Remember, remember the forgotten army!

Murtaza Ali Khan | Updated on February 21, 2020 Published on February 20, 2020

Shoulder-to-shoulder: The Forgotten Army recreates the exploits of the INA’s all-woman wing through characters essayed by Sharvari Wagh (centre) and TJ Bhanu

Braving a storm: Sunny Kaushal as Surinder Sodhi in The Forgotten Army

Kabir Khan’s mini-series powerfully captures the all-but-forgotten heroism of the Indian National Army, especially its daring all-woman unit

There is a scene in the second episode of Kabir Khan’s mini-series The Forgotten Army that is set in the aftermath of the Battle of Singapore. The British have surrendered to the Japanese in the February of 1942. The Japanese are on a rampage and quickly execute a large number of the surrendered soldiers to spread terror in the ranks. Suddenly, as a Japanese soldier approaches an Indian bunch among the surrendered men, he is stopped by his superior, who reminds him that they mustn’t be harmed. The reason: The Japanese have heard about Mahatma Gandhi and his freedom struggle against the British. Perhaps that’s the only thing they know about India. And, perhaps, that’s the only thing that has protected these Indian soldiers of the British Army. When one of the Indians says (probably bluffing) that he has met Gandhi personally, the interrogating Japanese soldier bows respectfully. The Forgotten Army, currently streaming five episodes on Amazon Prime, is well stocked with such interesting vignettes from history. Of course, it occasionally takes creative liberties, too, but without digressing much. And, for the most part, it serves as a powerful reminder of the courage of the all-but-forgotten soldiers of the Indian National Army (INA).

For the uninitiated, after the British Army’s capitulation in the Battle of Singapore, the Japanese gave the captured Indian soldiers the option of forming the INA to take on their British colonial rulers. However, owing to differences with the Japanese, the fledgling armed force soon floundered. Until Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose revitalised it with the famous slogan “Dilli Chalo”. Thousands of civilian volunteers from the Indian expatriate population in Malaysia and Burma joined in. Bose also commissioned an all-female unit under Lakshmi Sahgal and named it after Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi. Kabir Khan and his team of writers chose to put a special focus on the all-female unit through a couple of fictional characters named Maya and Rasamma, essayed by newcomers Sharvari Wagh and TJ Bhanu, both of whom show a lot of promise.

The main protagonist is another fictional character named Sodhi. The younger version of Sodhi is played by Sunny Kaushal, the younger son of veteran stunt director Sham Kaushal, who is also the action director for the mini-series. The elderly Sodhi is essayed by the veteran thespian MK Raina. Khan employs an interesting narrative approach wherein the story shifts back and forth between two timelines. We meet the elderly Sodhi for the first time in the year 1996, as he returns to Singapore after about five decades to reunite with his sister and her family. Khan does a good job of matching the spaces across the timelines. We learn that Sodhi is still carrying the demons of his past. Soon he finds someone to narrate his life’s story and that’s how we are transported back to 1940s Singapore, where Sodhi’s British Army battalion is stationed.

Khan, who started out as a documentary filmmaker, makes brilliant use of photographs and newspaper clippings to take the narrative forward. Incidentally, the mini-series is inspired by Khan’s 1999 documentary by the same name, which was aired by Doordarshan.

Barring a few hiccups, the mini-series does succeed in evoking a true spirit of patriotism, far removed from the jingoistic and divisive narratives popularised by several recent Bollywood films. When a character pines for India, we can sense their patriotism without any need for them to shout it out aloud. That’s the greatest triumph of Khan’s mini-series. While the performances are solid all around, the chemistry between Kaushal and Wagh is the highlight of The Forgotten Army. The duo shares some of its best scenes. But the scene that takes the top honours is the one featuring the Japanese Army’s stealthy attack on Singapore, taking the British completely by surprise. The ensuing carnage in the scene is staggering. There is another rather sanguinary sequence showing a Japanese soldier performing seppuku, or ritual suicide.

The story of INA is not about triumph but courage. While most of the soldiers perished en route to Delhi, they demonstrated unparalleled courage. Those captured by the British were brought to the Red Fort to face a trial. Unfortunately, the trial doesn’t make it to the mini-series. Perhaps a full-fledged series could have taken care of that. In the meantime, to fill the gap, one can watch Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Raag Desh (2017), based on the INA trials, back to back with The Forgotten Army.

Murtaza Ali Khan is a Delhi-based film critic

Published on February 20, 2020
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