Utpal Borpujari’s new documentary is part-oral history and part-archival tour of Japan’s failed offensive into India during World War II. Memories of a Forgotten War turns the clock back to 1944, when Japanese troops advanced on British India from Burma, but were pushed back by Allied forces in the Battle of Kohima and the Battle of Imphal. An estimated 168,000 people died during the violence, with disease felling more Japanese troops than warfare. The defeat was a turning point for the Axis powers in World War II.
Shot over nearly two-and-a-half years since 2014 in Delhi, Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland, Japan and the United Kingdom, Borpujari’s sprawling and rich account packs in interviews with the men in the trenches and the people who experienced the conflict. The documentary has been produced by Subimal Bhattacharjee.
The 48-year-old filmmaker found remnants of Japan's failed campaign still strewn across the towns and hills of Manipur and Nagaland. Memories and objects from the time have survived and been preserved, in their own fashion. Families display live shells unearthed during amateur excavations, while gunpowder from unexploded ammunition is used to make small bombs to stun fish. The villagers kept helmets, water bottles and cutlery. One of them lost his arms trying to dismantle a live bomb. A shell was successfully carved into two and made into temple bells.
The region seems to be an open-air war museum. Towns bear they-were-here signposts, down to the precise time of the entry of Japanese troops. Locals excitedly talk about the detritus of war – aircraft buried under water, shrapnel, skulls and bones – and discuss the conflict as if it were a recent event.
Meanwhile, war tourism thrives in Manipur and to a smaller extent in Nagaland. Veterans of the battles of several nationalities (including Indian, British and American) and curious Indian visitors brush up on their history at the cemeteries and memorials. “There have been films made on these battles, but they are mostly about military strategy,” Borpujari said. “But nobody has tried to capture these stories in a film format. The idea was to record the memories and preserve them. The youngest veteran was 91 and the oldest was 96. Since the time I made the film, a few of them have passed away, so it was important to record these memories.”
The documentary contains vivid accounts of what was a terrifying time. “Twelve o’clock, I could hear a deep roaring in the sky, deep roaring of sounds,” says a resident of Chingambam Mandap in Imphal, which was one of the places bombed by the Japanese. An elderly villager remembers that the Japanese did not harm the villagers or animals in any way when they arrived, but the local dogs kept barking at them.
Borpujari interviews several soldiers from both sides of the battle. He travels to Japan, where he meets Japanese and British veterans at a joint commemoration ceremony of the Battle of Kohima. The Japanese soldiers navigate the difficult task of talking about a phase of history that remains a deeply embarrassing subject in the country.
The grizzled men speak eloquently and movingly of the horrors of war. A British veteran picking off the remains of Gurkha victims killed in an explosion from his bedding. He also recalls sucking on a piece of rock salt, which was in severe shortage at the time. The differences in race and colour between the soldiers, who were drawn from the British, American and Indian ranks, disappeared in that one surreal moment when they stood in a circle and chewed on the much-needed piece of salt that was being passed around. “When it came to the crunch, we were all human, we lacked salt,” the former soldier says.
A lighter, and hilarious, sequence is of two local war veterans who break into giggles as they recall the Burmese women they met during the war.
Borpujari collected 35 hours of interviews that were culled into an early 330-minute version and then whittled down to 109 minutes. Films of this nature, which combine location shooting with multiple interviews and historical perspective, can get unwieldy. Borpujari tried to guard against this tendency by ensuring that the interviews were more in the nature of informal conversations. “The format was not sit-down – most of the people interviewed are sharing their memories like they would with a family member,” the filmmaker said. “I wanted the film to have the feel of an oral history project. I wanted the interviews to have the feel of somebody telling the story to somebody else.”
The challenges went beyond making travel plans for so many locations and finding the right characters to interview. “So many languages and dialects had to be translated – in the North East, dialects can differ even within the same tribe,” Borpujari said.
The conversations include discussions on the role of the Indian National Army, which was fighting on the Japanese side. At Moirang town in Manipur, a thatched hut that served as a local INA headquarters has been preserved, along with the holes in the roof from firing. The film then cuts to Tokyo, where the ashes of the INA’s founder, Subhash Chandra Bose, are worshipped at the Renkoji Buddhist temple. Borpujari also unearths a local manga, Storm of India, dedicated to Bose’s exploits.
“On the one hand, you have the Japanese worshipping Netaji in a temple and there is the other point of view of the British soldier who says that it is sad that the INA was fighting Indian soldiers,” Borpujari said. “We never get to hear this here, since we hero-worship the INA.”
At the commemoration ceremony in Tokyo, soldiers from Japan and Great Britain hug and weep – one of many emotional moments in the documentary. Memories of a Forgotten War is immensely fair-minded, treating the Japanese with the same respect that is accorded to the Allied soldiers. “The way I look at it, both the armies were fighting in a land that didn’t belong to any of them,” Borpujari said. “Armies fight for their motherland, but these men didn’t belong here. Plus, 90% of the Japanese soldiers died because of diseases and lack of food. It’s a very sad story. For me, as an Indian filmmaker, both sides are equal, which is why I decided to give them equal weightage.”
The film concludes with footage of the wreckage of an American WWII plane being extracted from a hillside in Arunachal Pradesh as late as 2015. The Battle of Kohima and the Battle of Imphal might have taken place over 70 years ago, but at least in some corners of India and in the hearts of their survivors, they have not been forgotten.