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A cave, the Buddha within, and the forgotten journey – Kabir Khan's The Forgotten Army memory

At the launch of the trailer for his new web-series, the director recalls a lovely moment that defines his two-decade obsession with the story.

Shriram Iyengar

Kabir Khan is a fascinating storyteller. With his role as executive producer, director and showrunner on the Amazon Prime web-series The Forgotten Army: Azaadi Ke Liye, he is fulfilling a 20-year-old dream.

The web-series will follow the journey from Singapore to India via Burma, undertaken by the Indian National Army between 1942 and 1945, as part of a military assault to try and liberate India from British rule during World War II.

Speaking at the launch of the trailer for the web-series in Mumbai, Khan told a wonderful story that underlined the emotional bond he shares with the script and the journey of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose's army.

Asked about his experience with the project, the Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015) director revealed that his early documentary, The Forgotten Army (1999), was the basis for his script. But it was the little story that Khan narrated that truly underlined his connection with the tale.

"I have to tell you a little story which in a certain sense shows what this series is about, when I was doing the documentary with Captain Lakshmi Sehgal and Colonel [GS} Dhillon sir," the director said.

It was during the making of the documentary (directed by Kabir Khan and produced by Akhil Bakshi) and aired on Doordarshan in 1999 in six episodes that the filmmaker traced the journey of the two former members of the Indian National Army back to Singapore through Burma. It was the first time in 55 years that former members of the army had retraced the route.

"It was the first time after World War II that they were going back to Burma. What was very essential for them, at the last stand of Aine, after the Battle of Imphal was over.... this was after the second war cry from Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, 'Tum mujhe khoon do, main tumhe azaadi doonga [Give me blood and I will give you freedom]', the battalion decided to make their last stand at a place called Mt Popa."

Kabir Khan clarified that while Capt Lakshmi was not present at Popa, it was where Colonel Prem Kumar Sehgal, who later married her, was stationed. Col Sehgal, Col Dhillon and Capt Shah Nawaz Khan were later captured and tried by the British government at the famed Red Fort trials from November 1945 till May 1946. The trio was defended by a battery of top lawyers that included Bhulabhai Desai, Asaf Ali, Tej Bahadur Sapru and Jawaharlal Nehru himself.

It was at Mt Popa that the battalion found shelter from the air raids in a dark, unused cave. With its natural spring and deep forest cover, the cave acted as a natural headquarters in the jungle. During their journey back, Capt Lakshmi and Col Dhillon expressed a wish to visit the cave. 

Khan recalled, "She [Capt Lakshmi] always said, 'I want to see this cave.' It was the same with Dhillon sir. He and his men lived in that cave. During that time, Col Sehgal had picked up a small statue of the Buddha to keep in the cave, saying that it would protect them."

The journey was not easy, added Kabir Khan. From trailing Burmese militia personnel to house arrest and the threat of losing equipment, the young director and his crew roughed it out. Even when they reached the jungles of Popa, the former soldiers spent three days unsuccessfully looking for the famed cave.

"We spent three days and couldn't find it," the director said. "We are talking about thick Burmese tropical jungles. But they persisted, leaving at 5am, looking for it. We finally told them it is impossible to locate the cave after 55 years."

But Col Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon was not a man to give in easily and on the last day, the crew finally located the cave. At the trailer launch, the emotional director recalled, "On the fourth day, we found the cave and it was an unbelievable moment. There was no light, so we ran back to the nearest village for some matchsticks and candles, and went deep inside. In the cave, the Buddha statue was still there. You have to imagine what they were going through. They reached out and the soldiers, because they could not send letters home, would place their letters beneath the statue."

Kabir Khan ended by saying, "I wanted to tell this story because it is this emotion and this journey that has led to every scene in The Forgotten Army. I wanted to retell what I witnessed with them on the field. Therefore I have always said it is a magical, sacred moment for me." 

The Forgotten Army: Azaadi Ke Liye is set to be streamed on Amazon Prime from 24 January 2020.

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