Christopher Nolan’s epic World War Two film, Dunkirk, which tells the story of the mass evacuation of Allied troops from the northern coast of France in 1940, has been getting glowing reviews in India.
But many are glowering over Nolan turning a blind eye to the role of Indian soldiers in the battle. The Times of India wrote that their “significant contribution” was missing from Nolan’s “otherwise brilliant” work.
Writing for Bloomberg View, columnist Mihir Sharma said the film “adds to the falsehood that plucky Britons stood alone against Nazi Germany once France fell, when, in fact, hundreds of millions of imperial subjects stood, perforce, with them”.
Few can deny the role of the subjects. Some five million Commonwealth servicemen joined the military services of the British empire during WW2. Almost half of them were from South Asia. Indian soldiers played a key role in major battles like Tobruk, Monte Cassino, Kohima and Imphal. A multinational force of British, Indian and African units recaptured Burma (Myanmar) for the Allies.
What happened with the Indian soldiers in Dunkirk is less clear. Yasmin Khan, historian and author of The Raj at War: A People’s History of India’s Second World War, says she has often wondered why there is very little factual data on their role in the battle, which many say cost Germany the war.
What is well known, she told me, is that four companies of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps, including a unit of the Bikaner State forces, served in France during the campaign on the Western Front, and some were evacuated from Dunkirk. Among them were three contingents of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps. One contingent was taken prisoner by German forces.
An Indian soldier, Jemadar Maula Dad Khan, was feted for showing “magnificent courage, coolness and decision” in protecting his men and animals whey they were shelled from the ground and strafed from the air by the enemy.
The Indian soldiers and the mules were eventually ordered towards the coast. Many of the men could not take their animals on the retreat and gave them away to local people in France, according to the same account.
Historian John Broich says the Indian soldiers in Dunkirk were “particularly cool under fire and well organised during the retreat”.
“They weren’t large in number, maybe a few hundred among hundreds of thousands, but their appearance in the film would have provided a good reminder of how utterly central the role of the Indian Army was in the war,” he told Slate.
“Their service meant the difference between victory and defeat. In fact, while Britain and other allies were licking their wounds after Dunkirk, the Indian Army picked up the slack in North Africa and the Middle East.
To be fair, Nolan has said that he approached the story “from the point of view of the pure mechanics of survival rather than from the politics of the event”.
“We don’t have generals in rooms pushing things around on maps. We don’t see Churchill. We barely glimpse the enemy,” he told the Telegraph. “It’s a survival story.”
Historian Joshua Levine, who is also the film’s historical consultant, told me that Dunkirk was a work of fiction and “it isn’t a film’s job to tell the full story of Dunkirk… and nor, in the time available, could it even try to do so”.
“This film focuses on a few protagonists whose paths cross occasionally, each one of whom experiences just a tiny corner of the whole story. As Hilary Mantel says about historical fiction, ‘The man who is fighting can’t see over the hill, out of the trench.’ What I’d love to see, though, is an Indian film about Dunkirk, or WW2 generally, and I sincerely hope Indian filmmakers are working on it.”
But what about the criticism that the role of Indian and their South Asian counterparts in WW2 has been forgotten?
Yasmin Khan says that their “sheer scale of the contribution” has become apparent in Britain in recent years. “No longer is it simply an island story of heroic, plucky British fighting against Nazi-occupied continental Europe; it has now become increasingly customary for historians to refer to the contribution made by Asian, African and Caribbean servicemen in the 1940s”, she writes in her book.
A memorial to honour the role of these soldiers came up on London’s Constitution Hill in 2002. There have been museum exhibitions, oral history projects and TV documentaries to “reveal how crucial they [the soldiers] often were to the action, the sacrifices that they made in the face of terrible odds, and also to divulge individual stories of great bravery and intrepid action”.
“It is no longer true to suggest that this is an entirely forgotten story,” she says.
Meanwhile, Indians are flocking to watch Dunkirk, which opened at 416 screens, including 10 Imax screens, across the country, on Friday.
Unlike most Hollywood films, Dunkirk hasn’t been dubbed in any Indian language for wider viewership. Still, says Denzil Dias of Warner Brothers (India), the film raked in $2.4m (£1.84m) over the weekend. “This is the biggest opening of an English language-only film in India,” Mr Dias told me. Clearly, viewers are not fretting about the lack of Indian soldiers in Nolan’s tour-de-force.