A little over two years after Alt Balaji chose “Bose: Dead or Alive”, a web-series based on the mysterious disappearance of Netaji, to headline its launch, we have Amazon invoking his towering persona again for its Republic Day release — The Forgotten Army: Azaadi Ke Liye. Kabir Khan, whose documentary film-making prowess shines through in the series, dusts-off a subject with which he made his film-making debut in 1999. Khan adapts it for the medium appreciably well while fashioning two crafty tales set half a century apart in time.
The story begins in 1990’s Singapore where an old man suffering from visible PTSD accompanies his grand-nephew to Burma for his journalism internship. Only it turns out, this is not the first time he is making this journey. The action then moves onto 1940s Singapore. Here the British commander helming a numerically superior force comprising an Allied force of Indian and Australian troops, surrenders to a Japanese invasion, but not before dismissing the same threat when suggested by Indian captain and our chief protagonist Captain Sodhi. Remarkable in Kabir Khan’s recreation of WW2 front in the South East Asia are the well-shot sequences of trench warfare in the Jungles of Malaya peninsula, which are head and shoulders above of anything we have seen before on Indian screens, small or big (Cough…Vishal Bhardwaj’s Rangoon…Cough). As the Indian soldiers are taken prisoners, we are accorded a fleeting glimpse of General Mohan Singh as the leader of the first Indian National Army. As someone who was first introduced to the real-life characters of the INA as schoolboy while reading Hugh Toye’s The Springing Tiger from my father’s library, I would have preferred more named characters being brought to life in Khan’s realistic depictions, but I believe we already have the series’ documentary namesake for that.
What is nicely integrated though in these first few episodes is interspersion of historical footage for some iconic moments like the Aerial bombing of Singapore and INA’s first march into the city. The city of Singapore itself is brilliantly recreated with its Victorian architecture and you are convinced that you are in 1940s “Pearl of the Orient” overran with enterprising Indians — a depiction consistent with the reality of strong overseas Indian mercantilism before it was destroyed by the inward looking Nehruvian economics. The portrayal of a thriving Indian community reminding one of the well-researched works of Sanjeev Sanyal and Amitav Ghosh, along with the use of Tamil, Bengali, Japanese and Burmese toungues by people of the respective nationalities instead of accented Hindi serves as the litmus of authenticity for me.
It is from this community of Indians, that we find rest of our lead characters — a Tamil street performer who has never set foot in India (Badree), a young hobbyist photographer from an affluent family (Maya), and a plantation worker exploited by her British master (Rasamma). They are joined by Captain Sodhi and Arshad (whose characters appear based on Colonel Prem Sahgal and General Shah Nawaz) in their transformation into a highly motivated bunch of nationalists. This transformation is brilliantly shown with almost two episodes dedicated to flesh out different characters and detail their journeys from being the militias loyal to Crown to being galvanized into a force that triggers global decolonization. We are treated with brilliant exchanges between the characters talking about the British ploy of exploiting the caste fault lines with their martial races doctrine and raising the first ever woman regiment of the world, that culminates into heart wrenching scenes when Badree first sets foot on the soil of India.
The subsequent episodes do a great job of depicting the extreme hardships faced by the soldiers as the Japanese supply lines start stretching thin followed by heroic scenes of urban warfare what purportedly is Kohima after the Stalingrad of The East.
As excitably as I am penning this review down, there is a lot that us right-wingers will find missing in the series. Kabir Khan is extremely generous to the multiple dispensations in the free India as he avoids naming and shaming those responsible for depriving the INA soldiers of recognition or even their due pensions, in either the epilogue or the running voice-overs by Shah Rukh Khan. A mention of Gandhi’s last venture — the Quit India Movement — which failed miserably in its objective should have been made, when Khan rightfully credits the Naval revolt for driving the final nail in the Raj’s coffin. Although we see frequent invocation of Netaji’s name in the series, the viewer isn’t even told that he had to create his own party and leave India due to an uncooperative Gandhi and an insecure Nehru.
But credit where’s due, Kabir Khan tells an important story that needed to be told. Even if only in the epilogue, the viewers are told how the Red Fort trials backfired and almost turned into a second sepoy mutiny. Netaji’s thousands of foot soldiers managed to instill a sense of nationalism in India that the discredited Congress leaders and an ageing Gandhi could not have managed in 1940s India. Congress’ lawyerism and politics could not achieve in decades what these INA soldiers did in a matter of months —they turned not only the public opinion but also the armed forces loyalties on its head and forced the Raj to beat hasty retreat from the corridors of Delhi.
While the list of omissions can be expanded further, for now I will count my blessings for receiving a binge-worthy show after Netflix’s disappointing collaborations with Anurag Kashyaps and Zoya Akhtars of the world, as I revel in the exhilaration of this brilliantly made series while humming the shows uplifting anthem “Mere Watan” composed by Pritam.