It's a big year for filmmaker Kabir Khan. Next week, he has The Forgotten Army – his first web show for Amazon Prime India – up for release, and a couple of months later there's 83, easily one of the most anticipated films of the year. Interestingly, Khan wanted to direct The Forgotten Army as a movie first, but it was too ambitious in its scale to pull off. The show is based on the true story of Indian National Army soldiers who marched to New Delhi during the freedom struggle. It's coming at a time when hyper-nationalistic movies and period films are the order of the day. Khan talks about why his show is different from those and the dangers of rewriting history through cinema.
Is the pre-release feeling of a web show different than that of a movie? Are you happy that the conversation around The Forgotten Army isn't about the opening day box office collections?
For sure. I think that aspect of the conversation is something I anyway never enjoyed. I don't think anyone can predict the box office, as much as these self-styled trade pundits may try to get it right. It's also an unnecessary aspect of filmmaking to discuss. When we were growing up who asked how much a film made? Who cares how much Sholay made? But today it's also an unavoidable aspect. There's something about figures that has captured the imagination of the audience. With The Forgotten Army there is none of it and I think that's a very liberating and refreshing aspect of OTT platforms. The pressure of how many people will watch it on day one is not there. Even if you watch it on day 100, it's okay. There are so many shows I have on my watchlist that have been lying there for a year. I know I'm going to watch them at some point. That's one of the reasons I decided to make this for an OTT platform. Shows have a longer shelf life. People approach them at different stages.
When you're writing a film, you look at the interval point and then the climax. In this I had to look at my material again and see that I had five equally spaced high points in my story
What are the challenges of converting something you made as a documentary to a web show which has to be binge-worthy?
I think it's not a challenge for a story like this because the story is inherently so dramatic, emotional and engaging that I never worried about it translating from a documentary to a dramatised version. But yes, when you're rewriting it then you become more aware of the fact that by the end of the episode, you need to give them that hook to come back for the next one. You just start looking at your material differently. When you're writing a film, you look at the interval point and then the climax. In this I had to look at my material again and see that I had five equally spaced high points in my story.
When you're telling a real life story, how much cinematic liberty is okay? Do you have rules about lines you won't cross?
Yes, I do. It's a very personal choice. I see if what I'm changing or adjusting is changing the spirit and ethos of the story. If it's not then I go ahead. If it's doing something to make it that much more dramatically engaging without in any way altering the history or authenticity of the backdrop, you must do it. And this is what I have done. In my earlier draft, I had three characters doing something. Then I realised that if three people are doing something in three different places, it's not engaging enough. So I took those elements and put it into one character. So Sodhi – the character played by Sunny Kaushal – is a combination of (Gurbaksh Singh) Dhillon, (Prem) Sahgal and Shah Nawaz Khan. I think I managed to do it because I was coming back to the story after 20 years. If I had done it earlier, I would have become a slave to the history. Now I had that objectivity. I took a step back, and told myself that this is better for the story.
"I understand that history is about interpretation but there are certain things that are beyond argument. And when those get distorted, you know it's a part of a very negative agenda."
Should we be worried about so many period films rewriting history?
When you're dealing with history, you have to be mindful and responsible. We've seen enough examples of films where there is utter distortion of history and it's dangerous. If they were not dangerous, I would turn a blind eye to them. But it is because they're distorting the narrative that we've been taught. They're looking at things through a spectrum of religion which shouldn't be. Battles were never about religion. We've all read enough history to know it was about territory. If one king is stronger than the other, he would go and attack him not because of religious differences but because he wanted that piece of land.
We should be extremely worried because this is an alternative history being written. And cinema is a powerful medium. There are children today who are watching films about certain historical characters who, now for posterity, will think of that character the way they saw it in that film. I understand that history is about interpretation but there are certain things that are beyond argument. And when those get distorted, you know it's a part of a very negative agenda.
You've wanted to make The Forgotten Army for many years, but it's coming at a time when Bollywood is making so many period films about forgotten heroes, national pride and valour. Why do you think that is?
Because it's in keeping with the narrative that's in our society. Bollywood is not separate from our society. Just the way our society is patriarchal and misogynistic, so is Bollywood. In the same way, this narrative of ultra nationalism is prevalent in our society and Bollywood is reflecting that. Some people are doing it because they actually think like that and others because it's working. Unfortunately the timing of The Forgotten Army makes it look like we're cashing in on this wave of nationalism.
"Art in the form of cinema, writing or poetry or stories can play a great part in getting people to rally around (a cause) and use that to put across a point. Sometimes a point made through humour is more profound than if you had to say it in black and white"
But maybe the timing is right, given the tone of the other historical films being made…
Yes, I think it's good because it shows us the difference between nationalism and patriotism. They are very different. Nationalism is loud. Patriotism is about your love for your country and what you want to do about it and that includes criticising what your country sometimes. I hope people will see The Forgotten Army and see that it does not have that brand of nationalism and jingoism, and yet it's so rousing.
With millions of people taking to the streets to protest, we're seeing clips of some really powerful poetry and music. What role do you think art can play in times like this?
It can play a great role. It can be a great rallying point for people because just one line can trigger the imagination of millions. Art in the form of cinema, writing or poetry or stories can play a great part in getting people to rally around (a cause) and use that to put across a point. Sometimes a point made through humour is more profound than if you had to say it in black and white. I think it's a great time. We're also seeing that our artists are definitely sensitive. For a long time we thought people were apolitical and indifferent. I don't think that's the case. Or maybe it's just the students who pushed us out of our comfort zones and made us braver. You know there's that lovely line – courage, like fear, is contagious.