Interview: Kabir Khan

‘Netaji would not like the Right to appropriate him’: Kabir Khan, film-maker

Print edition : February 14, 2020

A scene from the web series “The Forgotten Army”.

Scenes (above and facing page) from the web series “The Forgotten Army”.

Interview with Kabir Khan, film-maker.

The prominent film director, screenwriter and cinematographer, Kabir Khan, has just made his debut in the vibrant web domain with The Forgotten Army, a fictionalised series on Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army (INA; also called the Azad Hind Fauj). A post-graduate from the Mass Communication Research Centre at Jamia Millia Islamia, Khan hails from a family of prominent politicians and academics. He started his career working in the documentary films Beyond the Himalayas (1996) and The Forgotten Army (1999) and then made his directorial debut in feature films in 2006 with Kabul Express, which was followed by New York (2009), Ek Tha Tiger (2012), Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015), Phantom (2015) and Tubelight (2017).

Khan is best known for the 2015 comedy-drama Bajrangi Bhaijaan. The Forgotten Army is a fictionalised series, a conversion of his 1999 documentary of the same name which was streamed on Amazon Prime. He co-wrote The Forgotten Army with Heeraz Marfatia (Aazaan) and Shubhra Marfatia (Wazir). Khan is also an executive producer of the series with frequent collaborator Rajan Kapoor. The Forgotten Army is spread over five episodes and was released on January 24, a day after Subhas Chandra Bose’s birth anniversary and just before Republic Day.

Khan talked about the philosophy that drives him to make the kind of cinema he does, his views on his recent release, and the role of film-makers in the society they live in. As one of the prominent voices from the world of cinema who spoke out against the highly controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019, and the police excesses on campuses, he stressed the importance of defending fundamental freedoms and democratic values. Excerpts from the interview.

You are a mainstream film-maker, and you are making your debut in the web-streaming domain. What are the challenges and opportunities in this new domain?

This domain has been great for us because we have an alternative platform to present our work on. At the end of the day, we are telling stories. I think sometimes too much is made about the silver screen and mega platforms. A story is a story whether I’m making it for Bollywood or for a web-streaming platform. I have made it exactly as I make my films, be it production, direction or screenplay.

And this is a great platform in the context of The Forgotten Army. The kind of scale and the budget that Amazon has given me without any fancy stars is very liberating and refreshing. If I were to make this as a film, I would need superstars. But on this platform, the story is the star of the show and that is what we need to highlight. Obviously, the diversity of platforms provides content creators like me more opportunities to tell their stories.

The story of the INA has stayed with you for more than two decades and you have called this your passion project. What does this web series contribute to our understanding of the INA in our contemporary discourse?

The most significant contribution we make to contemporary discourse is that the series brings to life the story of a legendary army that has been completely forgotten by today’s generation. At the most, there will be some vague recollections of Subhas Chandra Bose and his contributions, but there are a lot of wrong and problematic narratives being spun around him by the existing political establishment. We have tried to portray a period of history at a time when the right wing has appropriated Bose, who was actually a self-described leftist and socialist and was against any religious identity. He was strongly against any kind of religious fundamentalism.

Netaji would definitely not like the Right to appropriate him or to discredit other national leaders either. The two largest brigades of the Azad Hind Fauj were called the “Gandhi Brigade” and the “Nehru Brigade”. When Netaji was taking the first military parade review of the Azad Hind Fauj in Singapore with General Hideki Tojo of the Imperial Japanese Army standing next to him and 30,000 Indian soldiers marching, there was only one portrait hanging: that of Mahatma Gandhi. Those are the details they would like us not to see. 

The Right has also appropriated Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who had banned the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). We are living in a day and age where social media seems to be our source of information. As they say, repeat a lie several times and it becomes the truth. Moreover, the story of the common soldiers of the INA is obscure in popular sociocultural discourse, which justifies the choice of the title. I think what this series brings to life is the story of who these soldiers were.

Are there any particular instances, anecdotes or events from the series that you find inspiring?

