Way back in 1999, director Kabir Khan made his debut with an acclaimed documentary, The Forgotten Army on unsung soldiers of Azad Hind Fauj (Indian National Army), who fought valiantly for India’s independence under Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s leadership during World War II. More than two decades later, the maker of Bollywood’s two of the biggest blockbusters in recent years, Ek Tha Tiger (2012) and Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015), returns with the same story for an Amazon Prime Video original web series, which is all set to be streaming from January 24. The 49-year-old director, who is currently giving finishing touches to ’83, based on India’s stunning victory in the cricket World Cup under Kapil Dev’s captaincy in 1983, speaks to Giridhar Jha about his projects and more in a freewheeling interview. Edited excerpts:
You seem to have a great year ahead. You are starting off with your maiden web series, The Forgotten Army, and you will return in April with an eagerly awaited film, ’83 on India’s first World Cup cricket triumph …
It is sheer coincidence that two of my very big projects are coming within four months of each other. I started ’83 after I finished shooting for The Forgotten Army. I spent a lot of time in making this web series, which is based on a documentary of the same name I had done more than 20 years ago. For that documentary, I had travelled along with the two survivors of the INA, Colonel Gurbaksh Singh Dhillion and Captain Lakshmi Sehgal, who were both 86 years old at the time. I drove with them from Singapore through Malaysia and Burma (Myanmar) and back to borders of India. We were together on the roads for more than three months, retracing the route of INA's journey. That was the first time anybody from this army was going back to Burma and we were getting its entire history through the eyes of its soldiers. It was a fascinating experience. The documentary went on to do very well and got me a lot of acclaim as a young film-maker. Since then, the story never left me. It stayed in my mind, not only what I had put in the documentary but also what I had seen behind the scenes. When I sat down to write my first film script, The Forgotten Army came out of me. I often say that the story that made me want to become a film-maker is The Forgotten Army. But because I was a documentary film maker from Delhi, I realised soon that nobody in Mumbai would give me the budget to make such a big film. It was a very ambitious project. That is why I wrote another script Kabul Express (2006) which turned out to be my first film. In fact, after every film I made, I would take the script of The Forgotten Army to film-maker Aditya Chopra (of Yash Raj Films), who loved the story but he would tell me to wait for a while because it was a very ambitious project. Later, I got the opportunity to do it as an original series with Amazon Prime Video. I am really happy that I did it. Somehow, I feel that in mainstream cinema we may not have been able to do justice to the vastness of the subject, its characters or to the history. In mainstream cinema, we tend to oversimplify the history whereas in original series we can be true to the essence of history, its ethos, the details and the period in which it is set. Now, when it is ready to be streamed, I am very happy with the way it is looking.
It is obvious that this subject is close to your heart because you have chosen to remake something for your web series debut which you had already made two decades ago. Tell us how different is this series from your 1999 documentary?
The process of making a documentary and a film or an original web series is very different. In a documentary, just two, three or four people can go to a place and try to be as unobtrusive, as discreet and blend into the background to capture whatever is happening in front of the camera whereas in an original web series, it is absolutely reverse. It is like an invading army that goes in and tries to capture everything. However, the processes may be very different but ethos and essence remain the same. The magic of the story that captured my imagination as a documentary maker two decades ago remains the same for the series. That is why I wanted to make it in a format with a wider reach. Unfortunately, documentaries don’t reach a very wide audience. But an original series on Amazon has a much wider audience. I always feel sad that let alone giving their due, we do not even know the story of the INA soldiers. The country is not even aware as to what happened between 1942 and 1945 with regard to 50,000 Indian men and women, who were ready to give up their lives to fight for the freedom of this country. You can judge what they did, you can speak about whether you agreed with what they did or not but at least get to know what they did. It is a tragedy that till date we don’t know what happened with that army. For the first time on a wider scale we will now get to know the story of this army. Unfortunately, it is a bit too late because there is hardly anybody surviving from that army. I wish this had happened while they were still around, but I guess it is better late than never.
