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November to Remember: Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk has omitted contribution of British Indian soldiers in the war

The film has a stellar cast that includes Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D'Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, and Tom Hardy

Akhila Damodaran
Nov 18, 2021
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It was the talk of the town when the film Dunkirk was released in 2017. The war drama, shot in IMAX by Christopher Nolan, was not just a story but an experience to live. I remember saying yes to my friend to watch the movie as she had an extra ticket after her friend backed out. I was not sure about the film and spent over Rs 600 on a show. That was the highest I have ever paid for a movie ticket, taking a loan from the friend. This was my first Christopher Nolan movie. But I decided to take a chance and I am glad I did. The film was definitely worth Rs 600, in fact, it is worth much more. 

The film stars Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D'Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, and Tom Hardy. One of the best films of the director, it plays well with silences. The film hardly has any dialogues and yet hits an emotional chord with the audience, showing the drastic consequences of war. The film received eight Oscar nominations and won awards for Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Film Editing.

The film portrays the Dunkirk evacuation of World War II. Set in 1940, it shows the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and other allied military troops from a beach at Dunkirk, France to England. The operation, codenamed Operation Dynamo was conducted from May 27 to June 4. Over a week, 1.98 lakh British soldiers and 1.4 lakh French and Belgian soldiers were rescued.

Not much aware of this historic event during World War II, I found the film to be a spellbound experience. It is an amazing movie, no denying it. But later, when I learned that there were 300 Indian soldiers who played a vital role in the Dunkirk evacuation, I felt disappointed as neither Nolan's movie nor other pieces of work have given due credit to them. 

Dunkirk photo 10

In an interview with ToI, Ghee Bowman, author of The Indian Contingent: The Forgotten Muslim Soldiers of Dunkirk, said in 80 years since the evacuation, nobody honoured the Indian soldiers, which is long overdue. "In the 80 years since Dunkirk, nobody else had picked up on them, so why should Nolan? He was telling the big story through three particular focuses," he said adding that the reason for the lapse of memory of the Indian contingent could be that nobody in South Asia champions for the cause. 

According to the historian and teacher Bowman, there were 2.5 million men and 11,500 women and he met four of them. The vast majority of them, he said, were Muslims. There were many tradesmen, cooks and sweepers in support of the soldiers. Tradesmen would do leatherwork and carpentry, while the cooks prepared chapatis, ground spices and cook meat and sweepers would clean after men and animals. 

Ghee Bowman/Twitter

The only Indian on the Dunkirk beach was Mohammed Akbar Khan. Speaking about him, Bowman said he joined the army when he was a teenager. Bowman said he was among the first Indians to be trained as officers in Indore. He later went on to earn an MBE and got posted with K6. He was promoted when he returned to India and became the senior-most officer in the Pakistan Army in 1947. He then retired and lived with his family in Karachi. Bowman believes the contribution of South Asian men and women were immense and they need to be realised and learned.

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