Kabir Khan is not one to brood about the underperformance of a film. There are plenty of other stories waiting to be told. It takes the director as much time to recover from a poor box office showing as it does for him to celebrate success. So putting the outcome of Tubelight (2017) behind him, Khan is excited about two epic tales, both of which capture heroism and nationalism in dissimilar settings.
Before ‘83, the movie that revisits the Indian cricket team’s historic World Cup victory in 1983, Khan’s mini-series The Forgotten Army – Azaadi Ke Liye will be out on Amazon Prime Video on January 24. Work on the five-episode series began as far back as 1999, when Khan made a documentary by the same name. The Forgotten Army examines the formation of Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army in the aftermath of the British army’s defeat in Singapore during World War II. The INA story will be told from the perspective of the soldiers, Khan told Scroll.in.
Both your web series and your upcoming film pivot on patriotism and pride.
Yes, these parallels are inherent. With ‘83, I was fascinated by this team of underdogs who were going into the cricket World Cup virtually written off as the lowest rated team. Then we saw how they literally pulled each other up and won the cup. More than just the story of the boys, it’s the story of the coming of age of a country.
1983 was the turning point that changed the way Indians perceived themselves and the way the world began to perceive Indians, especially NRIs. Once we were world champions, it was cool to be Indian. The many undiscovered stories around the tournament drew me to ‘83.
Do you remember where you were on June 25, 1983?
I was in Hyderabad on my summer holidays. I recall watching the match and not fully understanding why people were going bananas. There were fireworks and screaming. People were rushing out onto the streets in celebration. I remember the moment, but only now do I understand the enormity of that victory.
For ‘The Forgotten Army’, you have revisited the Indian National Army through a young photojournalist in the 1990s. Why did you opt for this narrative device?
That is the way the story came to me. Colonel Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon and Captain Lakshmi Sahgal, who were officers in the INA, told it to me. So I decided to construct the story in the same format. In a sense, Amar, the photographer, is me. I also wanted the audience to get to know the story through a younger person who is reasonably well-informed but has no idea what happened over there.
What was it like revisiting a story you had worked on 20 years ago?
I never felt like I was going back because it was a script and an idea that I nurtured through the years. After every film I made, I would pick up The Forgotten Army and wonder if I could pull off something as ambitious and as large as this. Then, when speaking to Amazon, I realised it was an idea best suited for a mini-series. Given the story and its period, it needed to be done on a certain scale.
Original series give you a little more space than a film offers to develop the characters, be truer to history and not oversimplify the narrative, which we sometimes do for the sake of dramatic narration.
How have you balanced the facts with the fiction?
There is no fiction in the series, but there is dramatisation. Every scene is rooted in reality. Every dialogue has been researched before it is uttered. The fall of Singapore is well documented, but the way the soldiers were taken, the war rooms, and the jungles have been recreated based on archival footage and images.
We put in a lot of effort to take whatever archival images or footage were available and recreate the spaces exactly like they were. To recreate the battle fought in the rubber plantations, we found plantations in a remote area in Thailand. That is a stunning visual.
An amazing fact is that since the Japanese could not pass through the plantations on trucks and jeeps, they decided to enter on 20,000 cycles. In order to capture the impact of that attack, we had to show it where it happened, otherwise it would not make sense. In other cases, we have built sets and used computer graphics.
How have you tackled the mythology surrounding the INA and Subhas Chandra Bose?
Yes, I had to wade through the mythology, which is a fallout of the lack of documentation. We call them ‘The Forgotten Army’ because there is little information out there. As they say, history is written by the winners. The diaries of the INA members were burnt, thrown away and confiscated. The battles were written about from a British perspective and what happened with Netaji became a mystery.
I approached the script as the story of the INA from the viewpoint of the soldiers. I got this perspective from my four months on the road with Captain Sahgal and Colonel Dhillon, during which we drove from Singapore through Burma into India.
Looking at the mood around the country at the moment, would you say this is the India the INA fought for?
Absolutely not. Secularism was one of the strongest pillars of the ethos of INA. It was something Netaji believed in strongly. So to see that ethos of our culture and society being damaged is definitely not the India the INA had dreamt of.
Bollywood and politics is a slippery slope. There are films, like yours, that juxtapose politics with human emotions, and there are political films with hidden agendas.
I would like to believe that they are inadvertent agendas, and that those filmmakers are being swept away by the right-wing narrative that is prevailing right now, where a certain distortion of history is taking place. I don’t know if some filmmakers believe that a certain kind of story will do well or is it a part of a larger design to rewrite history. That is something only time will tell.
Are the ongoing protests around National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship Amendment Act a case of shouting against the wind?
If there are so many concerned citizens expressing an opinion, expressing their fears, then there has to be a more proactive way of engaging with them. It’s sad that a lot of the protests are being ignored or worse and the protesters written off as troublemakers and disparaged for allegedly having an agenda. What is their agenda except unhappiness?
If you feel this is all a misunderstanding, then there has to be a better way to communicate that and not through an iron-fisted approach of pushing down protesters or coming down so heavily on students. There has to be a more civilised way of engagement. This is what saddens me: it is not just about what the government wants to do but also about how they want to do it.
In a democracy, the people vote in the government. But that does not mean that those who did not vote for the ruling party are not citizens. This section also needs to be heard and engaged with. Anything you don’t stand for cannot be brushed aside as rubbish.
On a different note, does a film that underperforms at the box office affect relationships in Bollywood?
No. I think the media makes more of it. For those working within, you know this is your life and that there will be films that will do spectacularly well and others that that won’t do so well.
Relationships change only if something has gone wrong in the journey of the film. If the film does amazingly well you will be euphoric for maybe a month and then it’s business as usual. If it does not do well, you may be sad and depressed for about a month. But the journey of making the film lasts 18 months or so, and that journey has to be special because that is what one remembers.
When I look back on my films, I don’t look at them through the prism of ‘hit or fail’. These are all my life experiences.
But how do you stay calm about it?
If you don’t take your success too seriously, you won’t get too badly affected by your failure. There’s that cliche in the industry that more people have been destroyed by success than by failure, and I have been witness to that. This industry is designed in such a way that if you have a blockbuster then you are made to feel like god. If you also start believing that, when the flop comes, you are going to be shattered.