It is, of course, a fascinating subject but we have had very few movies in the post-Independence era. Do you see any political reason behind it?
There are several reasons; one is the absolute lack of information. It is often said that history is written by those who win the war, and in this case, the British won the war. The INA, in military terms, was a disaster. They lost the battle of Imphal and Kohima and they were taken prisoners. The narrative that the British put on this army -- and which is a narrative that a lot of countrymen live with even today -- is that it was an army of traitors. I was very surprised while I was shooting for ’83 at Old Delhi railway station last year. It has an aramgrah (rest room) for the Indian soldiers, which is named after General Claude Auchinleck of the British Army, who was actually in charge of the court martial of the three INA men -- Colonel Prem Sahgal, Colonel Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon and Major General Shah Nawaz Khan -- in 1945-46. Ironically, there is nothing, no monument of the INA soldiers, but a monument in the name of Gen Auchinleck has survived. I am not saying take that away, because history should always be part of history. But the fact remains that the INA soldiers have disappeared totally from our national consciousness. Today’s youth absolutely know nothing about INA or the Red Fort trials. This series is an attempt to bring that history alive and show that this is the army that actually fought for our independence. Yes, it did go against the narrative of Gandhi’s non-violence and you can judge them, discuss and debate about them but first get to know what they did. Also, this is the story through the eye of its soldiers not through the eyes of Netaji. Till now, all stories have been told from Netaji’s perspective, more about his life, not about the men and the women of the INA who had given him the sobriquet of Netaji. Who were those soldiers, what were their motivation and compulsions? This story is all about them.
Hindi cinema was dominated by glossy romantic musicals in 1990s. How come you chose this subject as a young, aspiring film-maker to make your debut then?
I grew up in a very politically active and energetic environment. My father was not only nominated to Parliament, but he was also a founding professor of Jawaharlal Nehru University, the much in the news institution today. While growing up, the dining room conversations at our house would centre around politics, international affairs and all of that. I always had excitement about politics. When I would go to watch movies, mostly love stories in the LaLa land, I would be taken aback by the lack of social and political context in the stories. So I thought whenever I would get a chance, I will put that context in my films. I had my training in film-making at Jamia Millia Islamia, where the focus was on documentaries. I also had an immensely rewarding collaboration with famous journalist Saeed Naqvi with whom I worked for five-six years and travelled across 50-60 countries, exploring world affairs and politics from the Indian point of view. I used to shoot, direct and edit for him. It opened up new horizons for me. I realised that when you hear a headline it does not necessarily have to be true. It trained me to look behind the headlines. I knew if it is BBC, it has the British perspective, if it is CNN, it has the American perspective and if it is Al Jazeera, it has the middle-eastern perspective. But what is the Indian perspective? Sometimes the stories are hidden behind the headlines. A lot of my stories such as Kabul Express and New York (2009) came from what is life beneath the headlines. These are the stories which should have been told but were never told. It fascinated me. INA's is also a story that should have been told regardless of political compulsions or inconveniences. Whether it was the decision of the imperial lords to censor its news or the fact that India won freedom because of Gandhi’s non-violent movement, the fact remains that this army was thrown into the dustbin of history. That is why this title (The Forgotten Army) is very apt for the series.
Did you update your research for the web series from what you had done for your documentary?
In the past 25 years, nothing has been written about it because there is nobody around from INA. My goldmine of information was my four months of interactions with Col Dhillon and Capt Sehgal and also with Janaki Thevar in Malasiya or other veterans. I also did extensive research by visiting the Imperial Museum, British War Museum and some Japanese archives. In India, we don’t archive very well because we have had an oral culture from ancient times. I got some diaries, some photographs from the families of the people associated with INA. That is why we used the same materials as the base for this series what we had collected two decades ago.
