Kabir Khan on Amazon Prime Video show The Forgotten Army, his cricket drama 83 and the nexus between history and politics
Kabir Khan's The Forgotten Army: Azaadi Ke Liye will begin streaming on Amazon Prime Video on 24 January.
Writer-director-cinematographer Kabir Khan is currently juggling between two ‘giants’ (as he calls it) - The Forgotten Army: Azaadi Ke Liye – a five-part Amazon Prime Video’s original series based on Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army (also known as Azad Hind Fauj that fought for India's independence from British colonialism under Bose's leadership), and sports drama, ’83.
Even as he wonders why he decided to pick these two “mountains” around the same time, he is savouring every bit of it. “The Forgotten Army is a very special journey for me because this is the story that inspired and wanted me to become a filmmaker. This piece of history has lived with me for two decades,” said Khan, who reveals he tackled the topic in a six-part documentary in 1999.
“I was out of film school a few years and Captain Laxmi Sehgal, the commander of the women’s regiment of the Azad Hind Fauj, and Colonel Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon, one of the senior officers of the Fauj, at the age of 86 drove with me from Singapore through Malaysia and Burma for over three months retracing the root that the Fauj had taken between 1942 and 1945,” Khan recalls. “It was like learning history through those who made history. It is an unbelievable privilege to be able to experience history like that. They were telling me the story right there. The story refused to leave my mind space and I always wanted to tell this story at a wider level. I knew I was going to make a dramatized version of it. I won’t use the word fictional, it is a dramatized version of something that really happened. I went on to write it as a film screenplay based on my documentary experiences and what I had seen with people through their eyes,” says Khan.
However, the two decades that have gone by helped Khan to take a step back and view the incidents more objectively for the period war drama. “I realised that the first draft that I wrote I was perhaps being a slave to the history and I was getting caught up in the intricacies of it. Not many knew this history. My point is to tell this story as dramatically and as effectively as I can, so what I did was every incident, every scene and almost every dialogue is verbatim from what I have heard but I took elements of three to four characters and merged into one. So, Captain Surendra Sodhi in the series (played by Sunny Kaushal) is a combination of what happened with Dhillon, General Prem Kumar Sehgal and Shah Nawaz Khan. Maya (Sharvari Wagh) is a combination of Captain Laxmi Sehgal and her love story (with Prem Kumar Sehgal). Her story also has elements of Janaki Thevar who was second in command of the Rani of Jhansi regiment and who lived in Malaysia,” says Khan.
Kaushal plays a soldier in the British Indian Army first, who is then recruited in the Indian National Army. “I play a soldier by legacy as my ‘father’ and ‘grandfather’ were also in the army. My character is the amalgamation of three characters, combination of three important faces (Dhillon, Sehgal and Khan) into one. I read upon them and Kabir sir told us many stories and we also watched his documentary. Physical training was the major part and there was also mental training of what compelled them to join the Indian National Army, to fight for freedom, and that too, all from outside. They weren’t given to touch the Indian soil, it was all happening at the periphery and that became the major part of transformation,” says Kaushal.
Wagh essays the role of a photographer, a civilian who later decides to join INA. “My character Maya starts off as someone who has never seen India. She was born and brought up in Singapore. We began the prepping process with most of our references coming from the documentary. The director was more than the internet. Kabir sir knows everything about those soldiers, he has literally lived with them, camped with them and traced the entire journey with them. All the female characters are so strong. My character is a culmination of beautiful real-life characters and the most challenging part was being true to them, doing justice to them. It is not just about representing one person but there are lot of stories,” says Wagh.
Two of Khan’s most ambitious projects are coming within three months of each other, though he finished and edited the series before he jumped into working on ’83. “The VFX process of The Forgotten Army was year-long because we are showing the World War II period and that required lot of visual effects. But the research period was running parallel because ’83 also had a two year research period before we started filming,” said Khan.
His face lights up talking about the sports drama that charts Kapil Dev’s historic World Cup win, and Ranveer Singh who will be seen as the legendary cricketer. “When I suddenly gave him this challenge that he needs to be Kapil Dev, he just loved it. Ranveer loves the process. Every photograph and every video of Kapil was consumed. He went and lived with Kapil. Kapil gets up for tea and Ranveer is there sitting right in front of him. Kapil goes to bed and Ranveer is there, then he would go to play golf with him. We got ourselves adopted by Kapil and lived with him (laughs),” says Khan.
When asked if his film will be lapped up only by the cricket buffs, or would interest the general audience as well, and Khan says, “It is not only for the cricket buffs. I have always said that a sports film should never be about the sport, nobody will come and watch it [then]. If you want to watch the sport, watch the real sport. ‘83 is a human story. It is about the coming-of-age of a country, not just the team and that is what the story is all about.”
The filmmaker, who has been extremely vocal in his stand against the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA), feels the history that he has recreated on a digital platform has suddenly become even more relevant now. “History always has a context. History like this and especially now as we are sitting and talking in this day and age has suddenly become even more relevant. There is just one line in the trailer of The Forgotten Army where Maya, one of the soldiers, says, 'Azad Hind Fauj join karne ke liye kisi jaati, nasl aur dharma ki zaroorat nahi' — one has to be a Hindustani and wants to fight for Hindustan. Nobody is going to give you a certificate of being Indian, or Indian enough. You don’t have to prove your Indianness with some scrap of paper. That has suddenly become so relevant today,” he says.
Sounding disappointed, he further adds, “These days every battle is being looked through as a battle between a Hindu and a Muslim which is so dangerous. Our history is getting distorted. All the battles that took place in medieval history is being looked through the prism of religion. It was never about religion, it was about territory. Those days kings did not fight because of religion, they fought because they wanted each other’s territory. Suddenly now everything is being looked as a fight between two faiths which is so wrong. Mughals have strangely become invaders. It looks like there is no contribution of Mughals to nation building which is not correct. Akbar is being seen as a mass murderer by some of these so-called intelligent MPs (Members of Parliament) of certain parties. Where are we headed?”
A test screening across the country to find out what youth thought about this chapter of history, and the results have made Khan even more confident about how the series will be received. “It is a true story and you will be reminded of it again and again. There are parts where real footage can be seen. You see something and suddenly real archival footage comes in which hits on the fact that this is a true story. One takeaway for the youth when we had the screening was, ‘Oh my god, this has actually happened, this is a chapter from our history and we don’t even know about it'. It was fascinating to hear that. Of course, it is a very dramatic, emotional entertaining story at face value. You need to be able to enjoy at that level first but the fact that it is true and something never told to us is going to hit you very hard by the end of the show because it is a tragedy at the end of the day,” concluds Khan.
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