Dunkirk opened in India last Friday to stellar reviews and what is considered a strong box-office opening for a Hollywood film, bringing in an estimated $2.4 million. But not everyone in the country is impressed.
Various reports in leading media outlets have questioned why Christopher Nolan’s movie ignored what the Times of India newspaper calls the “significant contribution” of Indian soldiers at Dunkirk. The article, titled “How Nolan forgot the desis (Indians) at Dunkirk,” notes that the omission should be seen in light of the fact that the “British public is more well-informed today about the Indian role in the World Wars.”
It also refers to Oxford historian Yasmin Khan’s book The Raj at War, in which the author writes, “Britain did not fight the Second World War, the British Empire did.”
International observers are also echoing a similar sentiment. In a column for Slate, John Broich, an associate professor of history at Case Western Reserve University, wrote that 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.”
Broich, whose views have also been quoted by the Hindustan Times newspaper, points out that there were four companies of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps at Dunkirk adding that “observers said they were particularly cool under fire and well-organized during the retreat.”
According to historical data, some 2.5 million soldiers from the Indian sub-continent served with the British army during World War II. But the depiction of Indian soldiers in Hollywood films revolving around the war have been few and far between. One of the most notable onscreen appearances was last seen in 1996’s The English Patient, which featured British Indian actor Naveen Andrews (Sense8, Lost) in a supporting role as an Indian Sikh soldier, Kip Singh, serving in the Italian campaign of the war in the Oscar-winning film, which starred Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche.
Referring to historical accounts of the war, in an article headlined “Miracle at Dunkirk: Indians too were trapped with Allied forces,” India Today pointed out that 1,800 Indian soldiers were tasked with transporting 2,000 mules carrying arms and ammunition to the war zone in France. Since the British army had disbanded its animal transport companies after World War I, Indian companies were brought in to transport supplies over terrain in France that wasn’t accessible for cars.
The Indian contingent was designated as Force K-6 and departed from what was then called Bombay (now Mumbai), reaching Marseilles in France in December 1939. According to the Times of India, three companies of Force K-6 were evacuated to safety during Operation Dynamo, the Allied operation to extricate about 400,000 British forces from Dunkirk, which forms the backdrop of the film. However, one remaining Indian company was taken captive by the Nazis, and many of its men died in German POW camps.
While most opinions are focusing on how the film missed out on a bit of history, the Hindustan Times’ article offers somewhat of a counter view with the headline “Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk forgot the Indian soldiers’ contribution, but does it matter?” Pointing to one scene early on in the film where a British soldier is seen refusing entry to French troops who want to board one of the boats to safety, the article says: “Long story short — if anyone should be outraged at their less-than-glowing depiction in the movie, it’s the French.”
Questioning whether a film “which makes the conscious choice to exclude everyone, but the British from its narrative be held at fault for not mentioning the Indian contribution,” the article also says that Dunkirk “is a celebration of the bravery shown by common people. And if Indians were involved, the film, however abstract it is in its ways, pays homage to them too.”