If you want a story stripped of glamour and romance and reduced to its gritty, sombre and realistic essence then Christopher Nolan is the filmmaker for you and Dunkirk is the film. He doesn't just create good films but ones that leave an impression on you long after you've exited the cinema, talked about it animatedly, hyped it up on Twitter and realised you're still thinking about it.
With Dunkirk, Nolan returns to deliver a story rooted in truth about the grim evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from northern France after the battle of Dunkirk that went terribly. It's a war story but focused on the grim, human survival tales of the soldiers and civilians, taking in stories across the air, land and sea. The film is infused with a deeply desolate feeling, crafted by an understanding that war is dirty and not romantic, exciting for all the wrong reasons.
The close up camera shots of the characters as they desperately wrestle with the enormity of the situations confronting them, combined with the bombardment of noise, imbue it with a strange unearthly quality. And it's this style, this tight focus on the soldiers surviving Dunkirk that answers to some extent for the criticisms coming their way.
Many feel that Nolan's film erased the contributions made by Indian soldiers to the battle in Dunkirk. Indian soldiers were part of five million Commonwealth force who fought in World War II for the British Empire. The Indians had contributed in many key battles for the Allied forces but some historians such as Yasmin Khan feel that they played a significant role in Dunkirk which goes largely unmentioned. According to Khan, there were four companies of Indian soldiers who served in France along the Western Front and some were evacuated from Dunkirk, while one contingent were captured by the German forces.
There is a historical inaccuracy in reimagining the battle in Dunkirk as one without Indian soldiers but as Nolan pointed out, this story was stripped of its politics, told on the ground and not from an overview. It was about a tale of gritty, human survival rather than the war from a distant observation. And whilst frustration at the absence of Indian soldiers is perfectly understandable, it's misplaced.
The erasure of Commonwealth soldiers from WW2 isn't a problem for Nolan but for society and how we understand the position of migrants and minorities within Britain. It reflects more on our education system and its determined effort to embark in historical revisionism than it does on an incredibly gifted filmmaker. It reflects Britain's inability to separate truth from fiction on both the nature of the British Empire and how WWII really went.
Consider the Gurkhas, the various battles such as Tobruk and Imphal. Consider the Commonwealth soldiers who fought to recapture Burma for the Allies. The Indians fought in Dunkirk and were part of the retreat. Consider the tens of thousands of Indian soldiers, captured and tortured by the Japanese military for years, many killed. These are stories of heroism, bravery, survival and brutality seldom heard.
The British education system rarely teaches about these battles and reduces the WW2 to simply a conflict between western forces and the Germans. It was one that involved the entire globe and there are social consequences in this when you consider the deep-rooted racism within our society. Would we be telling minorities from places like India to go home or subjecting Muslims to intense hostility if our education system taught us that these groups fought for Britain? That the grandfather of an Indian immigrant fought for Britain just as you did yet they don't get to call Britain home? Our understanding of WWII and who fought and died in it shapes our view of who gets to call Britain a home, and who gets to be British.
The Indians who fought in Dunkirk deserve their own film. The soldiers caught and held by the Japanese for years under brutal torture deserve their own film. Fitting them into Nolan's Dunkirk would simply have turned them into token gestures there to appease our liberal consciences and achieve nothing more.