Many attribute the adage ‘History is written by the victors’ to Winston Churchill. What’s lesser-known is that the same PM of the UK had a setback in 1942, during WWII, when his country lost Singapore to the Japanese. He called that the “worst disaster” and “largest capitulation” in British military history. Though he later led his country to win the war, this loss paved the way for the formation of Azad Hind Fauj aka The Indian National Army (INA). Kabir Khan kickstarted his career with documentaries and the most famous of these was The Forgotten Army, a five-part documentary that retraced the route taken by the INA to reach India through Southeast Asia. 20 years on, the filmmaker has revisited the same subject to make the Amazon web series The Forgotten Army - Azaadi Ke Liye that mixes fiction with historical facts and tells a story that deserves to be known.
The struggle for independence and those who fought for it are still celebrated across India. And a name that often crops up in this context is Subhas Chandra Bose. But not many know how his INA was formed, what background these tens and thousands of soldiers had, what their motive was, or what happened to them. History books may tell us how Indian PoWs of the British-Indian Army, captured by Japan in the Malayan campaign, went on to make an alliance with Imperial Japan. But these pages barely speak about the emotional dilemma these soldiers faced when they had to then fight their own brothers.
Though that’s the least of the worries for these brave souls, who later marched towards the capital with the war cry ‘Challo Dilli’, The Forgotten Army starts off with this sequence establishing the emotions of those in war. The series follows the trials and tribulations of one such soldier, Capt Surinder Sodhi in two different timelines. As a youngster (Sunny Kaushal), he becomes part of the INA in 1942, while in the other timeline set in 1996, the now older Surinder (MK Raina) joins his young nephew in covering the Myanmar student protest whilst still battling PTSD.
The Forgotten Army - Azaadi Ke Liye tells a somewhat compelling story that transcends these timelines. We get to witness a love story bloom between the young Sodhi and photojournalist Maya Srinivasan (Sharvari), we also see two men of different generations — the older Sodhi and his nephew Amar (Karanvir Malhotra) who is also a photojournalist — understanding each other and creating a bond, as well as the change in the life of an abused ex-plantation worker Rasamma (TJ Bhanu), a gang of crooks who join the INA due to certain circumstances, and much more. Kabir Khan infuses the plot with these varied emotions to make the series feel more like a story than a history book.
That said, to keep the shock value high during sequences that don’t involve war, we do get bombarded with various facts and figures. Things like the number of Indian soldiers in the British Indian Army (2.5 million), and how there’s a memorial in the UK for animals that died in WWII but no mention of the Indian soldiers anywhere. How INA lost 26,000 soldiers, but those who lived to tell the tale were neither inducted into the Indian army nor given soldier pensions, but rather were called traitors by the British Government. Speaking about the war sequences, the makers have kept the use of CGI to a minimum and instead give us good old well-shot war sequences.
The series repeatedly takes digs at the gender discrimination in the Indian Army by mentioning the women-only Rani of Jhansi Regiment. Even the student protests sequences make us draw parallels to what we are seeing today. There’s also humour in the form of a conversation between a Japanese soldier and an Indian about Gandhi, with neither understanding a word spoken by the other. Another amusing scene has the Japanese army wanting to give the INA 50 cows to milk, but the bovines all end up being bulls.
Using gimmicks such as stock footages from the days of war and a voiceover by Shah Rukh Khan, the director tries to deliver a story in true Bollywood fashion. This, unfortunately, results in some uninteresting byproducts. We get the routine monologues and lazy attempts to touch upon topics such as patriarchy and the caste system. Despite calling the Rani of Jhansi Regiment the ‘first of its kind’ (though women have fought earlier in WW1), the series does not show them in actual warfare. Also, in places where it is used, the CGI is extremely shoddy. Long shots of soldiers end up looking like crowds in a first-generation Playstation game.
Aside from the main story arcs in the two timelines, the remaining subplots all feel pretentious. We see some veteran actors such as Amala and Nizhalgal Ravi wasted in mediocre roles. For some reason, the duo, who are shown as people of Tamil backgrounds, speak Hindi at home. So much for inclusivity. Even the principal characters’ acting feels inconsistent at places. Sunny should probably have asked his brother, Vicky Kaushal for tips for playing a soldier. The josh in seeing him perform is anything but high.
Still, despite the army truckload of issues, we have to cut The Forgotten Army - Azaadi Ke Liye some slack for its motive. After all, it does its best in trying to right history that has been cruel to thousands who lost their lives for our freedom. Coming out just ahead of Republic Day, the series is a reminder on secularism, a pillar of the INA and one on which the foundation of our country was laid.
Series: The Forgotten Army - Azaadi Ke Liye
Director: Kabir Khan
Cast: Sunny Kaushal, TJ Bhanu, Karanvir Malhotra, Sharvari, MK Raina