When I was making the documentary, I went with three war veterans to the theatres of war in Singapore, Thailand and Burma [Myanmar]. I was lucky to have the great mentorship of legends like Captain Lakshmi Sahgal. For instance, one of the most significant battles that they fought was the Battle of the Iravati, which went down in history as the longest-opposed river crossing in any theatre of the Second World War. It was fought by the Azad Hind Fauj. And the man who commanded the Azad Hind Fauj was Col. Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon. Imagine him going back to that river after more than half a century, where all his men had perished. He was literally in a trance as he pointed out: “This is where my first machine gun was and this was where his second machine gun was. This is where they came from.” So, to make the world relive those days was actually what inspired me to tell this story. This is what made that story so deeply etched in my mind that it never left me.

You mention how the series tells the human story behind the INA. Does this subvert the dominant portrayal of the Army as a hard, masochistic and ultranationalist institution?

I have always had a problem with any sort of generalisation of any organisation. Yes, and definitely in the case of the INA, you have to look at the individual stories of sacrifice and the stories of what motivated them, their ideology and their compulsions. Because no organisation in the world consists of individuals coming out of a factory assembly line. All individuals have a certain backstory to them, and it’s very important to understand that. Even though my friends always talked about a larger-than-life portrayal of the political dynamics, my attempt has always been to tell the story of the human characters in the background and bring it to the fore. There are essentially narratives of four or five principal characters in The Forgotten Army, but, obviously, they cannot represent everything that happened.

The Rani Jhansi regiment figures prominently in your INA story. What did you find significant about this regiment?

This obviously came naturally into the series because I saw the history of the INA through the eyes of Capt. Lakshmi Sahgal, who was a part of this regiment. She was somebody I really admired, respected and looked up to and she was like family to me. She was strongly rooted in the ideology of the INA, and her stories about the regiment influenced me deeply. I heard about the motivations of the young girls who chose to be combatants in the INA and chose to sacrifice their lives for national independence. Capt. Lakshmi Sahgal recounted how they often used to be dismissed by the British as an ornamental regiment. She used to say that while the regiment might not have achieved too much militarily, the fact was that it was a genuine attempt to shape women combatants. It had a huge psychological impact on the womenfolk in India. It symbolised popular rebellion against the imperial colonists.

It also exemplified Netaji’s vision of seeing women as the vanguard of the freedom struggle. He wanted the regiment to fire up the imagination of other women in India. It was never meant to be an ornamental regiment. And that is something that we’ve tried to show in the series. It is an integral part of our series. Maya, the lead character, is inspired from Capt. Lakshmi Sahgal’s story and the other character from the regiment also presents an interesting story.

Through films like “Kabul Express” and “Bajrangi Bhaijaan”, you have already made a dent in the dominant discourse on militant nationalism. In what way does this series take it further?

I am often asked why I like dabbling in conflict zones. I can never glorify a war, but I can surely glorify a soldier. That is very important, to always be able to see and break it down to individuals, and that’s what I want the audience to see. So, the human story behind the INA and its fundamental values are very central to this series. It shows how strongly the INA cherished the secular fabric of India. As the trailer shows, there was no entry barrier, or segregation based on religion or caste in the INA. This is a story of truly patriotic people who went and fought for the freedom of this country. That can really be a source of inspiration from which we can learn.

In the context of the debate about nationalism, we see problematic narratives from medieval India in which the religious identity of emperors have now become talking points. The Mughals have suddenly become “invaders” and the religious identities of Mughals are now being demonised. Let’s face it: in the fifteenth century, those battles were not about religion, they were about territories. They wanted Delhi, you wanted Delhi and a lot of the times they and you were at equal distance from it, so both went for it. Sometimes they won, sometimes you won. It was never about religion. For instance, recall that Babur took over Delhi by defeating not a Rajput prince, but Ibrahim Lodi. Yet, those battles are now being presented and shown to our audiences as a battle of religions, which is a dangerous and terrible distortion of history.

