Published: January 27, 2020 12:05:02 am
After having taken the viewers to Kabul, with Kabul Express, across the border to Pakistan with Bajrangi Bhaijaan, and having given a dose of an alternate history with Phantom, director Kabir Khan takes us to Singapore and Burma of the ’40s. We journey across Southeast Asia to witness the Azad Hind Fauj being formed, in his latest “passion project” titled The Forgotten Army: Azaadi Ke Liye, a five-part mini-series streaming on Amazon prime. Excerpts from an interview with the director:
You say you have been living with this story for two decades. How did it all begin?
This was about five years after I passed out of Jamia Millia Islamia (Delhi) and was doing some freelance camera work, shooting documentaries. I got a project to direct a motor-expedition with Mahindra Jeeps, through the route from Singapore to Delhi. It was the same route that the Azad Hind Fauj had taken. I made a documentary on the subject in 1990, with the same name, but the story never left me. I even wrote it as my first script. I just never got that opportunity as I knew no one would give me that kind of budget as a first time filmmaker. After every film, I would revisit it.
What kind of research was required for a project of this magnitude?
Most of my research and information have come straight from the horse’s mouth. We discovered Captain Lakshmi Sahgal, 86, the commander of the Rani of Jhansi regiment. We also met Colonel Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon, 86, the sole survivor from the Red Fort trials. We drove for three months from Singapore, through Malaysia and Burma, retracing the route that the Azad Hind Fauj had taken to India. We stood in the same battlefields where they had, and they told me those stories themselves.
The story is told through two common soldiers, and you have cast newcomers for the same.
My source material was first-hand accounts of those people. Surinder Sodhi, for me, is a combination of Gurbaksh Dhillon, Sahgal and Shahnawaz, while Maya is a blend of Lakshmi Sahgal, Janki Thevar and a few others. And that’s the reason I have not taken it through Netaji’s perspective. We need to tell stories through the people. It’s through a simple dialogue between Sodhi and Arshad that they realise the distinction between their love for India and their loyalty to the British Indian Army. That line was taken from the Red Fort trials. The British army made them believe that their loyalty should lie with Britain, but their country was India. We considered some big names, but we chose Sunny (Kaushal) and Sharvari (Wagh) because I wanted the story to be more believable.
The five-part mini-series is no less in scale than a big-budget Bollywood film.
Sometimes the scale is the story. The story of the Azad Hind Fauj was written by the British, substantiating the cliche that history is written by those who win the war. The British narrative has them as a ragtag bunch of soldiers, traitors and deserters. For me, it was very important to counter that narrative. When you see the footage and read material from that time — such as the first Military review of the Azad Hind Fauj which describes that 30,000 soldiers standing at the Singapore City Hall, and when 30,000 rifles go up in the air, and you hear ‘Chalo Dilli’, you get goosebumps. To reduce these soldiers to some inconsequential names is a disservice.
Bollywood seems to be in love with history right now, given the spate of period dramas and historical biopics that have come out in the last year.
Today, it’s not about the history, it’s all about its various interpretations. We can perhaps debate if Azad Hind Fauj contributed to India’s Independence, but for that, we have to say that they existed in the first place.
Be it the student protests in Yangon, or the debates around nation and nationalism, the show could very well be set in today’s India.
There has to be a contemporary resonance, history always will have a resonance. When I was writing it 20 years ago, it seemed relevant. Now, some other portions are relatable. That’s the magic of history. Almost 70 years ago, they said women need to be at the centre of things and fight. We see parallels of that today, where women are leading from the front.
Tell us more about your next release — 83.
I was in school when India’s World Cup win happened, and I was completely baffled as to why was everyone going crazy, why the fireworks. We won a cricket tournament. But now as I look back, I see it as an unbelievable story of the triumph of the human spirit.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines