Monthly Archives: September 2013

Jaffna University helidrop

MI 8

Jaffna University Helidrop was a mission launched by the Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF) in Sri Lanka to capture the top leadership of LTTE, particularly Prabhakaran in 1987. I read about it a while back and found the mission interesting at many levels. First of all it was an Indian army mission in a non-native scenario, that is, they were not defending their motherland. Second, it was one of those incidents where an important person (Prabhakaran, here) escaped and had a huge impact on world history. Prabhakaran led the LTTE for 23 more years in one of the bloodiest civil wars in South East Asia. Had Prabhakaran been captured that October in 1987, the war would have taken a, well, different turn for he was an influential leader. Thirdly, it was one of those few missions I know about, which ended disastrously for Indian Armed Forces. Not only Prabhakaran and all of the other LTTE commanders escaped unharmed, the LTTE having prior information about the Indian Army’s operation, were ready, and as a result the Indian troops lost 35 of their brave soldiers while one was captured.

I was reminded of it when I recently saw Madras Café. I went to the theater hoping they would cover this incident in detail but the movie mentioned it for a few minutes and that too rather obliquely.

So Jaffna peninsula is the north most tip of Sri Lanka and Jaffna city is its capital. It was an LTTE stronghold. In the city is the Jaffna University whose campus was used by the LTTE as one of their headquarters in those days. Indian intelligence reports in October 1987 suggested that an LTTE meeting was to be held in the campus and Prabhakaran was to attend it together with some other top commanders. Decision was taken to use this opportunity to catch Prabhakaran and render the rebel movement directionless as the Indian forces planned an all-out offensive to disarm the LTTE. The plan was to drop troops through helicopters around and in the campus who would take Prabhakaran and others. The final plan was made. 120 commandos of the 10th Paracommando group and 360 troops from Sikh Light Infantry were to be heli-dropped in all. The helicopters were Mi-8s, each of which could carry 20 soldiers at a time. Mi-8s have the provision for fitting rocket pods, but it was either considered not necessary because Indians did not anticipate much ground resistance or to accommodate maximum human cargo. Either way, the helicopters were not fitted with rocket pods. 4 helicopters were designated for the mission, which were to fly in twos at a time: two helicopters at a time (2 Mi-8s at a time * 20 guys in each = 40 soldiers in each landing). It was a 4 min flight from helipad to the university. All the 120 paras were to be dropped first, with the infantry troops to follow in later flights. Also the first wave of the paras was tasked to mark the landing zone, so that the subsequent flights were easier.

But unknown to Indian Intelligence, the Tigers had prior knowledge of the impending raid, having intercepted Indian radio communication. The Tigers were heavily armed in anticipation of the Indian raid and the university was turned into a fortress. The Indians were to walk straight into a big ambush.

The Indians started the operation at the midnight of 11th October. The first 40 paras boarded the two helicopters and approached the drop zone observing complete black out. It seems that the LTTE missed this first insertion or were not sure of the direction of approach of the Mi-8s, and so, the troops disembarked unopposed. But the firefight started soon and the Mi-8s barely managed to take-off unharmed. Under heavy fire, the first paras could not mark the drop zone for the coming flights. The pilots of the second flight, when they approached the landing site, could see small arms fire and grenades on the ground but could not see the drop site, so they aborted their mission and their cargo of 40 paras did not disembark.

But the pilots of the original first flight returned to drop their second cargo, and they did it successfully, taking heavy damage to their helicopters in the process because by this time, the LTTE had a clear idea of where the aircraft were coming from and directed their firepower in the incoming Mi-8s’ direction. Now, there were 80 paras on ground instead of planned 120 and they were taking very heavy fire from the hostile LTTE. Meanwhile, the Indians made the decision to exchange one pilot each from the two flights so that two waves could be flown, because the latter two pilots could not identify the drop zone. This way, at least one pilot in both the two waves knew of the drop zone.