So, the series, with its unique humanistic and secular outlook, subverts the dominant narrative of otherisation that we see today. It shows that as long as you live in India and you believe you’re Indian and you want to fight for the country, you belong to the INA. Nobody was being asked to prove his/her Indian-ness or patriotism. I think this is something that has recently become very relevant. Ultimately, it is an ode to the idea of patriotism which is about loving your country and people and wanting to do something for them. Nationalism, as it is being presented today, is just a corrupted version of patriotism.

Since Independence, Bollywood has been known for its portrayal of secularism, communal harmony and composite culture. However, since the 1990s, it has been portraying the Muslim as the other. What are your thoughts on showcasing secular values in cinema?

As a film-maker, even when I make mainstream movies, I believe a political backdrop has to exist. Mainstream cinema is a powerful medium. And with that power comes a sense of responsibility. Therefore, we have to be careful about what politics is being shown. Ultimately, it is not about censor boards, it is about the film-maker being responsible for what s/he portrays. The way I frame a woman is my gender politics; the way I look at a character from a different community is my politics. That is very important and, unfortunately, we are seeing a lot of things with really divisive politics under the garb of ultranationalist, Pakistan-bashing action films.

I can forgive a bad screenplay, editing or cinematography, but I can never forgive bad politics. Every choice that a film-maker makes reflects its politics. This is the medium through which I will continue to make statements or ask questions in a format that is accessible to the audience. The chicken song in Bajrangi Bhaijaan, which children love, is very political: it questions the beef ban.

At the same time, we cannot start looking at film-making as a crusade or as a movement. But having said that, yes, I think film-makers need to be definitely aware and conscious of the politics. 

In The Forgotten Army, as I mentioned, the movie portrays the secular values of our national ethos. It does not make any explicit references to this but leaves it unsaid. I think the fact that it is left unsaid is a statement in itself. To the film-maker and the audience, it should be incidental that Sodhi and Arshad (main characters in the series) are the best of friends. I do not want to make a fuss about it because it is not meant to be fussed about.

Do you see the need for casting more Muslims as mainstream protagonists so as to challenge stereotypes?

Absolutely. I would love to see more representation of all marginalised communities or minorities in cinema. Having said that, I do not even like to say I want to do it. Because, the moment you start looking like a crusader, you lose credibility. I do not want to do propaganda. I think we all have to do it in a balanced way, organically, not as a crusade or a reaction to something.

You were one of the first from your fraternity to come out in opposition to the CAA and the police brutality on campuses. What do you think is the responsibility of those in a position of power or influence in India?

Those in the film industry have a greater responsibility to speak out, not only because we are prominent public figures, but also because what we do and what we say does have a certain impact on public consciousness. So, if I feel there is something wrong happening in my country, I definitely need to stand up and speak.

But having said that, I don’t want to push this on to others. I’m uncomfortable that a lot of pressure is being put on everybody to speak about their fears even if they are unable to speak up. I think it will be counterproductive. It will be like violating their democratic right to remain silent. Many of them have political views and feel strongly about certain issues. 

However, I cannot sit in judgment and ask them to speak up. I can only hope that more and more people will speak up. In Western countries, maybe there are certain safeguards in their system that actually work. Those safeguards, which we used to have in our society, are perhaps breaking down.

Strong, independent media do not really exist in India today. The one institution that stood up for citizens was free media. If anything made the establishment wary of coming down on anybody wrongfully, it was the fear that the media would go after it. 

Today, we can count on our fingers the newspapers and television channels that have a space of their own. If media that are supposed to be the watchdog of our society disappear or cow down, it would be very unfortunate.

I think we should be answerable to ourselves and you have to be comfortable with what you’re doing. I’m not comfortable being silent, I feel that I must speak because if I don’t, I feel I have more to lose than to gain. I’m not trying to be an activist, nor am I trying to play politics here. I am just speaking because as a concerned citizen of this country, I want to speak out.

Are you looking at any other projects in the web series space?

Definitely! I really enjoyed the space while making this original series for Amazon. When I was beginning [the series], I didn’t know I was stepping into unchartered waters, but I’ve really enjoyed it. I think there are certain stories that lend themselves better to cinema and there are some stories that are better told through these new platforms. I come across stories that I feel compelled to narrate and then decide which medium to tell them on.

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