The Forgotten Army review: To Lost Histories

Ektaa Malik
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The Forgotten Army review: There are moments that will stay with you.

The Forgotten Army cast: Sunny Kaushal, Sharvari Wagh, MK Raina
The Forgotten Army director: Kabir Khan
The Forgotten Army rating: 2.5 stars

We can’t seem to get enough of our histories. After Manikarnika, Panipat, Kesari and Kalank last year, we now have a mini-series that takes you into the jungles of Burma, up, close and personal with the Azaad Hind Fauj, or the Indian National Army, founded by Subhas Chandra Bose. Titled The Forgotten Army: Azaadi Ke Liye, the five-part show, ‘passion project’ that director Kabir Khan has been nurturing for the past two decades, is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

The series, which took three years to shoot, travels in two timelines. One is told through a young Surinder Sodhi (Sunny Kaushal), who is an officer captured by the Japanese in the Battle of Singapore while fighting for the British Indian Army. He is then inducted into the Azaad Hind Fauj, motivated by the stirring speech by Netaji in Singapore where the battle cry 'Dilli Chalo' resonates with many like him. The other is where Sodhi has aged, and is visiting family in Singapore in 1996. Through conversation with a young grand-nephew, he revisits the journey of the Azaad Hind Fauj, and we travel back and forth with him, the memory aided by black and white footage and pictures of that time and a voice-over by Shah Rukh Khan.

A riveting premise and a story that needs to be told today more than ever when concepts like nation, nationalism and patriotism are thrown around casually, The Forgotten Army falls prey to its own vision of scale. Add to the fray a certain ‘Bollywoodness’, and we have something that you should only watch because the messaging is so on point.

Kabir Khan has always had his heart in the right place, be it Bajrangi Bhaijaan, or a Kabul Express--we will excuse the flickering Tubelight. Here again, he wants us to feel the sweat, grime and pain of the soldiers of the Azaad Hind Fauj. They, who fought with little or no aid, for a free country. Later they were even tried for being traitors and even denied a pension that all freedom fighters received. The show talks about standing united in the face of adversity, united in spite of caste, creed and religion. The show might be set in the 40s and 90s but the references to today’s India are hard to miss. When you see an old Sodhi travelling to Yangon with his nephew and see protesting students facing police personnel in riot gear, it is hard not to think of what took place recently at Jamia Millia Islamia and Jawaharlal Nehru University, and of other protests across the country.

But the show has a problem of plenty — 20 years of research will do that — and that leads to a narrative that’s meandering. There is a nod to Indian secularism, through an exchange between Sodhi and Maya Srinivasan (Sharvari Wagh), the photographer-turned-cadet of the Rani of Jhansi regiment, and obviously, the love interest of Sodhi. Women fighting for their place in a man’s world; a mention of PTSD and a nudge at Japanese honour and their way of war, all are part of the show.

There are moments that will stay with you. Khan has taken the skill of making a sharp political, social comment through a slick dialogue to an art form, case in point being Bajrangi Bhaijaan. Here we see that talent on display again.

There are some bits that seem too filmy to be true -- an older Sodhi walking down the same path in the jungles of Burma as he did as a soldier, or that there's always a love triangle lurking around, even amidst heavy shelling. But we would rather watch this sporadic burst of brilliance any day than the jingoistic fare offered last year.