Everything in cinema is political.
Kabir Khan is not one to mince his words. Whether it’s about India’s current political climate, the responsibility of a filmmaker or the relevance of history and learning from it, the director of documentaries as well as Bollywood megahits such as Bajrangi Bhaijaan and Ek Tha Tiger is known to speak his mind.
Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that he grew up in an environment that enabled and encouraged debate and intellectual discussion. His Rajya Sabha MP father, Rasheeduddin Khan, was a founding professor of Delhi’s JNU, where he taught political science. Khan, who, therefore, grew up in JNU, went on to study economics at Kirori Mal College in DU and then filmmaking at Jamia Millia Islamia.
While most know him as the maker of Bollywood potboilers, Kabir Khan actually made his directorial debut in 1999 with a documentary called The Forgotten Army, which explored the story of Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army or Azad Hind Fauj. Today, 21 years later, that documentary has been transformed into a five-episode Amazon Prime Video original miniseries titled The Forgotten Army: Azaadi Ke Liye, which will hit laptop screens tomorrow, a day after Netaji’s birth anniversary and just in time for the Republic Day weekend.
In Delhi to promote the series, Khan speaks to ThePrint about how the story happened to him and why it is important, the CAA and student protests.
‘This story made me want to become a filmmaker’
Revisiting your own work is often difficult, especially after a gap as long as 21 years. But for Kabir Khan, the story of the Azad Hind Fauj, told through the eyes of the soldiers, is one that he never had to really revisit, because it never left him.
Back in the late 1990s, just a few years out of film school, Khan had the opportunity to travel with Captain Lakshmi Sahgal, commander of the Jhansi ki Rani women’s regiment, and Colonel Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon, who was tried for treason, torture and murder in the infamous Red Fort trials. Khan drove with them from Singapore through Malaysia and Burma (now Myanmar) for three months, retracing the route the Fauj had taken 55 years earlier.
His eyes light up as he recalls, “This was the first time anyone of that seniority was returning to Burma after the war, and for me, at that young age, to experience history being told to me by those who created that history was life-altering. People sometime say you don’t choose the story, the story chooses you — for me this was that story. So I went on to make that documentary, and it got me a lot of attention and acclaim. I often say that it was the starting point of my career.”
And it’s been quite a career — from documentaries on war-torn areas to some of the biggest hits Bollywood has seen. But through it all, the story of the INA, the story that made him want to become a filmmaker, gnawed away at him, begging to be made on a bigger scale.
“I’d keep thinking of stuff I’d seen behind the camera, the experiences I’d heard about, my conversations with Captain Sahgal and Colonel Dhillon. When I decided to switch from documentaries to the big screen, the first script that came out of me was The Forgotten Army. If there was one story I had to tell, it was this. I wanted to tell the story at a wider level, because documentaries do have limitations in terms of reaching a wider audience.”
After every movie, Khan would pick up this script, think about how to do it justice and then shelve it. But he was sure that whenever he did make it, it would be his most ambitious project.
For such a large scale, why choose an OTT streaming platform like Amazon Prime Video? “I had written it as a film script, but then that was at a time when none of these platforms was available,” says Khan. “The story is very sacred to me, given how I experienced it, and I never wanted to compromise on how I make it. It needed to be that one definitive document on the Azad Hind Fauj that stands for a long time.”
It was about three years ago, when Amazon and he were chatting about doing something together, he realised that perhaps this story would lend itself well to an original miniseries.
“In mainstream cinema, sometimes you need to simplify history and facts; in an original series, you have more time, you can be truer to history and to what you’re doing.”
Patriotism vs aggressive nationalism and the rewriting of history
With a show that will naturally be high on patriotic feels, one might wonder if Khan is playing it safe, given the current political climate in the country. But then, he is one of the mainstream Bollywood names who has been fairly vocal about his problems with the narrative being pushed by those in power.
“I have nothing against patriotism, but I find this jingoistic nationalism where you need to abuse someone else to prove your patriotism a vulgar extension. Patriotism is your love for your country and what you want to do for your country without shouting slogans about it or forcing people to prove their patriotism.” He believes the series can be patriotic while underlining this difference.
And even though he wrote the script two decades ago, Khan, forever a student of history as he calls himself, was thrilled to find that it still feels relevant. Certain aspects were more vital then, but today, as times and circumstances have changed, he has discovered other aspects that naturally take precedence.
