It was 1914, when the biggest nations of the world were pitted against each other in a fierce battle, in which millions lost their lives. Of the scores of military personnel mobilised by these warring countries to guard their borders, was a group of foreign heroes, who faced bullets at the French border on behalf of the Allied Forces, even as their own country remained unaffected by the deadly war.
These were the 1.5 lakh Indian soldiers, mobilised by the English to fight on their side. But until recently, their story has been virtually unknown.
In his latest film, Farewell My Indian Soldier, Paris-based author-filmmaker Vijay Singh recounts their story. The film focuses on the tales of affection between these Indian men and their French hostesses, and on their children, who were victims of the taboo of such unions.
Singh’s film is inspired by the story of one such child. Played by French actress Paloma Coquant, this young girl is a descendant of an unknown Indian soldier, who sets out on a journey to seek credentials of her ancestor. Travelling through France, Belgium, England and India, she does not discover much about her Indian ancestor, but the journey itself gives her a sense of closure.
Farewell My Indian Soldier opens with the nostalgic Zara yaad karo qurbani in Lata Mangeshkar’s voice. It has some rare archival material, historical testimonies, 100-year old Indian war songs and 600 insightful letters written home by soldiers about their experiences in France, 10,000 of whom would never return home.
Delhi-born Singh moved to Paris after completing his Arts degree from St Stephen’s. He says, “Before asking the British for Kohinoor, why can’t we ask them for access to our own history? After all, it seems unbelievable how the experience of 1,50,000 Indian soldiers and civilian workers on the Western Front could have escaped the attention of the world. Even in terms of the contemporary WW1 film footage available in the archives, there is very little on Indian soldiers. In many ways, this film is a rewrite of this part of the history of the Great War.”
Part documentary and part fiction, the film brings to the fore what Indian soldiers lived through on the Western Front — fighting battles, diseases, hospital stays, caste and religious restrictions, but also experiencing French hospitality. “A sense of pride, devotion and valour take over a soldier’s life. That is what perhaps glued these men together in France,” he says.
Singh, who screened the film at the International Film Festival of India in Goa, says, “I might live in Paris, and my films Jaya Ganga and One Dollar Curry might have travelled to 60 festivals worldwide, but I always premiere my films in India.” The film, which took Singh two-and-a-half years to research and another two-and-a-half years to make, has been produced by Silhouette Films in co-production with RSTV (India) with the support of France Télévisions.
“I will be touring with the film early next year, across the Alliance Française network in India,” says Singh, who is currently working on his next feature, The Opium Symphony, which is adapted from his novel Whirlpool of Shadows.