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Marching back to Singapore: ‘The Forgotten Army’

Kabir Khan on how his Amazon series tells the story of the Indian National Army from the perspective of the footsoldier

A still from ‘The Forgotten Army: Azaadi Ke Liye
A still from ‘The Forgotten Army: Azaadi Ke Liye

Though The Forgotten Army: Azaadi Ke Liye is set in the early 1940s, my conversation with director Kabir Khan kept veering towards the present. This isn’t surprising, for the Amazon Prime series, which deals with the formation of the Indian National Army (INA) in Singapore and their subsequent march to India, grapples with what it really means to serve one’s country—an idea that still drives public discourse. The present has also been on the director’s mind; after the attack on Jamia Millia Islamia students by the Delhi police, Khan, an alumnus, wrote an impassioned piece in The Indian Express on 31 December saying he was more aware of his Muslim identity than ever before.

Series creator and director Kabir Khan on location.
Series creator and director Kabir Khan on location.

This is Khan’s first streaming series, but the story has been with him since almost the start of his career. In 1999, he made a Doordarshan docuseries on the INA, also titled The Forgotten Army. He attempted to make a fiction feature on it several times but Bollywood success (Ek Tha Tiger, Bajrangi Bhaijaan) meant there were other stories to tell. Amazon’s interest, though, meant he could tell a story in a more expansive fashion. Edited excerpts from an interview:

How crucial was the original INA documentary to your career?

I made the documentary was in the early stages of my career—in a sense, it began my career. The story, the way I accessed and experienced it, was totally life-altering for me. I was 25 at that time and I had Captain Lakshmi Sahgal and Col Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon narrating that story...this is literally being told to me by people who made that history. I think that’s why the story became so big in my mind—even after I was done with the documentary, it never left me. I felt I needed to narrate it at a wider level. It became the first script I wrote, but I realized it was too big in scope for it to be my first film. After every film, I ended up picking this script up.

Finally, about three years ago, we were discussing it with Amazon and I realized that this can be best narrated as an original series. A larger canvas allows you to maybe be a little truer to history, to not oversimplify certain things.

Did you find your views about the INA had changed in the 20 intervening years?

No, because I had already gone through that process at the time of making the documentary. It was a long process of around two years. There are so many controversies about the INA, of them allying with the Japanese, and so many conspiracy theories about Netaji’s (Subhas Chandra Bose’s) death. I had a long time to discuss all that. In the last 20 years, whatever new material would come, I would read it. I wouldn’t say any radical transformation has come in what I believed about the INA then and now.

One sticking point about INA history for today’s viewers is Bose visiting Hitler’s Germany to seek support for an invasion of India (the series is set in the years after).

One very important point about this series is, this is the first time you are seeing the Azad Hind Fauj through the eyes of the foot soldiers. There has been some work done where you can access the INA through the prism of Netaji. So I felt it was about time we got to know about the 55,000 men and women who went into battle. What were their compulsions, their motivations? So it’s really only dealing with the formation of the INA in 1942, at the time when Netaji wasn’t there, and goes up till their last battle, in Burma (now Myanmar), in 1945.

Much as we can debate it, whether it was a right move, imperialism versus fascism, my point was very simple: We can of course sit in judgement on what they did, but do we really know enough of what they did? At least first let’s get to know. Right now we are in a position where no one knows the story of Azad Hind Fauj— it’s truly a forgotten chapter in our history.

A constant theme in your work is how relations between nations affect relations between people.

Totally. I think that is something that has always fascinated me. I had the privilege of associating with a senior journalist, Saeed Naqvi, very early in my career. He, at that time (late 1990s), was almost obsessed with discussing world news and current affairs from an Indian perspective. At that stage, Indian channels would not travel. With him, we travelled to 50-60 countries in five-six years, looking at international relations through an Indian context.

News is not impersonal. News is obviously someone’s perspective—we are seeing a very extreme version of that in our own country. But even at that time I realized that what the BBC and CNN are telling us is not gospel; there might be a certain story they are not telling which is important for us. Through that, I also got to know how international relations affect people at the street level.

My stories all lie in the gap between the story that was told to us and the story that should have been told to us. I get fascinated by individuals reacting in the foreground with a larger-than-life political backdrop that has a bearing on them. So if Munni and Bajrangi have a journey, they are being affected by the larger backdrop of the politics of India and Pakistan. In New York, what John (Abraham) is going through is because of the backdrop of 9/11. To bring this in comes naturally because I feel that when I don’t have this context as an audience, I struggle.

So many years later, INA has a strong hold over the Indian imagination...

…without people fully understanding them. Every party seems to be appropriating them.

It’s ironic since they are, in a sense, the original anti-nationals.

What’s surprising to me is that some of the people who are trying to appropriate this legacy are totally out of sync with it. For example, I have seen a lot of right-wingers do that, because of the uniform and the whole sense of nationalism and the fact that Bose went into battle—they feel that’s the whole macho version of nationalism which they like. But they forget that he was so strongly steeped in the traditions of secularism, he felt that’s one of the pillars on which India stands—he would definitely not want to be appropriated by people who don’t believe in that. The whole distinction between patriotism and nationalism that’s being played out in our country today...the INA really teaches you what patriotism is all about.

You had written a piece in ‘The Indian Express’ condemning the Jamia attack. Have you been surprised by the extent of the protests since?

It’s a mixed bag. I have been pleasantly surprised by the fact that the students have captured our imagination and led us out of our slumber, made us react and speak up. What is wrong with all of us, that a very natural act of speaking up for what you are unhappy about is becoming a “brave" act? At the same time, it’s very depressing how some of that dissent has been crushed and there’s a constant narrative to write them off as propaganda.

There will always be dissent about certain things: If you are a democratically elected government, there are some people who didn’t vote for you. And even among the people who voted for you, they don’t have to agree with every single thing that you do. You just need to be able to understand the pulse of a nation, to hear a counterpoint without getting so violent about it.

I don’t understand what it means when (film industry) people say “I am apolitical"—adopting this stance is itself politics. I am happy that some who would not have gotten up a few months ago are voicing their dissent. We are only doing what is our fundamental right.

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