“The British had actually written off the Azad Hind Fauj as this ragtag, inconsequential bunch of rebel soldiers. But when you research and see historical footage of 30,000 soldiers standing from Singapore City Hall all the way to the sea in the first military review that Netaji took, all of them raising their rifles in the air and saying ‘Chalo Dilli’, you get goosebumps,” says Khan.
“You realise this was no ragtag bunch, what they did was significant and it’s important for us to know what happened in those three years. These soldiers were true patriots, but they’ve been reduced to a paragraph in our school textbooks. That’s the way the British intended it — they censored all news of them — and it’s important for us to understand this army’s efforts and if they made any contribution to our independence or not. Of course history is about perspective, but at least we should know first, and only then debate.”
This lack of awareness of history makes us easy targets for revisionism as well, and the way the past is being rewritten today is something that Khan finds extremely troubling. But it is also, in a way, something that strengthens his own resolve as a filmmaker.
“Mainstream cinema, I daresay, is the most powerful medium in this country. If there’s a certain narrative that’s being spun then it’s all the more important for others, like me, to present the counterpoint,” he says.
“As a student of history, I am deeply disturbed by its distortion. Like the way these days movies present medieval battles on religious lines when we all know it was all for territory. I don’t think King X bothered about the religion of King Y, and there was no concept of a unified India to defend. So trying to put everything in today’s context and pushing a narrative through the prism of religion is hugely problematic,” Khan adds.
“Look at the demonisation of the Mughals. There is no conversation anymore about their contribution to culture, food, clothes, arts and architecture, language. It’s as if they just invaded, converted people and left — left where? They’re still here, part of this country.”
Khan is clear that the show is meant to be less hagiography, more a debate-starter, and one of the questions it will seek to address is whether today’s India is the Azad Hind these soldiers fought for.
“The INA had the first women’s regiment more than 70 years ago. I don’t think they would be happy with the way women are treated today, for one. And secularism was one of the strongest pillars of this army; Netaji fiercely believed in it and even wrote about how he would never accept the partition of a country on religious lines. To see that secular fabric being shredded into tatters today is something I’m sure these soldiers would not be happy about.”
‘There is no such thing as apolitical’
Before the interview, Khan had been clear that he would not entertain any questions on the amended citizenship law and the ongoing wave of protests, but it came up anyway.
“See, these [JNU, Jamia] are places I know well, these are people I know. Obviously I feel pained if I see students and professors being attacked with stones, or mobs with rods walking around a campus I grew up in and so I will react. I wasn’t keen to answer questions on it here because first, I have already made my stance clear on it, and second, what we are here to talk about gets diluted, which is the series. But then, as I firmly believe, nothing is apolitical, least of all my work.”
Even some of Khan’s most entertaining mainstream movies are rooted in politics and political history, be it Kabul Express, New York or Bajrangi Bhaijaan. “I wear my politics on my sleeve. I honestly believe every filmmaker’s ideology needs to be reflected in their work,” he says.
“If you’re going to show me some Goody-Two-Shoes, that’s a hellishly boring film — I want to see damaged, flawed characters, but, ultimately, the filmmaker needs to make their comment on the character,” Khan says.
“But people sometimes speak of Bollywood as this one monolithic set of people who should all think alike — that doesn’t happen. We are a diverse bunch of people with different ideologies and we can only speak for ourselves. I cannot take responsibility for a filmmaker who probably is misogynistic in his life, so of course his films will reflect that. Everything in films is politics – people might shy away from that word and say I’m apolitical, but let me be very clear, there is no such thing as apolitical. The choice of even saying you are apolitical is a political position, one of privilege. So how I frame a woman, for example, or from what perspective I tell a story, is my politics.”
Perspective is a word Khan uses often. He recalls that as a child, he watched a lot of war films, and later, as a documentary filmmaker, he worked in conflict zones, including Afghanistan, way before Kabul Express.
War is something that fascinates him because “one, human behaviour changes in conflict zones, and those extremes always lend themselves to energetic storytelling”. But, secondly, it teaches you to uncover untold perspectives.
He recalls his stint with eminent journalist Saeed Naqvi, during which they travelled to around 60 countries in five years. “Saeed Sahab was obsessed with reporting international news from an Indian perspective or a South Asian perspective. And that was when I realised that the news we were getting (largely via the BBC and CNN in those days), was only one truth, and the others were not getting reported. Certain stories are never told but should be. That gap fascinates me and a lot of my films lie in that gap.”