Happy Tubelight Week again! Let’s talk about the film I was immediately reminded of when I saw the first Tubelight trailer, the classic Dr. Kotnis. Well, and the real person Dr. Kotnis.
Dr. Kotnis ki Amar Kahaani, by the way, is available in full from the website indiancine.ma. Which is a wonderful website in general, if you are interested in watching Indian classics, this is the place to go. And Dr. Kotnis is a fascinating film to watch.
Dwarkanath Kotnis, the real person, was born in Maharashtra and studied medicine at the University of Bombay. When he was 28. he answered a call for medical missionaries to China, following the Japanese invasion. He left with a team of 5 doctors, and worked in mobile hospitals following the army. He fell in love with a Chinese nurse in 1940, they married, and had a son named “Yinhua” for India, “Yin”, and China, “Hua”. In 1942, he died, of a series of epileptic seizures brought on by stress. His widow and child remained in China. His widow remarried to a Chinese man and had two more children. The Indian and Chinese government continued to honor her and bring her out at state functions as a symbol of friendship between the nations until her death in 2012. Yinhua died at 24, shortly before graduating medical school, of treatable illnesses, thanks to the poor state of medical care available, even for a medical student, in 1967 China.
(Dr. Kotnis, the person, looking a little over-worked and a little brave)
Kotnis’ life is fascinating, and was a series of heroic acts (he saved literally hundreds of thousands of lives). But what I also find fascinating is what he represents as a symbol of the relationship between India and China. Back when he first went to China, in 1938, it was to answer a combined call from Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose for medical volunteers to help the communist army in China. If you recall, China at that time wasn’t really an organized country any more. It was torn in civil war between the forces of Communist General Zhu De and Chiang Kai-shek. And the Japanese had been slowly invading Chinese territories for years at this point, and had just started a brutal assault on mainland China.
In 1938, Nehru and Bose saw China as a potential ally, and model, for India. It had thrown off Western influence, successfully. It was a powerful neighbor to the north for a potential free India. Calling for medical volunteers was a message two three different groups. First, to the Chinese People’s Army, that India supported them and was willing to provide real proof of friendship. Second, to the British, that India was ready to start making diplomatic moves within Asia as an independent body. And third, to the Indian public, that they should start looking to a greater Asian community, and contributing to it, rather than looking to Europe for guidance. The actual medical service part of it was really not that important. I mean, 5 doctors? They only sent 5 doctors? And 5 doctors who, coincidentally, all happened to come from different regions in India? Really feels like this was put together more as a public relations team than a vitally needed medical team.
But then within a year, everything changed. In 1939, Britain declared war on Japan. Suddenly, supporting China was not an anti-British movie, but a pro-British movie. And supporting Japan (rather than its victims) was the move for Free India. Bose went from decrying Japanese aggression to supporting it, and Dr. Kotnis became a hero for the Chinese more than the Indians.
Dr. Kotnis was remembered by his family, of course, who received regular letters in which he seemed happy with his life. But besides them, greater India seemed to have less value for him than greater China. In China, for the remaining years of his life, Kotnis was (rightly) worshipped as a savior and a hero. During one battle, he performed surgeries for 72 hours without rest. He saved 800 patients, in just that one battle. At only 31, he became the first director of the Dr. Bethune Peace Hospital (Dr. Bethune being another medical martyr in China, from Canada). When he died, he was mourned by all the leadership of the Communist army. A museum and monument was dedicated to his memory, and is still active. In 1942, when he died, India didn’t take much notice, India had other things to think about in 1942.
(Statue of Dr. Kotnis in martyrs park in China)
And then, 4 years later, suddenly India rediscovered Dr. Kotnis! WWII was over, the Japanese were firmly defeated and the threat of German and/or Japanese support for India was no longer available to be used as a threat against the British. The British were clearly on their way out of the country, and were no longer a threat either. It was time to look to the future, to think about who might be an ally or a support once the British did inevitably leave. And Nehru’s eyes went back to China.
It was in this era, when the Congress party and leading political figures started to drum up support for the idea of Chinese-Indian friendship, that KA Abbas, socialist, nationalist, and film director, wrote a short story “And One Did Not Come Back” based on Dr. Kotnis. The story was picked up by V. Shantaram, a director/actor. KA Abbas wasn’t directing his own work yet (that would come the same year Dr. Kotnis released), so V. Shantaram both directed and acted.
(Shantaram, clearly influenced by Nehru, note the hat)
The film version of Dr. Kotnis’ life made some serious changes. For one thing, the entire Japanese Army is written out. Instead of his greatest honor being saving young soldiers killed by Japan, it is saving dying victims of an epidemic. For another, following his death, his widow and child come back to live in India in his village, instead of remaining in China.
Big differences! Because now there is a need for a new kind of China-India message. First, forget WWII. WWII serves no purpose for modern India. They can’t choose between Allies and Axis, they have to look to the future, modern Japan, modern China, and the possibility of a greater Asian friendship. So let’s sort of skim past the part of history when Asia was being torn apart. Second, DON’T forget Dr. Kotnis. Let’s keep his spirit alive in India, through the presence of his child and widow. Let’s not leave them to live in China (as they did in reality since India wasn’t exactly in a position to make a bid for them. Plus, you know, it’s where she was from).
But then 16 years after Dr. Kotnis came out, China and India went to war. And the whole “best friends” period was over. Poor Dr. Kotnis got left behind again. At least, by India. Every state visit to India from high Chinese officials, starting in 1950 and continuing to 2014, has included a visit to Dr. Kotnis’ surviving family.
So, that’s Dr. Kotnis the person, and the political situation around Dr. Kotnis the film, how is the film itself? Well, it’s really really good! Look past the kind of odd “yellow-face” of having Indian actors play Chinese characters, there was really no other option for the producers. But the rest of it is very good. It’s a hagiography, but it also manages to make our hero into a living breathing person, a young man who is conflicted over leaving his family, and happy to fall in love even in the middle of a foreign land. And who sometimes forgets to be a hero and just wants to go home and see his mother one more time before he dies.
More difficult than making us feel for our hero, who after all is an “Indian” just like the audience at the time, is making us feel for his young wife. Who is “Chinese” (clearly not really, see yellow-face comment above), but is also a young wife in love with her husband. And a nurse who wants to care for her patients. And a conflicted widow with a baby, trying to decide what is the best thing to do.
It’s that last bit that reminded me of Tubelight, and which I hope is somehow captured. The idea of a young Chinese woman and child, who choose to live in the foreign land of India and are welcomed there.