The third wave was to consist of 40 remaining paras and the first batch of 40 of the Light Infantry soldiers. But there was delay. Firstly, the soldiers of the Light Infantry not being trained for specialized heliborne operations, were not aware of the embarkation routine and hence were not assembled. Secondly, when they did assemble, they started loading huge boxes of ammunition in the aircraft. The Light Infantry troops, unlike the paras who carried their ammo and supplies on a Man-pack basis, carried their ammo in boxes. This loading of boxes not only caused further delay, it also reduced the carrying capacity of the helicopters from 20 to 15 persons each. Anyway, the third flight took off and managed to drop its cargo but not without more drama. While on drop zone, the paras were prompt in getting out and taking position, but there was confusion among the LI troops. They were freshly transferred to Jaffna from Gwalior and were not properly battle-inoculated. Sudden insertion into a hot battle field probably overwhelmed them. They forgot to unload their ammunition box and the helicopter had to spend more time than required on the ground to unload it. This caused the aircrafts to take extensive fire from LTTE rendering them incapable of further return flights. All the helicopters barely managed to return back but there were not to be any more flights. No more additional troops. The helicopters in very bad shape and the India commanders took the hard decision that no more sorties were to fly.

120 paras and 360 LI troops were to be inserted, as originally planned. While all the 120 paras were in position, only 30 of the 360 LI troops were inserted. With the situation in hand, it was time to decide the new course of action. The commanders on base decided that though the Indian troops were short, Prabhakaran was too high value a target. So the para commandos were instructed to carry out their plan of leaving the drop zone and searching for LTTE leaders while the LI soldiers were to hang back and hold the landing ground. Though it is highly debatable as to how the 20 odd remaining soldiers of the Li were supposed to hold the ground against a superior placed enemy but it seems the commander of the LI troops expressed willingness to do so in anticipation of further insertion of LI troops and by the time he came to know that no more drops were coming, the paras were already on their way to hunt for Prabhakaran. In any case, the 20-something Li troops were left on the drop zone holding off the LTTE while the paras moved forward to hunt for Prabhakaran.

Over the course of the search, the paras met a man who claimed to know the whereabouts of the LTTE leader. The man was in fact an LTTE sympathizer who misled the soldiers who soon lost their way. By the morning, the paras had retreated to couple of houses in the campus and fortified themselves.

Back at the base, with all radio contact gone and no word from the troops on ground, plans were being made to extract the troops. Three T-72 tanks and additional paras were tasked to bring the guys back. But the tanks could not make a lot of progress because the LTTE had laid mines on the ground. Then the tanks tried an alternate route through the railway lines which passed near the University campus, but as they fought their way through, they got bogged down by RPG fire and took some damage. Meanwhile, additional ground troops had managed to link up with the beleaguered commandos. They were rescued successfully. It was 18 hours since they landed at the campus the previous night. They had lost 6 of their men.

The fate of the Sikh LI troops was later reported by Sepoy Gora Singh who was taken prisoner by the LTTE and later released. He was the lone survivor. Greatly outnumbered against a largely hidden and well entrenched enemy, the soldiers of the LI gradually fell man by man. By 11:30 in the morning, the company was down to the last three members who, when they ran out of ammunition, attempted a bayonet charge. Two fell to gunfire while Sepoy Gora Singh was taken prisoner.

It was one of the most poignant battles fought by the Indian Army.

It is not conclusively known as to how close the LTTE leadership came to being captured that day, but some radio intercepts suggested that at one stage during the raid, Prabhakaran had sent ‘Goodbye’ message to other LTTE stations, telling that he may not get out of the battle. It was that close.

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Superhero Business

Superhero cropped

I recently saw the promos of Krrish 3. Fabulous effects. The look of the movie is really world class. There was a line in the promo which said “An evil was being born, to rule the world”. Of course there is nothing wrong with the line. And this blog piece is not really about Krrish. That line just rekindled some old questions which led to some more and so on. The immediate question was, why would that evil want to rule the world? And who decided that it was an evil?

Really, the whole world?  Dharavi included? What about Dalai Lama and his disciples?

