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We decidedly wanted to tell personal stories: Utpal Borpujari on Memories of a Forgotten War

The film excavates the history of the battles of Kohima and Battle of Imphal during the second World War, that were fought on the Burma frontier in the northeastern states of India.

Director Utpal Borpujari and producer Subimal Bhattacharjee at Woodpecker International Film Festival in Delhi

Ramna Walia

Director Utpal Borpujari’s Memories of a Forgotten War was screened at the ongoing Woodpecker International Film Festival in New Delhi on 9 November. The fifth edition of the four-day festival which began yesterday in Delhi where films are being shown at Siri Fort Auditorium.

The film excavates the history of the battles of Kohima and Battle of Imphal during the second World War, that were fought on the Burma frontier in the northeastern states of India. The film is an archive of memories of the war and the interconnected history of India, Japan and the UK. Cinestaan.com caught up with director Borpujari and producer Subimal Bhattacharjee for an interview.

Memories of a Forgotten War engages head on with history. I feel the film, as much as it is talking about history of World War II and filling a gap of events regarding the battles of Kohima and Manipur, seems as much interested in narrating the history of the northeast. Did you set out to do so, or did this historicizing impulse with regards to the region emerged in the process of research or filming?

Borpujari: Both of us hail from Assam. We live in Delhi since we finished our studies. I was working as a journalist and Subimal has a background in the defense industry as an analyst. But both of us, like many others from the northeast, like many in our generation do, felt that there is very little about the region in the outside world, whether it is culture, politics, history, or environmental issues.

Now the visibility has increased a little, but it’s still almost negligible compared to other parts of India. So when I left journalism in 2010 I wanted to make films, be it documentary or fiction, but the idea was to tell these untold stories. This was one subject that was at the back of my mind since my student days. People had heard about Battle of Kohima and one day while chatting with friends, I realized I wanted to work on it someday.

It’s a massive subject related to the history of WWII and even though we know about Normandy landings, Pearl Harbor, these battles are almost unknown to the outside world. Our problem was that it required a huge budget. We knew we had to interview the surviving veterans.

By the time we discussed it was 2013, 68 years since the war so we knew we had to talk to these ageing veterans as soon as possible. We decided to pull along and see how far we can get. Our first interview was with General Jacob in Nov 2013, then we went to Mizoram to interview a few surviving soldiers.

We then went to Manipur at the time when a group of British historians and the descendants of British soldiers who fought the battle were visiting and we wanted to capture their journey.

Later, in 2014, we went to UK and Japan when the 70th anniversary of Battle of Kohima was being commemorated. We both went to Japan, I went to UK alone and worked with the local crew there.

Bhattacharjee: In fact, the UK visit triggered Japan visit.

Borpujari: That’s right. The lady, McDonald that you see in the film as the translator, is married to a British man and her father was a Japanese veteran. He lives in an old-age home. So she essentially connected us to many contacts in Japan.

One significant thing about our film is that we are the only people who got to shoot inside Renkoji temple, where Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s purported ashes are kept. Even still photography is not allowed inside the temple but because they understood why we came there and the fact that we were not making the film from a military, strategic point view but rather from a humanistic point of view, helped us to get access to the inside of the temple. We interviewed so many veterans from India, UK, Japan, so many of them have in fact passed way.

Since the film?

Borpujari: Yes, since the film. They were in their 90s, very old. The oldest veteran we interviewed was 96. Those are very significant pieces of history we recorded — personal and historical. Usually when you make a documentary film, unless it is a biography, one tends to overlook the personal to talk about the larger picture. We decidedly wanted to tell the personal stories here.

That’s what is so interesting about the film. One would assume from the name, or even at the start of the film that it will be a war documentary, but it does have memory at its heart. The massive subject you deal with here seems to break the chronological retelling, and instead you explore the history spatially — moving from Delhi, to Mizoram, Manipur, to Japan and UK. I’m sure you gathered a lot of footage along the way.

Borpujari: We have nearly 40 hours of interviews alone. A lot of footage from the battle grounds as well, where you still find the bullets, and remnants of the war, like unexploded mortars. People have died because of it. Two years back, in fact, someone lost their limb because of it. There is so much material there.

Perhaps some time later, we might go and look there and develop a series or web-series. That will require some more shooting, but that’s something we are thinking about. After a few years, we might not have a single survivor from the battle. This is crucial archival material, an important history that needs to be told. These are huge archives of raw footage that can be used by historians, academics and there is a lot of information there.

In fact your film is like a cinematic archive. Instead of taking us to war museums and informational history, you put the key information right at the beginning of the film, your story is something else. Your investment seems to be the personal narratives.

Borpujari: Yes, very much so. That’s why, like you mentioned, we gave all factual information, in the beginning. Before us, there were a few BBC documentaries on the subject, but those were the who won-who lost narratives. We didn’t want to do that. Because after 70 years of the war, it doesn’t matter who won or lost. The fact that the British and the Japanese, these two armies, fought in an alien space where the locals had nothing to do with the battles around their villages and yet it became a part of their history. We wanted to make an anti-war film, one that talks about the futility of war. Right now, there is so much violence, so we look at one of biggest and most violent wars in history, and the futility of it all. It speaks to the present as well.

