Dunkirk has opened to a considerable amount of fanfare here in India. IMAX screens are still packed, and Christopher Nolan continues to be the only director in Hollywood who can draw Indian crowds based solely on name. The only thorn in the side of this dynamic however, one brought up both here and elsewhere, is the lack of Indian soldiers on screen given our presence at the actual event. Some call it a total whitewashing of history while others dismiss concerns of representation wholesale, and while I don’t necessarily fall into either camp – a forewarning, this is just one writer’s perspective – I still find myself torn.
Sometimes representation is complicated, as are many contemporary issues brought up in media. Acknowledging them as such can be difficult in an increasingly charged online environment, one that demands the immediate announcement of one’s alignment on a subject and all its political implications before the news cycle spins forward, though perhaps that acknowledgment is necessary. I know it was for me, and Dunkirk proved to be the perfect battleground on which to confront my conflicting feelings.
At the outset of the conversation lies historicity. Whether or not films based on real events have a responsibility to be accurate in terms of the minutiae, it’s hard to argue that the broad strokes influence how we view our own past. We rarely see images of pre-20th century Europe that weren’t photographed or painted by white artists, and our contemporary media tends to skew in the direction of portraying whiteness as historical default in the British Isles. A recent example some of you might have come across on Twitter is the butting of heads involving English conservative radio host and InfoWars editor Paul Joseph Watson, railing against animated depictions of an ethnically diverse Roman Britain (labeling it historically inaccurate regardless of actual history) and his claim that Britain saw no mass migration until the 20th century – which were both subsequently dismantled by Mike Stuchbery, an actual historian. As fun and educational as they may be to scroll through, both threads reveal an underlying and all too common view of history wherein whiteness takes precedence regardless of fact, an idea that tends to be backed up by most period films set in areas that might today find themselves at the center of debates about immigration, subsequently steeped in those very same notions of preserving a white culture. That’s merely the contextual backdrop for this conversation though, as opposed to anything meant to directly implicate Dunkirk in perpetuating white supremacy similar to an Alt Right conspiracy theorist, though one can certainly argue it as part of the continued and imbalanced prioritization of whiteness given who gets to tell what story, as one probably could for most Hollywood films.
Were there Indian troops present at the event? Undoubtedly. Would it be accurate to portray them? Absolutely it would. But does a film like Dunkirk have a responsibility to portray them, and is the lack of portrayal tantamount to historical erasure? That’s a little harder to pin down. There were about a thousand Muslim troops from the Punjab region present at the event (separated from their Sikh and Hindu peers for logistical and dietary reasons), and many of them were runners and re-loaders for their British superiors. While there’s plenty there to be mined in terms of narrative, plenty of stories to be told about South Asian troops at Dunkirk and in World War II at large (something India itself hasn’t fully come to terms with since it can be seen as tantamount to complicity in the British Empire, but I digress), the general sentiment appears to be one of feeling a lack of acknowledgement. Given the story being told, one would be hard-pressed to claim an Indian soldier could’ve been a main character, so many of the objections come down to the lack of Indian extras in the film. And while that sort of thing, in essence, is what colours the very historicity we’ve been talking about – the idea of Britian having fought this event all on its own – it’s also where I find myself personally taking issue.
In Dunkirk, a small section of the beach ends up the film’s focus. A thousand extras is a generous estimate, but if so, it’s a thousand onscreen faces out of upwards of 300,000 men, which is less than 1% of the stranded soldiers. Given that the Indian footmen also numbered around a thousand, we too were less than 1% of the total troops present – though perhaps neither of these things ought to be used in any capacity greater than relative context. Numbers and percentages don’t equal decisions, and both representation and erasure are always that – decisions. But what the decision many seem to demand is Indians being mere extras in this otherwise overwhelmingly white narrative, one that would have remained so in terms of protagonists regardless of the makeup of the background, and this demand and/or request for acknowledgement via brief cutaway or what have you is where I decide to forego the idea.
I wouldn’t go so far as to call something like this tokenism, but I do know exactly how I as a viewer would have responded. In the World War I-set Wonder Woman, Gurkha troops are given their due as extras in the background, and as much as this works to paint a historically accurate picture, it’s something I find alienating as someone with an awareness of how Hollywood treats Indianness in general. Barring recent exceptions, we tend to be either the butt of cultural jokes or merely window dressing, and it tends to influence how we’re actually treated in the west. In the recent Spider-Man: Homecoming, Peter Parker’s high school reflects the real diversity of Queens. In it, a Sikh extra is part of several shots, often moved around within the space of a given scene so he’s in two places at once as part of the backdrop. He has no lines, as several of the other minor characters do. He’s a throwaway, barely tertiary to the other characters in the film, yet his mere presence could be important to some despite others feeling dismissed by his reduced presence. It’s complicated.
In Wonder Woman, a film where a racist caricature of an Indian accent is used to get past German guards (no, I don’t need its narrative context explained to me for the millionth time, it doesn’t become any less alienating as an Indian viewer), the only thing resembling a prominent action for an Indian character is a Gurkha soldier during the final celebration with his hands clasped in prayer, having little to do as an extra beyond looking up to the heavens and shaking his hands for a good ten seconds. It’s not the kind of thing you notice unless you’re actively looking, but when that’s the only way you’re portrayed to the rest of the world, how can you not notice? But this too, ridiculous as it might come off, is a step forward for the broader historical narrative.
