heavyweight dancing.
Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a financial journalist and a cultural critic. Email: [email protected], Twitter: @khuldune.