Creator and Director: Kabir Khan
Cast: Sunny Kaushal, Sharvari, Karanvir Malhotra, MK Raina, R Badree, TJ Bhanu, and Shruti Seth
Streaming Platform: Amazon Prime
I must confess that I had watched 1917 on the big-screen a few days prior to watching The Forgotten Army, the war scenes and tense buildup of the former still quietly lingering. This is not to say that the two films deserve a comparative analysis, because they don’t. The Forgotten Army is at best, bearable. The thing that would strike most people’s fancy about it – the war scenes of amputated limbs littering the skies as bombs rot away at flesh- for me felt too meek, too uninspired. Partly because of the medium of consuming it- on the small screen- but also partly because once one has seen the sheer brilliance one can take a war sequence to, as in 1917, everything falls under the shadow of this re-constructed threshold of a great “war-film”.
The Forgotten Army is the cinematic recreation of Kabir Khan’s 1996 documentary of the same name. It is about the Azad Hind Fauj, helmed by Subhash Chandra Bose, as they traverse the landscape from Singapore, to Burma to Imphal. (The documentary has him following the remaining members of the Fauj as they retrace this journey. In the series, there is a similar conceit of retracing one’s path)
The web-series shows this through fixating on its main characters- the fiery Lieutenant Sodhi (a strappingly handsome and loud Sunny Kaushal), and photographer Maya (a glowing, but emotionally inflexible Sharvari) as they chart their love by enlisting in the Fauj. There is another timeline where Sodhi, now old, chaperones his grandson-like figure to Burma; he wants to photograph the student protests. These two timelines are inter-cut by actual footage of the war. In a sense then, there are three timelines running. None of this creates confusion, to the credit of the show. But then again, none of this is immersive either.
Calling The Forgotten Army forgettable, while true, is low hanging fruit. It might be more helpful to talk about its ideological inconsistency, its indolent writing that produces convenient circumstances to make a laboured point, and its unexciting tone.
Apart from the sheer stiffness of the series (Sodhi changes his allegiance from the British to the Japanese in a quick second by merely being cussed at by an incensed British man. There is supposed to be a love triangle, but the third character is written with such little conviction that we forget about him altogether until he resurfaces now and then.), where neither scenes, confrontations, conversations, or even war come alive, what really unnerved me was how this series positioned war. (Also, generally, my gripe with the war films our industry has produced)
War is not about people fighting for “the” idea of a free India, but “an” idea of a free India… Valorizing stories of war is dangerously close to war-propaganda, almost convincing us that this is needed. People needed to die.
War is violent, a source of wholesale murder. The shelling and decimating of flesh and bone shows that. But, in the same breath, war is seen as a source of martyrdom, a romanticized retelling. I get it, you want the series to play out as a homage to the sacrifices people have made. But this retrospective gilded gaze feels dismissive of life itself; everyone here just wants to give up their life for something. (At one point a character says “I’d give up my life for a good photograph.”)
War is not about people fighting for “the” idea of a free India, but “an” idea of a free India. (That of Bose, who himself, apart from a silhouette and a back shot is missing from action. Where is he?) To discount the value of people’s lives, throwing them into situations where death is inevitable, to honour “an” idea, which itself is not clear, is silly.
You are making men walk into death traps knowingly and then memorialize their foolhardy martyrdom with Arijit Singh.
In such fraught times, to speak of war with nostalgia (in however un-arousing a manner) is dangerous. War is unproductive, and families, and infrastructure waste away in its wake; it becomes about wanting to be remembered, whatever the consequences. (Ek din Hindustan is qurbani ko yaad rakhega. Shayad samajh nahin payega, par yaad zaroor rakhega.)
But what is frustrating is that Kabir Khan, who created and directed this show is aware of this- he shows how friendships, lovers, and individuals wither. He shows how cities lie abandoned, shelled, and desolate. The huge costs- monetary and emotional- of reconstruction is implied. Yet, the tone of war itself feels notched up. Every time something remotely heroic happens, Arijit croons “Teri maati se main hoon bana.” The first time, I was moved. The fiftieth, I groaned. You are making men walk into death traps knowingly and then memorialize their foolhardy martyrdom with Arijit Singh.
Watching the show was especially uncomfortable given the talent and care Kabir Khan is known to embody in his films. A wasted story in the hands of a capable hand is heartbreaking. His flourishes show, here and there. The scenes without dialogue, such as the interactions between Maya and Sodhi, are exceptionally memorable in this otherwise barren landscape.
What I want to highlight too, is the sheer audacity of this story. It’s about brave people doing braver things to achieve a goal that is ephemeral, and unclear. The history books have relegated their stories to oblivion. Kabir Khan wants to pay homage to this story. It is righteous, but it feels fraught. The best way to memorialize a person is to tell their story as it was- the layers, the flaws, the faults, and the beauty. I remember reading Saadat Hasan Manto’s vignettes in Stars From Another Sky. He writes about people in the film industry with a crude familiarity, speaking about their vanity and pride, alongside their character and ineffable intellect. You love them more. Valorizing stories of war is dangerously close to war-propaganda, almost convincing us that this is needed. People needed to die. For freedom, which itself has leaked empty from our country as I write this. So what now? Do we mount a war?