It just does not make any sense that anybody would want to do that, even if they could. If nothing else, total world domination by one individual (together with his bad army) would entail a host of logistical problems. But that is just one of the questions which comics (the medium which gave the world most if its superheroes) have been getting away with, for ages. The reason given being, and quite rightly so, because the comics are meant for kids, who can’t care less. When I started reading comics, I never really questioned why the Superhero so badly wanted to battle the bad guys. Why does it do nothing but battle the bad guys? I also never questioned why the Superheroes invariably wore a suit. Would it not be wise to wear some camouflage and not such bright colors like red, yellow, green and blue? Is it because they want to stand out in the crowd and be seen? Is it really a good combat practice to do so? Maybe they do want to be seen, to be seen as a symbol of Goodness, who is also strong and give out a message to the bad guys to stop their bad business because there will be consequences? But in that case, why do the superheroes also wear a mask? Why do they want to be seen, but not want their faces to be visible? Why do most of them continue to lead an alternative life, as a commoner? Why don’t they proudly tell the world that they are the Superheroes?

In comics, we really do not care. We just accept them as facts of comics’ life. Some city, similar to ours, but fictional, where unique things happen. Superheroes in suits fight exotic villains. They are their own self-contained world. We read comics and are entertained. That is all that matters. But it was all meant for the kids, for the young. Kids really are the biggest consumers of comics. And while it was for kids, it was fine.

Soon, Superhero movies followed. And for quite some time, they were aimed at the fans of comic books too. Basically, they were nothing more than a literal moving adaptation of the comics itself. And hence, these questions did not apply to them because they, like their parent comics, were not to be taken seriously.

But it did not take the movie makers long to realize the obvious. They realized that they really do not need to make exact movie replicas of the comic books. Movies were a different medium and they demanded a different telling of the stories, even if the stories themselves were old. Also the movies need not be aimed at the young only.

Spiderman(2002) was not the first movie which featured a superhero. But it was very different. The most important difference being, it was the first movie which strived to impress those audiences also who were not necessarily the readers of spider man comics. In short, it tried to stand on its own as a movie, not a superhero movie, not a comic book movie, just a movie. And most importantly, it was effective in doing that. It was a huge success, which showed that non-comics-readers also watched and liked it. In order to do so, it had to answer some of the questions I mentioned above. The movie managed to answer some of them well, others not quite so. For example, it tells us the evolution of spider man’s suit. Or why it has to lead a double life. These it manages to explain reasonably well. But it does not offer a great explanation to why the spider man wants to fight bad guys, I mean, he could have very well stopped after catching his grandfather’s killer.

But why do these questions matter at all? I mean, who gives a damn, right? Not quite.

I think these questions matter to any sincere, thinking director/production-house who is making a serious movie based on superheroes. And that is precisely what the directors are doing these days: they are making realistic superhero movies. And then, you cannot ignore these things. When Zack Snyder made ‘Man of Steel’ with Christopher Nolan producing, they had to remove the red briefs of Superman, because what would they have said to Steven Spielberg, when he asked about it? ‘Hey Zack, why is your hero wearing underwear on top’? They could not just say that the original comics had them so. Similarly, they gave some explanation for the ‘S’ mark on the chest of Superman, and it was not that S stood for Superman (They said it is not an S at all, it is a symbol which stands for Hope in Superman’s native planet). They would have removed it too, but it was just too vital for the superman character. They had to make these changes because the red briefs and a random initials-crest do not belong in the real world. In fact, this red brief is such an absurd feature of Superman that the previous superman movie, Superman Returns, though not courageous enough to do away with it altogether, showed very few shots where you can see the guy donning the brief. (For an amazing view on why Superman and other superheroes wore undies on top, see this). Even the name ‘Superman’ is not that great, and they make all the effort in both the movies to use the precise term.

