Lydia Dean Pilcher is well aware of the time difference between Mumbai and New York, as was made obvious by the convenient slot she scheduled for this phone interview. The American producer has been visiting India for the past 25 years to work on international co-productions, notably the films of Mira Nair. Pilcher’s credits include Nair’s Mississippi Masala (their first collaboration, back in 1991), Vanity Fair, The Namesake, Queen of Katwe and, most recently, the web series A Suitable Boy.
Crew members on A Suitable Boy, which was recently streamed in India, joked that Pilcher had more local productions to her name than they had, she told Scroll.in.
So it doesn’t seem surprising that there’s a bit of India in Pilcher’s first solo feature as a director. A Call To Spy explores the courage of three real-life women who were a part of the British campaign against Adolf Hitler’s Germany during World War II. Among the spies who were smuggled into France to aid the French Resistance against the occupying Nazi forces was Noor Inayat Khan, the daughter of an Sufi preacher and musician from India and an American mother.
Her father, Inayat Khan, was a descendant of the Mysore ruler Tipu Sultan. Noor Inayat Khan grew up in France and later lived in England. She trained as a wireless operator, and in 1943 was the first British spy to be smuggled into German-occupied France. Khan was captured by German soldiers and executed in the Dachau concentration camp in 1944. She was 30.
In the film, which will be streamed in India on Amazon Prime Video on December 11, Khan is portrayed by Radhika Apte. A Call To Spy has been written and produced by American actor Sarah Megan Thomas and stars her as Virginia Hall. Stana Katic plays the recruiter Vera Atkins.
Pilcher described Apte’s character as “the most interesting” among the three operatives. The biography Spy Princess by Shrabani Basu describes how the self-described pacifist and deeply spiritual Khan, who also wrote a book of stories for children, was moved to contribute to the war effort after reports of Nazi aggression in Europe.
“The choice between Noor’s own Sufi faith of non-violence and the path she had chosen in the war would sometimes arise, but she had thought about it deeply,” Basu wrote. “She would say that it was possible for a spiritual person to take up the sword if they were not motivated by hate.”
Khan was “guided by a moral imperative”, which is what made her so attractive, Pilcher observed. “She had grown up in Paris and had lived in a lot of different places,” Pilcher said. “The world can become a bigger place by reading about it, but it’s only when you leave your home and live in other places do you understand other cultures and have a greater appreciation of how it all comes together.”
Radhika Apte was the first choice for the role. “I first became aware of Radhika when I was on the international narrative feature jury of the Tribeca Film Festival in 2016,” Pilcher recalled. “She won the best actress award for an astonishing performance.” Apte was given the award for her role in Anurag Kashyap’s contribution to the anthology film Madly.
“Radhika is a free spirit and that comes through in her work,” Pilcher added. “Noor was an artist, a musician and a writer, which always makes for a great character. Radhika was the first person to whom we wanted to offer the role.”
Pilcher had previously chronicled pioneering women in her 2018 feature debut Radium Girls, which she co-directed with Ginny Mohler. In Radium Girls, a group of factory workers organise for better working conditions after suffering the effects of radium exposure.
“I have always gravitated towards stories in which I could see myself or a part of me or the way I think and feel about the world,” Pilcher said about her interest in female-led narratives. “It is a natural thing even if we haven’t articulated it until only recently.”
Like Radium Girls, A Call To Spy follows women who defy social expectations for a greater cause. “I was drawn to the power of their integrity,” Pilcher said. “These were multilingual women, highly educated and curious and passionate about the world – all the things I was attracted to.”
The film explores the “traps of our own character,” Pilcher had said in a previous interview. She explained, “The role of a spy is one of duality – the person or character the spy is pretending to be on the one hand versus the real person underneath the spy’s identity. In our own lives we choose which parts of ourselves we reveal to different people at different times. In terms of the theme of resistance, this all becomes a very radical idea. For the audience taking this journey, it’s an interrogation or a quest to find your authentic internal self and connect that to your external voice. It’s a subconscious radical idea that hopefully these characters and their stories may inspire.”
The movie comes at a time when there is a greater awareness in Hollywood about pushing women’s stories and experiences to the forefront and centre and recognising the roles they have played in shaping history. A Call To Spy equally hopes to provide a female view of World War II.
“These were real living, breathing women who were compelled to play this role,” Pilcher said. They were recruited into the Special Operations Executive organisation formed by the British government led by Winston Churchill to sabotage the Nazi-led forces in Europe. “Churchill was desperate for strategies to prevent [Adolf] Hitler from coming across the English Channel,” Pilcher added. “They needed people on the ground who could be inconspicuous. This was an opening for these women to step up and say, I’m in. These women accepted that they had a pretty low chance of survival. They were willing to do whatever it took.”
Pilcher grew up in Atlanta in the American state of Georgia. “I was originally interested in journalism, and that played into a focus on radio and video and ultimately film,” she said.
A Call To Spy was filmed in Philadelphia and Budapest. Completed in 2019, the historical drama was premiered at the Edinburgh Film Festival and released in theatres and on video-on-demand in October this year.
The Indian premiere on Amazon Prime India is likely to resurrect interest in Noor Inayat Khan and rekindle the conversation about the planned biopic on her short but fascinating life. At least two known attempts were made, by Ketan Mehta and Shyam Benegal, to adapt Shrabani Basu’s well-received biography.
For her wartime service and sacrifice, Khan posthumously received a George Cross, the British honour for acts of heroism, in 1949. In 2014, a stamp was issued in her name. In 2019, she was commemorated with a blue plaque at her London residence – the first woman of South Asian descent to be given this honour.
There is enough scope to make a full-length film on Khan, Pilcher said. “There are so many directors in India. There is now a focus on authenticity in storytelling, and there is a reason for that.”