Telling a story about war is always a risky process. How do you make the history relevant? How do you avoid glorifying violence? But most importantly, what does the filmmaker have to say about war and its consequences that has not already been said before?
Based on true events, The Forgotten Army-Azadi Ke Liye, now streaming on Amazon Prime, tells the story of the Indian National Army (INA), or the Azad Hind Fauj as they were called, a battalion comprising former Indian soldiers of the British National Army who'd been captured by the Japanese and civilians who signed up to free India from British rule.
Created and directed by filmmaker Kabir Khan, the story travels between two time periods, one between 1942-45 when the INA was formed, and 1996 when an older Surinder Sodhi (M.K. Raina) visits his ailing sister in modern day Singapore. Her grandson Amar (Karanvir Malhotra) is determined on going to Burma to be a part of student protests against the government. When Amar takes Sodhi to the Indian National Army monument in Singapore, Sodhi remembers being there almost 50 years earlier when more than 50,000 men and women came together to fight for Indiaâ€™s independence.
In 1942 a young Surinder Sodhi(Sunny Kaushal) is an officer in the British Indian Army posted to Singapore to tackle a possible Japanese incursion. When the British army surrenders to the Japanese, Sodhi and the rest of the Indian soldiers are arrested but spared because the Japanese wish to support the Indian Independence movement.
After a rough start, the INA is formalised under the leadership of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. Bose also invites women and immigrant Indians from Singapore and Burma to join the war for independence. While in Singapore, Sodhi Jr meets Maya (Sharvari) a photographer and the daughter of Tamilian immigrants from India. Maya (whose character seems to be inspired by the real-life Janaky Athi Nahappan) offers her gold earrings to Netaji and the INA before joining the Rani of Jhansi regiment, the worldâ€™s first infantry regiment that consisted entirely of women.
To be fair, the show is pretty detailed when it comes to the costumes, guns and old school warfare, but unfortunately, the writing and direction paints history in broad brushstrokes instead of looking for nuance and genuine insights. The makers seem indecisive about what should be at the heart of the series- is it a Rang De Basanti-esque reminder to the new generation of the tremendous sacrifices made by their ancestors? Is it a story of star-crossed lovers, or is it a war drama that gives due credit to an army of bravehearts?
There is a gaping hole where there should have been characterisation and while Arijit Singh is melodious, patriotic songs can't salvage these two-dimensional characters. All we know about the protagonist Sodhi is that he comes from a family of male war heroes and feminist women. He is brave and honorable and thatâ€™s that. The supporting cast we know nothing about at all. Sodhiâ€™s best friend Arshad (Rohit Choudhary) is the funny but a brave sidekick, and Rasamma (TJ Bhanu) a former plantation worker, is defined by the fact that she was raped. We never learn anything else about her. Characters keep trying to explain their motivations to us, and at one point, Sodhi quotes the Bhagavad Gita to a Japanese officer who incidentally canâ€™t tell between a cow and a bull.
Sadly, the â€˜foreignersâ€™ are given worse treatment. The British are racist, rapists and all-round morons who surrender without taking stock of how many troops the Japanese had. The Japanese are reduced to extras, except a token army officer here and there. The writers and director seem indecisive on what stand to take about the Japanese. Were they brutes who killed and raped the local Singaporeans, or were they saviours for the Indians? It's left to the audience to figure that out.
While the writing is weak, the poor performances only compound the problem. Sunny Kaushal is suitably young and wide-eyed but has very limited acting skills. He just cannot carry an entire show on his shoulders. Sharvari is more impressive as the feisty Maya but again falls short in the emotional scenes. Rohit Choudhary has great comic timing but is woefully miscast here, as are most of the other supporting actors. M.K. Raina playing the older Sodhi is remarkably fit for his age, and perhaps the only good actor in the show, but even his valiant efforts fall short.
There are also scenes and characterisations that defy logic. A soldier lights a cigarette while being surrounded by guns and ammunition; Maya, who has never been to India, speaks Hindi like she grew up in Delhi despite being raised in a home where her parents speak presumably speak only Tamil and English. Lakshmi Sahgal (played by Shruti Seth), one of the most iconic figures of the INA is included in the story, but never introduced using subtitles or any other device. I had to wait for the end credits to confirm that Shruti was playing Ms Sahgal and not another female officer.
On the plus side, the action sequences are well-executed and engaging. I especially liked the way the invasion of the Japanese troops in Malaya has been filmed. Veteran action director Sham Kaushal creates fight sequences and battle scenes that are authentic to the time period and often involve difficult terrain including rivers, mud, rubble and rains.
While war cries are great at inspiring young impressionable minds, they seldom come with a plausible plan of action attached. What inspired thousands of Indians to lay their life down for a country they knew little about, or believe the words of a man who was inspiring but on the run from his own country? Sadly, we never feel their beating hearts and the passionate rush of idealistic youthfulness. While it may generate awareness and empathy for Indiaâ€™s forgotten army, the show itself is far from memorable.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the series/film. TNM Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organisation may have with producers or any other members of its cast or crew.