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War and Representation in India

Subarno Chattarji et Dr Swatie

Modern Indian narratives of the state are also narratives of war: from internal conflicts through which Princely States were absorbed into the nation state to political tensions with Pakistan and China on the borders, India has a history of war and international armed conflict. These are narratives of “India’s wars” (Subramaniam). These are also narratives that are embedded in representation. Even as news media and “the culture industry” consolidate narratives of war, war is narrated in multiple formats across disciplines (Adorno and Horkheimer). The mode and modality, register and genre of narrating war has varied depending on context. How have wars been represented in India in the 20th century? This special issue of Revue Lisa ( aims to bring together debates, discussions, and issues surrounding India’s wars and its manifestation in literary and cinematic texts. The focus is on wars through the textual aspect of their representations.

In multiple wars post-Independence with Pakistan and China there has been both a profusion and silence in literary and cinematic productions. For instance, in cinema, it has been noted that “the war film was notably absent from the oeuvre of Indian film-making for the first 80 years of the industry” (Athique 478). This silence on the subject was only momentarily broken by offbeat productions like Garam Hawa (Sathyu), or Haqeeqat (Anand) on the 1962 war with China. This period of silence was followed by a profusion of war films sparked off by JP Dutta’s Border (Dutta). Some of the films that followed were mainstream and commercial. Similarly in literature, Tarun Saint points out how there was an exuberance of short stories in the 1940s and 1950s (with writers such as Saadat Hasan Manto and Intizar Hussain) but moments of pauses and silences in literary production, for instance, in the Indian novel (Saint). The literature of post-Independence India represents traumatic memories of the repressed asking for return (Saint).

Primary works of fiction on the subject of war include The Shadow Lines, Midnight’s Children, Shame, Such a Long Journey, while fiction on conflict in Kashmir has produced a subgenre, the most recent of which are The Farfield and The Plague Upon Us. Plays such as Andha Yug are indicative of war representation across genres. Literary criticism has approached literary depictions of war in several ways. Critics have dealt with the interactions of the narrative/ text with history, leading to sociological analyses (Bharat; Kaul; Saint), the mediations of text and context and the challenge that this engagement poses for the critic (Kaul 140), and the encounter of personal memory and its collective manifestation in society and literature. For Suvir Kaul, this has meant paying attention to a “phenomenology of pain” in the community of suffering Kashmiris (Kaul 141). Instances like medieval Kashmiri poet Lal Ded’s maxim-like status and recurring use in contemporary poetic traditions of Kashmir are discussed (Kaul 137). This insistence on the insider-outsider divide in the context of Kashmir is repeated in Meenakshi Bharat’s work on the post-terrorist novel (Bharat 43). She examines the use of literary tropes that create this inside/outside division (Bharat 43, 139).

These literary texts occupy a space of contestation by asking questions such as how the national imaginary gets encoded through the othering of the neighbouring country/ countries, how do the aspects forming a national consciousness contain within themselves a trace of the Other? The themes and preoccupations of literary and cinematic criticism have focused on several of the following concerns: Can literature imagine war differently? Can literature “tell us about lived lives in the face of extraordinary political disruptions and violence” (Kaul 7)? There is also an insistence that the artist uncovers a profound and hidden ‘truth’ in the face of extreme violence (Bharat).

In cinema, there is a fetishisation of the border. This is evident from the eponymous JP Dutta film but also several others on war. The border is not just a space of geographical demarcation but also “territorializes and nationalizes local populations and identities” (Purewal 547). The claim for hegemony has occupied both sides of the divide (India and Pakistan) with competing interests in consolidating linguistic, socio-cultural, and territorial dominance. Yet, this fetishisation of the border remains an oft-represented trope. Films such as Pinjar, Gadar: Ek Prem Katha, and Veer Zaara, also define this anxiety of the border within the ambit of familial domesticity. The trace of the Islamophobic construction of the Muslim as Other has been documented and shown to be complicated in a global Bollywood (Gabriel and Vijayan). Other films on war include LOC: Kargil, Uri: the Surgical Strike, Lakshya, and War.

This issue endeavours to build on earlier work on war and representation. However, it poses the novel question of whether artistic representations of war in the Indian context can emerge as a consolidated entity. Are there familiar tropes and techniques of war representation across genres? While the thrust in scholarship has been thematic, the focus here is on the formal aspects of artistic representation. Has a new formalism of war appeared such that artists grappling with the representation of war use these repertoires of tropes and images and paint a picture? Without denying the historical specificity of the varied violent contexts, can a community of war representation be said to exist in Indian literature and cinema? Can the claim that even as war “resists representation, [war] demands it” simultaneously be sustained? (McLoughlin 7).


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Akhtar, Farhan, director. Lakshya. Excel Entertainment, 2004.

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Anand, Siddharth, director. War. Yash Raj Films, 2019.

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Vijay, Madhuri. The Far Field: A Novel. Grove Press, 2019.

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