“This is what history looks like from below,” remarks a voice-over in Farewell My Indian Soldier. “Not from the perspective of those who write it, but from that of those who create it.”
Novelist and filmmaker Vijay Singh’s 2016 documentary follows Paloma Coquant, a French citizen on a quest to learn more about the identity of her great-grandfather. He was an Indian soldier in the French army during World War I and whose whereabouts remain unknown. Over a million Indian troops served the British and French armies in the war, a majority of whom never returned home.
In the case of Paloma’s great-grandfather, there is no official record of his stay in France. One historian remarks that it would be nearly impossible to find any information on him after all these years.
Farewell My Indian Soldier casts a micro-level gaze on the friendships and relationships that bloomed during the war, rather than focusing on its brutality. In Britain, injured Indian soldiers were kept in lavish hospitals – one soldier described the hospital as “paradise on earth”.
The 61-minute film offers many amusing insights into what it meant to have Indian soldiers fighting a war that wasn’t their own. At least nine different cooking departments had to be run during the war because of different dietary rules among the Indians. Their resting resorts were houses in the countryside, which were run mainly by women. It was here that Paloma’s great-grandmother met the Indian soldier, who was sent back to fight the war soon after he had recuperated.
While the soldiers were given respectful treatment, they were not allowed to mingle with white women due to racial bias. While Indian soldiers in the British hospitals were allowed to occasionally step out to meet their grateful admirers, many of whom were women, they were almost always accompanied by white officers. It was due to this bias that Paloma’s great-grandmother and her infant son were outcast by society.
Farewell My Indian Soldier is an oddly structured film. While Paloma seems to be the central character, there is practically no arc to her journey. At one level, this seems unavoidable because hers is possibly an endless quest. But the film sets her up as the protagonist and goes nowhere with it.
The documentary is at its strongest when it takes its many diversions in the form of anecdotes narrated by various people, ranging from historians to descendants of the war veterans. One scholar says that the fact that the houses in the French villages were run by women made quite an impact on the Indian soldiers. Short summaries of some of the letters sent home by the Indians were officially recorded. In one such letter, a soldier urges his family to send his daughter to school so that they wouldn’t have to seek an outsider’s help in reading his letters.
From a handwritten diary, we learn that a British soldier fought and won a court case for his Indian counterpart because the latter was denied the right to live in Britain after the war. A passage is dedicated to Gabar Singh Negi, a recipient of the prestigious Victoria Cross, in whose name a fair is held in Chamba every year.
Towards the end, the film returns to Paloma and her mother, Monique Soupart, praying at their house. In an earlier scene, we see a warm, informal chat between Paloma and a Sikh man at his house in England. There is a lovely moment when Paloma shows him that she knows how to tie a turban. She may never find out who her great-grandfather was, but even a century after the war ended, new friendships continue to be forged.