Kabir Khan: Governments come and go, India is for eternity
The director discusses his new show, The Forgotten Army –Azaadi Ke Liye, the dominance of ‘popular narrative’, the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and his faith in a secular India
One of India’s foremost mainstream directors, Kabir Khan started out making documentaries. His debut work, The Forgotten Army, was aired in 1999. The six-part docuseries chronicled the adventures of the Azad Hind Fauj, revisited through memories of veteran soldiers. It tracked what was called the Azad Hind Expedition, wherein Kabir, along with several veterans of the Indian National Army (INA), made the same trek from Singapore to New Delhi, 50 years after the Declaration of Independence. “The documentary was an unbelievable experience,” Kabir says. “It got me a lot of attention and kickstarted my career. But, somehow, this story never left me.”
Well, more than two decades later, Kabir is back on the trail. His upcoming web series for Amazon Prime Video, titled The Forgotten Army – Azaadi Ke Liye, gives big-scale iteration to INA history. Massively mounted and shot, the fictional show stars Sunny Kaushal and Sharvari in the lead roles. The war epic was filmed in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and Mumbai, and looks battle-ready to become the next big thing in the Indian OTT space.
In this interview, Kabir discusses the relevance of the Azad Hind Fauj, the dominance of the ‘popular narrative’, the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, and his faith in a secular India.
There have been several films and shows about Subhas Chandra Bose’s army. What prompted you to revisit this story?
When I made my documentary 20 years ago, I was travelling with Captain Lakshmi Sehgal and Colonel Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon. At that time, I didn’t realise what a gift this journey was to me. There was so much unfolding behind the scenes. You see, these were two people who had fought a war from 1942 to 1945. So, when they went back to the same areas after five decades, they were in a trance. They were revisiting their glory days. For instance, Dhillon saab would always be in search of somebody but never talk about it. That thought was the trigger point for me. In fact, the show begins with an old man going back in time.
Given the complex history of our freedom struggle, how have you made the show accessible?
It’s the story of the soldiers. I don’t think you can make a film or a show about politics. When working in a mainstream format, you should allow the audience to enjoy the story at face value. However, if they do discover the political layers, it becomes more profound. To give an example, if you watch my first film, Kabul Express, as a thriller about journalists getting kidnapped by the Taliban, that’s fine. But if you dig deeper, you will find ideas about perception and what defines an ‘enemy’. Similarly, you can enjoy the Chicken song from Bajrangi Bhaijaan as a fun children’s track. But if you wonder — ‘Is this a comment on the beef ban?’ — that makes it even better.
Kabir Khan’s favourite war films
The Guns of Navarone (1961)
Where Eagles Dare (1968)
Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
The Killing Fields (1984)
Historical fiction always has contemporary echoes. Is it the same with The Forgotten Army?
The spirit of standing up and fighting for what you believe in is contemporary. The ability to debate ethical issues — What is right? What is wrong? Who is a traitor and who isn’t? What is the difference between patriotism and nationalism? — all that is hugely contemporary. There’s a line in the trailer that says, ‘You don’t need to be of a certain religion or race to be a part of the Azad Hind Fauj’. It’s become so relevant today, at a time when we are being asked to prove we are Indians.
Do you find parallels between this story and the anti-CAA protests happening across India?
Throughout history, the popular narrative is used to submerge the truth. During the freedom struggle, it was an embarrassment to the British administration that 55,000 soldiers had turned against them. So, they censored everything and spun a narrative that this was a ragtag army of traitors. More than the military advantage, the British knew the psychological advantage Netaji had. This is exactly what’s happening at the moment where, if you speak up against the government, you are deemed an anti-national. When did the government become equivalent to India? Governments come and go, India is here for eternity.
It’s interesting because you are a popular director. Your films have done massive numbers. Does it mean there’s still an audience for all points of view?
I have grown up with the strong belief that India inherently is a secular country. Yes, we are going through dark times and you do start questioning yourself. But I dispel those thoughts. Take the example of Bajrangi Bhaijaan. The polarisation that we are going through had already started when the film came out. In it, I was talking about a Pakistani girl who is escorted back to safety by a man who grew up in the RSS environment. And yet, this film goes on to become the biggest blockbuster. So that gives me faith that maybe we’ll recover from all this. I would still like to believe that this is just a dark phase. Maybe I am being naïve.