In India, somehow controversies over the death and disappearance of Netaji have overshadowed the contributions of INA. Did you find the perception of the people in the countries where you travelled to retrace its journey any different?
It is right that the obsession with the controversy over Netaji’s death is more prevalent here. When I visited places such as Singapore, Myanmar and Malaysia and met people who were with INA, they talked more about the ethos of INA or what it stood for. It is very relevant in the context of what is happening in our country today that the ethos of secularism was very strong in INA. Netaji strongly believed in the secular ethos of the army. It also makes us understand the difference between patriotism and nationalism. Today both are sought to be blended. I don’t think both are one and the same. In my opinion, patriotism is your love for country when you want to do something for it without being loud about it. You can be patriotic without telling the whole world. Nationalism is all about shouting out loud, telling everybody what you are doing. INA is about patriotism and not nationalism.
In between your documentary and the web series, you became a big director in Bollywood. And yet you found it difficult to find somebody to invest in your ambitious project. Do you think the over-the-top platform is the new game changer?
In the context of The Forgotten Army, I must be fair to some people I spoke to such as Aditya Chopra. They were always excited and would probably have made it had I persisted. But the kind of excitement with which Amazon came on board to say that this is the story we have to make on a big scale despite having newcomers was something I was pleasantly surprised with. When I began, I thought, let me do one series. I was ultimately a feature film maker and would go back to make ’83. Today, I can say that I am as excited making a web series as making any feature film. I realise that there are certain stories which are better for big screens and there are certain stories which are meant for web series.
As a feature film maker, what was your experience while making a web series?
I have had the privilege that I have not gone into too many constraints even in films. People have not told me, ‘don’t do this, don’t do that’. The process of making this series with Amazon has been very smooth. The kind of rock-solid support they gave me was very refreshing. Here the star is the story and Amazon was banking on the story. As a filmmaker, it empowers you because you are the person who created it. In a film, there are certain trappings of mainstream cinema. For OTT platform, the excitement is purely about a beautiful, brilliant and important story that needs to be told and all our focus and energies were to bring that story alive in the best possible way.
The arrival of big studios almost drove independent producers out of business. Has film making reached a new level with the advent of Amazon Prime, Netflix and similar avenues?
There is certain awareness among the film-makers now. Hollywood either makes really small productions like a 2- million dollar film or a 200-million franchise like Avengers (2012) and Wonder Woman (2017). The medium-budget drama has moved to OTT platforms. It is going to start here also. OTT has become a big exciting platform for actors also because you don’t have to be a star to get a great role. In a feature film, you have to get star as a director if you have to mount something big. But on OTT, if you have a great story, they will back you whether you have a star or not. Now, there is an awareness among film makers who think that if they have to make a feature film they will have to make it spectacular in order to pull the audiences to the big screen. The Forgotten Army is interesting in terms of high drama storytelling and it is also bigger than any of my films. Here I got a very unique space.
So content is really the king on OTT?
OTT platform has definitely done that. The kind of storytelling Amazon has been pushing and supporting is something that finally the cliché that the content is king is coming true. In films you still ask who is the hero; here nobody does.
You have made movies with big stars like Salman Khan. Do you think the time is not far when the star system will go away?
I don’t think the star system will go away, but its dominance will go away. I don’t think we will go the Hollywood way where the director is the real star. There are often no stars in a 200-million dollar film Avatar (2009). My reading is that as a culture and people we like to idolise our heroes. They will remain stars but their dominance will go away. Right now, there is dominance. If you have to make a Rs 100-crore movie, you have to get a star. Maybe in four or six to ten years we will start seeing the change.
There are a lot of speculations about you doing you next film with Shah Rukh Khan or Salman khan …
It is all in the realm of conjecture. I will talk about my next project only after ’83. Shah Rukh has given the voice-over for The Forgotten Army. We all keep talking to each other about films but things fall in place only after both sides get excited enough to lock one script.