What’s interesting for me is that, the locals seem to be at the centre of your story, caught up in this intertwined history. How were the interactions for both of you when you shot in the northeast regarding the battles? Did you see their role emerge in the narrative while shooting or before you began?

Bhattacharjee: Actually if you go back to that period of time, compared to today, when the Nagas and the Manipuris have been fighting among themselves, that was not the case 70 years back. There was a certain bonhomie there, but later we lost it. That’s where the context of the communities come in; when they reflect back what do they see.

Inherently, people took an interest in the story on their own. They came and spoke to us, many anecdotes helped us build our narrative further. People who saw, or even had heard about the events across generations came forward and added to the foundation of our narrative. I’ve lived in the hills and we were always aware how the tribal sentiments work. While we were shooting there, we never got an extortion notice or threat of any kind. This was also a sign of acceptability and general understanding of the effort that was in place from our side. We were trying to do something good for the community, something for posterity. It brought out a lot of emotions. The community took interest in it and it was a very good sign. The new government in Manipur is also making efforts now to build a better relationship with Nagaland. The film going down the community route, I feel, helps in healing.

Right, it gives them a collective history. I was wondering what role do you think your work as a defense analyst played in terms of access to people, materials? Since Utpal mentioned the anti-war sentiment at the heart of the film and you have seen the industry from the inside, I’m curious how this connection played out for you.

Bhattacharjee: That’s a very good point. I headed a large American defense company in India called the General Dynamics Corporation (GD). When one works in an environment like that one sees the products, but also the devastation it causes. The interaction is not with people in uniforms. There is a very different sentiment with regards to sacrifice, respect, and civility that one learns from defense services. When Utpal came to discuss this project, I realized it speaks to many of my own personal interests.

Working with the military fraternity creates a sense of bonding towards them. I hail from the northeast and I want the region to prosper. We both wanted to leave something for the future. That was more important than access. Yes, we have friends and the veterans helped us, but we didn’t go to the extent of using their contacts. We were more interested in the insights, we wanted to keep the human touch. We didn’t want a military-archival story.

Borpujari: That’s why we got a great response from people all across — India, UK, Japan. It’s a human story. It is a historical-humanistic approach. So we got access to places like Renkoji temple because of this reason. There are photographs of Indian prime ministers like Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and they're all from outside the temple.

Bhattacharjee: Absolutely. And the UK commemoration ceremony that we attended, helped a lot to shape the Japanese commemoration ceremony. It was very powerful. There were so many emotional scenes. At the time of the ceremony several people were in tears. We were all emotional. When two veterans shake hands, there is a whole history there. I have photographs of that scenario and it is very moving. That’s where the anti-war sentiment comes from, the theme of human touch.

When we went to Renkoji temple, there was an elderly gentleman with two suitcases in his hands. I thought he was waiting for his car. We later got to know that his father worked for Netaji in Japan. This 68-year-old man bought with him all the material- photographs of his father with Netaji. Rare photographs. Personal photographs. He spent the whole day with us and even at night, he doesn’t go home. He took us to some of the oldest Indian restaurants in Tokyo and introduced us to people there. This was the spirit we encountered.

You’re dealing with such a sensitive subject too — not just in terms of Japan’s loss and British and Indian soldiers fighting together — but also the connection with Netaji and Indian National Army (INA). The relationship between these key historical events — WWII and India’s struggle for independence — and its relationship with these battles in the northeast. How did you navigate this complex history? And what role did it play in structuring your narrative?

Borpujari: Definitely. INA is a critical part of this history that one can’t negate. In Moirang in Imphal, there is a huge INA memorial. In fact, we found the old headquarters of INA, that building still stands there with the original signpost and bullets through the tin roof. We had to tell this history. This is the Indian story — one that the Indian soldiers fought in these battles who didn’t get much recognition for their efforts and sacrifice and second is this connection with INA. If the Japanese had entered India, our history would have been very different, history of independence etc would have been something else. That’s the important Indian context and story.

And it’s an important Indian story you tell because one doesn’t hear an “Indian story” from the northeast. Your film really reclaims that space how stories are told.

Bhattacharjee: What we are doing here is what governments should have done. We need to tell this story.

Absolutely. Lastly, Woodpecker International Film Festival has carved a space in the circuit for its issue-based curation — issues like disability, gender, wildlife, art and culture. What are your thoughts on such platforms for films like yours?

Borpujari: I think it is very important because you can put the spotlight on a particular issue and explore it. One can include a wide range of points of view which helps create a debate and it helps the audience to engage with various parts of the world that can inspire you, anger you, motivate you and perhaps push to change the world. Some festivals are for cinematic-storytelling, which are also important but we also need festivals like these where issues get primacy. Subject specific film festivals help create that balance.

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