Let truth be told always

Let truth be told always

Amazon's latest show 'The Forgotten Army' tries to upend INA myths, but in the process, creates new ones.

Truth may be the first casualty of war but for writers and historians trying to dredge up the coffin of the past, nothing is more important than showing whatever tumbles out of the box in unvarnished honesty.

In the new, five-part Amazon web series, The Forgotten Army, the writers, and filmmakers who took on the task of shedding light on an under-examined aspect of Indian history — the operations of Subhas Chandra Bose’s famed Indian National Army (INA) — the responsibilities were immense.

The series, by veteran Bollywood director Kabir Khan, aspires for a high benchmark. It follows the exploits of a fictional, 20-something Lieutenant in the British-Indian Army, Surinder Sodhi (played by Sunny Kaushal), as his unit is overrun by the Japanese Army in Malaya in the early years of World War II. A second story thread deals with an older Sodhi, in his mid-seventies in 1996 (played by M K Raina), unmarried and childless.

In captivity

If the young Sodhi’s world is filled with the rhetorical questioning of colonial India’s place in the British empire, the older Sodhi is preoccupied with coming to terms with his failed life. In a brief prelude, we are shown the third version of Sodhi in 1945, now a former INA diehard, broken in spirit, being hauled into captivity at Delhi’s Red Fort on charges of treason against the crown.

The host of ancillary characters surround Sodhi in 1942 and in 1996, leading him on in his philosophical journey of discovery of nationhood, loyalty and duty. The show’s set-up is powerfully poised to examine the impact the INA had on the Indian freedom movement and whether the members of the INA were legitimate heroes or renegades to a lost cause.

A line delivered during the 1945 prelude hints at the show’s promise when a member of the regular British-Indian Army contemptuously dismisses Sodhi and other INA prisoners as “idiots who deserted the Indian Army and thought they could liberate India with the help of the Japanese.”

The hope is that audiences will get a refutation of that statement at some point in the show’s 175-minutes. In the limited library of scholarly works on the INA, the question of what Bose hoped to achieve by joining with the Japanese who had their own imperialist designs on Asia, is analyzed through the personal choices of men and women who joined up. The morality of that choice is often less considered — that helping the Japanese invade India would inevitably end up substituting one set of colonizers for another. Sodhi briefly touches upon this question in 1942, when, as a newly-minted prisoner of the Japanese in Singapore, he is called upon to join the INA. Sodhi’s refusal to join is, at first, rock-solid. In a later scene, however, we see him in INA uniform, happily bicycling through Singapore. He and a compatriot soon spot Maya (Sharvari Wagh), an attractive, well-to-do young Tamil woman dabbling as a photographer.

No love lost

Here, the story starts to lose momentum. The show’s stirring discussions on duty, identity, and morality take a backseat to an ultimately pointless love story.

What is more prejudicial is the muddying of history. In the first episode, we are shown Japanese troops beheading Australian prisoners of war. When a Japanese sergeant prepares to do the same to Sodhi and other Indians, he is reprimanded by an officer who proclaims that it is against orders to harm Indians.

The history of the World War II Asian campaign is replete with photographic documentation of Japanese military atrocities against Indian troops. Instead, the show propagates the idea that the Japanese had a kinship with Indians in their loathing of Caucasians.

Illogical

Narrative choices such as these often prompt the writers to force words into the mouths of their protagonists. At one point, in episode 4, when questioned if the INA would really engage troops of the regular British-Indian Army in combat, Sodhi quotes the Bhagavad Gita, saying that in a righteous war, a soldier should not waver from duty even if it means killing your own kin. 

“Why should we have to live with the dilemma of shooting a soldier keeping India in British enslavement? Let them deal with the quandary of shooting an Indian soldier fighting for his homeland,” he declares. However, these words, said to an officer of the Imperial Japanese Army, which sought to continue Asian slavery under its own flag, come off as naive.

In real-life, the prospect of fighting their own countrymen resulted in defections within the INA. Even Khan quails at the prospect of showing Indians killing Indians. Instead, the unit is shown attacking white British troops of the Indian 17th ‘Black Cat’ Infantry Division (as indicated by arm patches) around Imphal. Historically, two of the nine infantry battalions in the 17th were made up of British; the rest were Gurkhas, northwest Indians and Baluchis.

Cinematographer Aseem Mishra makes good work of a milieu of landscapes and scenes handed to him, although the CGI is unconvincing at times. At one point, a Sherman tank’s turret moves as though it is an offshoot of the Terminator. But these are quibbles. 

In a period where MahatmaGandhi’s legacy is increasingly been marginalized by a masculine, pro-violence message, The Forgotten Army plays into a narrative that seeks to populate the freedom struggle with myths.  Best taken with a grain of salt. 

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