The presence of Indian faces in global cinema is important, but so is the context in which they’re presented – in this case, their relationship to whiteness. In Dunkirk, the role of the Indian extras would’ve likely been death or servitude, and not much else. I’m not looking to see myself as disposable or secondary to whiteness yet again when I watch summer entertainment, which is why the absence of Indian extras doesn’t bother me here. Though of course, it’s that very same absence and how it plays into the greater historical context that may be alienating to others. There’s no way to be wholly right or wrong here. Just ways to be wholly dismissive. Which is why I’d rather be conflicted about this at length than let anyone claim this conversation is irrelevant.
I'd love for there to be World War films where Indians have narrative agency, but that’s not the kind of film Dunkirk was ever going to be, even if it was able to bring on more Indian extras in time or keep the ones it had in the film. Production logistics tend to get swept under the rug when it comes to cinema, which is not unexpected since all we get is the finished product, so perhaps the process is irrelevant to what we end up with. Though in the case of projecting some sort of presumed racial callousness on to the filmmakers, it’s perhaps worth noting that several urgent casting calls were put out via local radio outlets for more Indian and Senegalese extras (as close as twelve, eleven and even ten days before filming), so regardless of whether it was lack of local availability or simply being cut from the edit, the intention was always to represent Indian and Algerian regiments at the event in some capacity (the latter do receive a small cameo amongst the French). But again, since we’re talking about the finished product, this isn’t necessarily relevant to what we end up with onscreen unless it really was a case of simply not having enough local Indians. If so, it’s not hard to assume their disposability as extras is reflective of what their role within the film would’ve been, which circles back around to my point about disposability within the story due to lack of narrative agency.
That said, the conversation then steers towards whether or not a different story should’ve been told. That’s a much more speculative tangent, though given that Dunkirk can be read as a film about transcending national boundaries, one could argue that extending this idea to Indian and Algerian troops would’ve been thematically resonant – which is fair, but I’m compelled to question whether or not it’s the kind of thing Christopher Nolan would be willing or able to handle as a storyteller. This gets into more hypothetical territory of course, given that in order to contextualize the Indian troops as such (and as more than just extras), the mile-a-minute narrative would’ve needed to go in a different direction, and that feels like critiquing an entirely different movie.
There’s no quick-fix solution to a lack of representation, and no step forward is ever going to be perfect, which is part of my conflict here. Does my potential distaste of a haphazard, disposable portrayal trump the broader historical narrative, and is it on one single film to go out of its way to mend that narrative when even Indian filmmakers rarely touch the subject of World War II? I truly don’t know. I know that as an individual experience, Dunkirk felt sublime to me, and I may not have felt as such if I were focusing on the Indian extras, either in the hope that one of them would stand out or in the familiar fear that this would once again determine how we’re seen in the west, only to be disappointed. I know I would’ve had a different experience watching How To Train Your Dragon 2, a great film that made me uncomfortable because of its racial politics (which I'd argue is even more important in children's entertainment), had its villain not been the only person of colour in the entire film… but does that necessarily mean the film being entirely white would’ve been “better”? Better for whom? Better for me and my experience? Better for not conflating the idea of blackness and villainy in another overwhelmingly white narrative carried over from the first film? Better for another person of colour who feels differently? Is that something any of us can determine with certainty?
Similarly, Dunkirk works better for me personally as a film that doesn’t make me actively uncomfortable by treating Indian extras as disposable cannon fodder, and certainly as one where the only contextualization of Indians would’ve left us in the shadow of the era’s white supremacy without further investigation. But does that necessarily help the continued perpetuation of an all-white World War narrative, and does cinema bear the largest responsibility to counteract it?
I don’t have a definitive answer to any of these questions, and I’m coming to terms with the fact that in some cases, that’s okay. What’s important here is this is a conversation that’s happening. And while I choose to instead highlight other Desi films and artists (do watch The Big Sick and Lipstick Under My Burkha when you get the chance), that’s just my own solution to the problem right now. I don’t fault any other South Asian person for taking issue with Dunkirk in this way, the same way I hope they don’t fault me for my points about Wonder Woman and Spider-Man: Homecoming, films whose use of Indians as mere background I critique despite loving them greatly.
Ideally, this is a conversation as opposed to deciding a correct binary answer for everyone, which I’m sure I’ve been guilty of in the past. And while I often take a hard stance even on issues that are inherently complex (like casting Indians as Middle Easterners and vice versa, when we’re all just looking for more opportunity), differentiating between the issues where we might require more nuance and information versus ones where other perspectives are mere distractions and devil’s advocacy is beginning to seem increasingly vital.
I know more opportunities to tell stories from different perspectives is a solution, but it’s also not the only solution. It’s something everyone ought to be aware of, and there's little doubt in my mind that empathy is an important characteristic in a good storyteller, but does that mean expecting filmmakers to tell stories they might not be able to tell or might have no interest in telling? On the other hand, I know more visibility works in everyone’s favour, but context matters too. And since even context isn’t an absolute, it’s something that ought to be up for critical debate while acknowledging where everyone’s coming from, and who’s coming at a given subject from a place of knowledge and experience.
There’s no perfect way to make progress, be it in terms of representation or opportunity, but listening and communicating about the various ways in which we can seems like a good place to start. And sometimes that means having conflicted feelings about how you ought to be seen.