‘The Forgotten Army’ Review: Not Your Stereotypical War Narrative
Kabir Khan relays the layered stories of stateless soldiers and their catalytic attempt to free India from colonial rule in new war drama
★ ★ ★ ★
Colonel Surinder Sodhi (Sunny Kaushal, M.K. Raina) declares to the soldiers of the Indian National Army (INA), a force made up of Indian POWs from the British Indian army and nationalist diaspora with Japanese aid during World War II, “Ek din Hindustan humaari iss qurbaani ko yaad rakhega. Shaayad samajh nahi payega, par yaad zaroor karega (One day, India will remember our sacrifice. The country might not understand it, but it will remember it.)” That’s also the point creator, director and first-time writer Kabir Khan is making through the five-episode web series The Forgotten Army. Based on the namesake 1999 documentary by the filmmaker, the Amazon Prime Video war drama explores the real-life history of the controversial army that won recognition in the eyes of the Indian people through their catalytic contribution to the freedom movement, but oft got left out of texts that speak of India’s freedom struggle. It’s a layered reminder that the world wars, colonialism, capitalism and India’s role in it all was anything but unilateral, and that plenty gets lost in redactions and the telling of the winner’s tale.
In The Forgotten Army, Khan begins at the end with the infamous 1945 Red Fort trials of the INA before he takes us back to the on-going World War II in 1942 and then ahead to 1996’s post-war period. At the center of it all is ex-British Indian army officer Sodhi who eventually joins the INA and lives to tell the tale to his surviving family, particularly to budding journalist (who is also his nephew) Amar (Karanvir Malhotra). Through Amar, Sodhi finds himself sucked back into the events of history, recounting the wars, trials, imprisonment, revolutions, statelessness and more, that he endured while world leaders made their moves on the global chessboard.
Given that Khan (assisted by Anil Senior) deals with overlapping, multiple narratives and timelines in The Forgotten Army, he invests in world-building, providing historical context. Every episode starts off with an introduction (by actor Shah Rukh Khan whose — fun fact — father knew an INA general) during the opening credits while character voice overs and dialogue further add dimension to the high-stakes plot. Inserted headings make the scene transitions a lot easier to process as the action rapidly arcs across Singapore, Myanmar and India with keen attention being given to colonial and post-colonial terminology. The plot’s historical exposition is ultimately aggressive at times but it inadvertently does well for the story, making it easier for the uninitiated viewer to grasp a handle on events.
While the world wars were a two-sided battle between the Axis and the Allied powers, the histories of all the countries involved were a lot more nuanced, with several nations fighting their own war for freedom while bearing an array of ideologies, India being one of them. Given the INA’s sensitive position in Indian history, The Forgotten Army delves into these nitty gritties and intricacies with cinematic liberty.
We’re introduced to the inner struggles and fears of the British Indian army soldiers who confront the catch-22 situation of joining the INA or being prisoners of war, while warring with their conditioned loyalty to the British. “Ek fauji na jaan dene se nahi darta, Tokas. Lekin jaan dene ka maqsat saaf hona chahiye,” Sodhi says at one point. We see how Singapore changes to Syonan under the Japanese occupation after the Battle of Singapore, and how the shift in regimes brings upheaval for both natives and diaspora in the country. A local man Rajan (R. Badree) goes from being a street musician trying to make a penny to an INA soldier in order to avoid being put in an internment camp for not singing in the Japanese language (There’s deliberation between Rajan and his friends on how they have to learn another colonizer’s language just when they had begun to grasp that of the former). Another local Winny shears her hair off and dresses like a man to work, because the Japanese soldiers dragged her sister from home the night before. A local, M. Rasamma (Tj Bhanu), burns her British master’s plantation down in rage after he’s killed by the incoming Japanese army, the new colonizer subversively allowing her to unleash her rage after the sexual abuse of the previous one. “Give us fight. We want this fight more than you,” she says as she addresses the INA camp, asserting the legitimacy of the women’s (Rani of Jhansi) regiment that the Japanese refuse to fund.
Khan (along with fellow writers Heeraz Marfatia and Shubhra Swarup) brings the war to life, both the external battle and the internal struggle, the existing and evolving dynamics between all involved, as well as the motivations and compromises behind their choices. When the INA is questioned about how they’ll fight fellow Indians in the British Indian army, Sodhi’s answer is not black and white and the ensuing endgame unfolds varied fates for the soldiers. The plot does meander off kilt while engaging with these complexities (there’s a romantic arc between Sodhi and fellow soldier Maya Srinivasan — played by Sharvari Wagh — which toes the line between trope and plausibility) but does manage to emerge well-rounded albeit a little frayed around the edges.
What the writer-director does with impeccable sensitivity, is delve into the portrayal of violence and vulnerability. During a scene depicting sexual violence, the camera remains focused on Rasamma’s face. It’s grippingly powerful when we see her move to pick up the sickle as she hears the returning clops of the master’s horse, her face flitting from anguish to resolution. Another scene that stands out for the way it was filmed and written is one where Rajan experiences a moment of stillness and fear in the paddy fields as the INA breaks through the Imphal front. The sun begins its descent across the horizon when a switch goes off within Rajan, engaging him in the flight or fight instinct and it’s revelatory to see the conflict he wars with before he forges on. It’s scenes like these in The Forgotten Army that are transcendent, catapulting the human stories of history to life due to the intimate, unflinching lens with which they’re shot.
The actors don’t drown in their intricate arcs either, delivering performances that truly drive home the accounts of war in The Forgotten Army. Kaushal embodies the frissures of conflict as protagonist Sodhi while Wagh is fluid in Maya’s circumstantial evolution from civilian to soldier to activist. Rohit Chaudhury’s INA Colonel Arshad stuns as the practical voice of reason, a role that Paloma Monappa too takes well to as guide and activist Rani. Bhanu’s Rasamma is a firebrand of resistance on screen while Toshiji Takeshima’s Japanese Lieutenant General Daichi bares the weight of duty through his haunted eyes. Badree’s Rajan too is stellar in his portrayal of occupational and privileged vulnerability and the character’s arc of redemption is one to watch out for.
Aseem Mishra’s understated cinematography in The Forgotten Army shies away from the monotones that are almost synonymous with the genre, opting instead for an introspective rusticity that’s brought out by the saturated colors of the shots. It makes for an immersive viewing experience while also lending a palpable period essence to the gritty, cinematic expanse of the series which is further intensified by the actual archival footage and newspaper headlines that are interspersed throughout the episodes to lend further authenticity.
The series is a lot more layered than Khan’s often bold but not as intersectional approach to films and the storied payoff is undeniable. It’s hard to not draw parallels to India’s current political climate when old Sodhi relays to the young Amar, “Azadi kaayam rakhne ki ladai zyada mushkil hai. Aur woh ladai tum logon ko ladni hai (The fight to sustain freedom is a lot harder. And that fight is that of your generation.)” Khan has said that he wanted to portray events through the eyes of the footsoldiers of the INA and not its leaders — and that’s exactly what he accomplishes in The Forgotten Army, offering an important viewpoint into a seldom spoken chapter of Indian history. If you can get over the barely repressed, blasé theatrics and well-meaning tropes, there’s a budding art of nuanced storytelling in The Forgotten Army that one can only hope Khan continues to tap into for future projects.