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India-China showreel stuck since Dr Kotnis and Haqeeqat

Examining two films based on India-China relations, Patricia Uberoi talks to Tanushree Bhasin about the minimal contact between the two nations, and why cinematic liaise is considered a bad bet

Tanushree Bhasin  11th May 2013

A still from Dr Kotnis ki Amar Kahani

ow do you understand Indo-China relations since 1962?

A. Following the 1962 India–China border war, there was a long period of stalemate and non-engagement. Nursing the wounds of that disastrous defeat, India was slow to respond to the changing international environment after US–China rapprochement and the end of the Vietnam War. Rajiv Gandhi's visit to China at the end of 1988 marked the beginning of a period of renewed, if wary, engagement, which is now multi-faceted.

In the political domain, India and China have increasingly worked together in regional and international multi-national forums. In the economic domain over the last decade there has been a massive growth in bilateral trade. With annual bilateral trade figures now over US$75 billion, China is India's biggest trading partner. Strategically speaking, however, the India–China relationship remains delicate, with each side suspicious of the growing economic, political and military 'rise' of the other. While serious border clashes have been largely avoided, thanks to the Confidence Building Mechanisms in place put in place in 1993 and 1996, the fact remains that the India–China border is still to be demarcated in its entirety, and rival territorial claims in the eastern and western sectors settled. The bottom line is that, unless and until the boundary dispute is settled and the India–China border demarcated, relations between the two countries will be vulnerable to intermittent irritants — or worse, as is the case at this very moment in the western sector in Ladakh.

Q. How useful was it to trace this 'trust deficit' in cinema?

A. Whenever one asks why the India-China border dispute cannot be resolved once and for all and the boundary demarcated accordingly, one is given the reductionist or tautological explanation: 'There is a "trust deficit".' For obvious reasons, the disastrous 1962 undeclared border war has left a deep impress on the Indian psyche, amounting to a sort of collective paranoia. Still nursing the scars of that defeat, Indians would be surprised to know that there is also a "trust deficit" towards India on the Chinese side, first occasioned in the 1950s by India's unquestioning adherence to the imperial frontiers of the British Indian empire and Indian support to the Dalai Lama, and latterly by India's increasingly friendly relations with the US and Japan. Although fifty years have passed since the 1962 engagement, the Cold War has long ended, and the fulcrum of economic growth has shifted to Asia, the 'trust deficit' remains pervasive.

It was in this context that I decided to look closely at an iconic film which focuses explicitly on the 1962 border war in the Ladakh sector, namely, Chetan Anand's Haqeeqat (1964). The theme of Chinese duplicity and aggression, of India's 'trust' betrayed, comes through powerfully and tragically. But the question then arises, what was the basis of this misplaced trust? Why should India perceive the Chinese assertion of territorial claims as something like base ingratitude? I began to feel that the logic of Haqeeqat could be understood only by going back one step to another iconic film, V. Shantaram's Dr Kotnis ki Amar Kahani (1946), conceived in an era when both countries were struggling for independence from colonial rule. Dr Kotnis describes the role of the Congress-supported Indian Medical Mission in assisting China's armed struggle against Japanese occupation. In this film, India is positioned in a patronizing, elder brotherly relationship vis-à-vis China, and it is against this projection that liberated China's subsequent assertion of territorial claims against India appears as duplicitous betrayal.

Rather than ‘ally’, I would say the understanding of India vis-à-vis China is of a ‘big brother‘ assisting China in its liberation struggle. This is the basis of the ‘Hindi-Chini bhai bhai’ formula, now consigned to disrepute.

Q. How do you trace Dr. Kotnis' story from diary to novel to film? What changes did it undergo?

A.Dr Dwarkarnath Kotnis was a member of the Indian Medical Mission sent to China by the Indian National Congress in 1938. While others of the five-member team returned to India, Kotnis and his friend, Dr. B.K. Basu, joined the legendary Chinese Communist Eighth Route Army to work in the liberated areas behind enemy lines. Kotnis died in the field in December 1942, a year or so after marrying a Chinese nurse, Guo Qinglan, by whom he had a son, Yinhua (Yin=India; Hua=China).

Returning to India to raise more money for the Mission, Basu wrote a diary of his experiences (Call of Yanan, ca 1944). This was the inspiration for K.A. Abbas's 'novel', And One Did Not Return (1944), on which Shantaram's film was based and for which Abbas co-wrote the script. In the course of this transition, the emphasis and politics of the story changed. A member of the Communist Party of India, Basu's partisan account was focused on his experiences in the field, including his friendship with Kotnis. Abbas's novel was politically more circumspect. The antagonism of the Communists and the Kuomintang was papered over, and Dwarkarnath Kotnis became a central figure and, if you like, the symbol of India-China fraternity. In Shantaram's 'bio-pic' of Dr Kotnis, Dwarkarnath's romance and marriage with Guo Qinglan, lubricated by Bollywood-style song and dance, and his tragic death in the field at the age of 32, became the main focus.

Q. The film constructs China as the 'other' but also appropriates it as an ally. How does it construct the Indian self?

A. Critics have observed that, visually speaking, the 'othering' of the Chinese in Dr Kotnis was achieved through the deployment of Hollywood-type oriental imagery: fans, simpering dances, lattice windows, conical hats, etc. But there is another side to the stereotyping. Rather than 'ally', I would say the understanding of India vis-à-vis China is of a 'big brother' assisting China in its liberation struggle. This is the basis of the 'Hindi-Chini bhai bhai' formula, now consigned to disrepute. The fraternal relationship was, however, asymmetrical: India was in the lead, with China as a client. This was in accordance with Nehru's image of India's leadership role in the Non-Aligned Movement, and manifested in India's support for China's admission to the UN.

Q. How do you think Hindi cinema's portrayal of China differs from say Pakistan?

A. There are two major differences. The first is that, after an initial wariness, reflecting the wounds of Partition, the volume of popular films on India–Pakistan and Hindu–Muslim communal relations, has increased enormously. On the other hand, there is remarkably little to illustrate the India–China relationship. Secondly, in the large volume of popular films the India–Pakistan relationship, black-and-white stereotypes have been complicated by shades of grey: there can be good and bad Indians, good and bad Pakistanis, and the possibility of love transcending national boundaries. By contrast, the India–China relationship has remained cinematically frozen in time, like the border issue itself.

Q. Post Haqeeqat there hasn't been any cinematic engagement with China. Why do you think that is?

A. This is a difficult question, but a set of Indian producers and distributors to whom the question was recently put responded bluntly that there would be no market for such films, since Indians were not really interested in films about China and the Chinese people. The reverse is also the case, perhaps even more so. Altogether people-to-people contacts are minimal.

Q. Did the war with China change the way Chinese characters were and continued to be portrayed in films in India?

A. As exemplified in the contrast between Dr Kotnis and Haqeeqat, the war certainly made a difference, instantiating mistrust and transforming the brothers-in-arms of the anti-colonial struggle to implacable enemies. As in the libretto of Haqeeat's most famous and indelibly memorable song, Kar chale hum fidaa jan-o-tan, saathiyon / Ab tumare hawale watan, saathiyon', China is portrayed as Ravana transgressing the protective Lakshman-rekha to ravish a hapless Sita.

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