But the one superhero adaptation which changed the face of superhero movies was Christopher Nolan’s Batman (series). Christopher Nolan is an absurdly intelligent director. And he made an extremely serious movie about a superhero which was aimed to impress mature audience. The movie was serious because it tried to be totally believable. I think it is no coincidence that it was a Batman movie. Batman, for various reasons, is a superhero who can exist in an everyday world. He does not really need a separate universe to exist. Batman’s strength is his great cardio, his will power and his amazing gadgets, through his money. A lot of guys could be Batman. Similarly Tony Stark and Ironman make a great movie superhero, because he is totally exist-able too. My point is, you can make a totally believable movie with these guys. And Nolan did a fabulous job at that. All three of his Batman movies won critical praise and broke box-office records. And he meticulously explained each and every known Batman fact, his beginning, his motive to fight guys, his motive to hide behind a mask, the motives of all its villains, everything. The result was three very compelling movies. They featured amazing action sequences and the unique hero-villain battles, which are central to any comic-book storytelling, but Nolan’s movies were much more than that. The action sequences were great; but it was really the story and the complexity of characters which found praise. The Joker is a great example of that. The problem with making a convincing superhero movie, or rather with retelling any famous story, is that your audiences know a lot of facts beforehand. Your success or failure depends on how well you can explain all those facts in a new way. And Nolan did a great job at that, with liberal help from Hans Zimmer’s music, I must add. 🙂

But this realistic portraying of Superheroes give rise to another whole set of inconsistencies. And they have nothing to do with the style of movie making; these are inherent qualities of comic book story-telling. For example, I was watching ‘The dark Knight Rises’ recently, and I suddenly realized that Bane, and The Joker previously, were deriving so much pleasure in fighting and defeating Batman, that I could not help but wonder if Batman gave rise to those nasty villains? I mean, both Bane and Joker were not really into killing or torturing people, they wanted to defeat Batman, because he was such a brilliant, grand good hero. It was like they were in there for the challenge. And innocent people were being hurt in the process. This was kind of self-defeating. Batman was giving rise to villains who were tormenting the people who Batman set out to protect in the first place. Would it not be better for the people of Gotham that Batman trained a super police force of sorts with his expertise and resources and that force protected the city of Gotham with batman as its strategic commander but not a central figure?

One huge problem with all of these stories is the culture of fist-fighting and over reliance on physical strength, in spite of all the amazing things happening around. In The Avengers, one guy turns into a big green monster, one guy can fly and shoot missiles, one guy is coming from an alien planet and all these super cool things, but they still fight each other with hands whenever they get a chance. I mean, who fights with their bare hands in today’s world? Armies all over the world aim at confronting their enemies from a distance and finishing the battle there. The problem is the scope of the battle. Loki is coming to subjugate the earth and he is starting with a city? Really? Why is he not magic bombing an entire nation? The fighting units of his army are so small in scope; I cannot be sure how he plans to conquer the entire world in this fashion. And remember that guy just came from an alien planet, so he must be resourceful. Problem is, how else would you portray an eye catching hero-villain showdown?

The scope of superheroes also is very inconsistent. Batman wants to fight crime so badly, but it never disturbs him that there are other cities in the country where crime rate is high too? He is just content fighting for his city mates? Don’t superheroes become disillusioned by crimes in other cities? What about other countries? Do they feel bad by the civil war scene in Africa? What about poverty and pollution and drugs? Don’t they feel a sense of futility when they are saving 50 people in a city by a super-villain while thousands died from hunger elsewhere in the world? Do they ever feel like joining the Red Cross or politics so that they can help more people? Don’t they realize that real villains do not necessarily fight or maybe not look villainous at all? I hope you are getting my point.

Amazingly, all of these questions don’t exist for comics; they are just comics after all. They rise with serious, realistic movie making.

So, what really makes a good Superhero movie?

I think, Hancock was a very good superhero concept. The movie was ok, but Hancock makes a good superhero. He has superpowers but that do not automatically motivate him to do good for people. In fact, he is a hopeless drunk, which is very plausible for a non-ageing, lonely person who is a freak. People do not really like him, for he does more destruction than good. But he comes around, with some help, and choses the right path. Then he becomes a hero. Superhero.