“I have dreamt and lived with this story for a long time. And I am quite impatient to tell it to the world and get to know what they have to say about the same,” shared Kabir Khan while talking about his latest venture The Forgotten Army: Azaadi Ke Liye.
The five-episode web series, starring Sunny Kaushal and Sharvari, will stream on Amazon Prime Video from January 24.
The untold story of the Indian National Army (INA) soldiers was shot as a documentary by Khan two decades ago. The Bajrangi Bhaijaan director, in an exclusive conversation with indianexpress.com, opened up about recreating history for a web series and why the story is so relevant in today’s time.
Here are excerpts from the conversation.
How was The Forgotten Army developed?
It is a huge project and was developed 20 years back. It was one of the major documentaries that I did when I was young. It was an opportunity of a lifetime when I got to travel with the original INA soldiers Captain Lakshmi Sahgal and Colonel Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon. I drove with them for three months in Singapore and Malaysia. And it was the first time that a soldier from that time was travelling back to those places. I feel I was chosen to tell this story, and it was a life-changing experience for me. It was my calling card, as I got immense appreciation for it. Most importantly, the story never left me. I always had it in me to tell it in a wider level. However, it was an ambitious project and daunting with a huge budget, so it never could be developed into a film.
So that’s how you thought of making it as a web series?
I was chatting with Amazon Prime Video for potential collaborations when this came into the discussion. They felt it was a perfect story, and I realised that it did lend itself better as a web series. We could develop the characters better and in detail. We could be truer to history. When it comes to mainstream cinema, you sometimes have to play around. Above all, I was sold at their similar passion towards the subject. They were also very generous with the large budget as they understood that the scale is very important to this story.
What were your emotions of going back to the story once again?
It’s been a sacred story for me. I grew extremely close to the captain and colonel when we shot the documentary. They never knew something like this could happen, but they trusted a kid and gave it a shot. And once on the journey, they transformed into the same soldiers. I got to witness and experience history from the ones who made it. In hindsight, I feel it was an unbelievable experience, and so the impact never left me. It became a sacred duty for me to tell this to people, and I am happy and thrilled that I could do it. It has been the most satisfying experience to narrate the story, and I feel as if everything has just come to a full circle.
How challenging does it get to recreate history and the past?
It is fun but extremely challenging. We were dealing with real history and had to pay attention to every detail. We can take creative liberty when it comes to characters but not facts. We had to be extremely careful and so an immense research went into it. Also, we had to get the logistics right when it comes to the army, be it the uniform or the weapons used at that time. We had to import guns, create vintage cycles to make the world look the same. Even during the shoot, we had close to 800-900 extras, and it was actually a lot of work.
Digital medium is still in its nascent age when it comes to Indian market, and is usually known for sex and thrill. When it comes to a story like this, it caters to all age groups. But do you feel the family would sit together and even watch something like this on the web?
Honestly, I don’t know how the audience will take it. As a filmmaker, you have to do your best and then just cross your fingers hoping that a larger part of the audience identifies with your story. This is a very important chapter in history, and one that people should know. Apart from that, it’s a dramatic human story and that’s what counts. I don’t think one gets brownie points for make something real. When an engaging drama is also true, that adds an extra value to it. I am sure people will be shocked that something like this happened. And I am most excited to know their reaction to the same.
Was there a specific reason behind a relatively new cast?
They were actually completely fresh. We signed Sunny Kaushal even before Gold, and Sharvari also went on to sign her next project (Bunty Aur Babli 2) after our show. It’s actually very liberating as a filmmaker to work with new faces even with this scale and budget. They were a bunch of boys and girls, who completely became the characters. And full credit to Amazon Prime Video for backing the thought and belief.
As a filmmaker, how difficult does it get to stick to your beliefs and also indulge the considerations of the producer or platform?
It’s a blend for sure, but I try to stay away from business. I don’t evaluate my projects with the kind of business it will do. I think that somewhere dilutes your gut instinct. Some of your films may not do well, but if you start doubting about it, you are over. The only person who I know inside out is me, and I have to truly believe in myself. As filmmakers, we do tend to make projects that we would like to watch as an audience, so that one person should have complete faith. I won’t say I don’t care about finance, as you want your investors to earn money as that also brings in more opportunity.
How relevant is The Forgotten Army in today’s time?
I am a history junkie and for me, it’s always relevant. But I think The Forgotten Army is actually very relevant and relatable in today’s time. Be it the zeal for revolution or standing up for what is right. When these soldiers joined the Azaad Hind Fauj, they were in a dilemma between going against the army they served and be called traitors, and their love for their motherland. The show will also somewhere teach the audience the difference between patriotism and nationalism.
Do you think history can also entertain people?
As I said, I love history and so will always go for it. Be it contemporary or recent history like 83 (his next on India winning the cricket world cup in 1983) or going further back in time like The Forgotten Army, it’s always amazing and very engaging. The Hindi film industry is making more and more projects in the genre in the last few years, and the audience definitely enjoys it.
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