A glowing tribute to the Indian National Army, Kabir Khan’s show lacks the depth this episode in history deserves.
Directors: Kabir Khan, Anil Senior
Writers: Kabir Khan, Heeraz Marfatia, Shubhra Marfatia
Cast: Sunny Kaushal, Sharvari Wagh, Rohit Chaudhary, M.K. Raina, Karanvir Malhotra
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
In 2020, Amazon Prime Video plans to ambitiously drop an Indian original show every month. The first one of the year is Kabir Khan’s The Forgotten Army, a five-part limited series on the role of Subhash Chandra Bose’s Azad Hind Fauj or Indian National Army in India’s freedom struggle. The title is fitting as this chapter has largely been reduced to a footnote in the annals of Indian history.
The show unfolds as a war veteran’s reminiscences
The year is 1996. An old man arrives in Singapore to visit his dying sister. Something about being here troubles him. The man is Captain Surinder Sodhi (MK Raina), a war veteran dealing with PTSD. He’s a man of few words and likes to keep to himself, which gets him branded as “the family weirdo”.
Sodhi slowly warms up to his grand-nephew, Amar (Karanvir Malhotra), a journalism student and history buff. He starts telling Amar about his time as a soldier. We are now transported to 1943, when the Indian National Army (INA) is about to be formed in Singapore. Here we meet our central characters. There’s a young Sodhi (Sunny Kaushal) and his best pal Arshad (Rohit Chaudhary), both serving in the British Indian Army. And there’s Maya Srinivasan (Sharvari Wagh), a photographer living in Singapore.
Meanwhile back in 1996, Burma (now Myanmar) is in the middle of a pro-democracy movement and students have taken to the streets to protest martial law. Against his father’s wishes, Amar is adamant to go there to document the protests. Sodhi volunteers to go with him. Burma was integral to the INA. Men and women from the Indian population there were drafted into the army. And it was through Burma that Sodhi and his fellow soldiers entered India.
A sincere tribute but lacking in depth
The intention behind The Forgotten Army seems clear, to paint a tribute to the INA, and in this the show succeeds. We’re told how unlike the British, the INA didn’t discriminate between the “martial races” and “effeminate races” while recruiting soldiers. All you needed to be was Indian. The makers of the show are clearly proud that the world’s first women’s army regiment in the world, the Rani Jhansi Regiment, belonged to the INA. A generous amount of love for the motherland is on display, though to their credit, the makers are never jingoistic. The battle scenes are impressive, a bald display of atrocity and suffering in inhuman conditions. The British surrender to Japanese forces in Singapore (which was dubbed as the “worst disaster in British military history” by Winston Churchill) is a compelling moment. Throughout, it is the soldier with whom you sympathise. In war, no one is a winner.
However this a simplistic view of the INA. Five episodes are not enough to cover the sweep of the INA’s history. For instance, there’s little perspective on Bose’s controversial alignment with Japan, an Axis power.
Almost no effort is taken to get into the minds of the characters. Young Sodhi and Arshad are soldiers in the British Indian Army, who join the INA because their only alternative is to end up in a Japanese prison camp. Soon, the beliefs of these two men, who were fighting for the British, change overnight. Suddenly, their single-minded goal is India’s independence. Also baffling is why Maya, who has lived in Singapore all her life and never once been to India, cares so deeply about India’s independence movement. As a result, their patriotic proclamations don’t quite resonate. Instead of fleshing out the narrative and the characters, Khan digresses into a love story that could’ve been avoided entirely.
The exception here is the character of Rasamma (a powerful portrayal by TJ Bhanu), a labourer who was sexually exploited by a British officer. She is fighting for a free India where no woman must have to sleep with a man for a job.
The show has a pro-democracy message
Khan draws a couple of parallels, between Sodhi’s war-time love interest Maya and Amar, and between the INA’s march to India from Burma and Sodhi and Amar’s run to India after falling foul of the Burmese army. While these correspondences are too neat, the student protest seems relevant given recent student-led protests against CAA in India. The show also offers strong commentary on the need and importance of a sound democracy. “The struggle to gain freedom may be easy. The struggle to hold on to that freedom is much bigger.” Sodhi (MK Raina delivers a poised performance) leaves us with this bit of wisdom.