Twenty two years before Kabir Khan’s The Forgotten Army streams on Amazon Prime on January 24, 2020, his documentary of the same name was telecast on Doordarshan.
On that occasion, Kabir Khan spoke to Amberish K Diwanji/KhabriBaba.com about Netaji’s Azad Hind Fauj and its many battles for India’s freedom.
IMAGE: Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose with officers of the Indian National Army. All Photographs: Kind courtesy The Forgotten Army Documentary/Doordarshan
The Forgotten Army is an attempt to tell a story not yet told.
Few know about those brave men and women who joined the Indian National Army and heeding the brave words of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose — ‘Chalo Dilli! (Head for Delhi!) — took on the might of the British empire.
Oddly enough, this 105-minute television documentary (broken into five episodes) did not start out as such.
For Kabir Khan, the creator of this saga, it all began one day in 1994 on the sets of the film, Beyond the Himalayas, which followed the Great Silk Route from Bukhara, through China, to Mongolia.
“I thought of making a similar travelogue, tracing the famous march of the INA from Singapore up to Imphal.”
But destiny had other plans.
Khan began researching, only to discover that there was precious little available on the INA, either by way of history or literature.
And the Netaji Research Bureau in Calcutta, manned by Dr Sisir Bose, Netaji’s nephew, turned out to be rather unhelpful, dismissing Khan and his queries when he first approached them in 1996.
IMAGE: Colonel Lakshmi Sehgal, the legendary Indian National Army soldier.
Khan then turned to the survivors of the INA, the well-known Colonel Lakshmi Sehgal, and the media-shy Colonel Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon.
The latter, incidentally, was one of the three (the other two being Shah Nawaz Khan and Prem Kumar Sehgal) who were tried by the British in the famous Red Fort trial in 1946, a case that shook India and even united the bitterly warring Congress and Muslim League.
IMAGE: Colonel Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon of the Indian National Army.
With Colonel Dhillon and Colonel Lakshmi by his side, Khan realised he had a golden opportunity to recapture the saga of an army that India has forgotten and Indian history, under Nehruvian policies, has ignored.
“The film is not about Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, though, of course, he is mentioned in the film,” stressed Khan, “It is the story of the INA, of its formation and its march through Burma right up to the eastern edge of India.”
The film is shot through the eyes of Colonels Dhillon and Lakshmi, the senior-most survivors of the INA.
According to Khan, the entire shooting was an unforgettable experience, and especially for Colonels Dhillon and Lakshmi.
“There were times when I’d get goose pimples, so you can imagine what it must have been for those two and the other INA veterans who joined us during the shooting,” he recalls.
Both Colonels Dhillon and Lakshmi were returning to Burma after 50 years, journeying into a misty past full of glory and honour.
IMAGE: Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose with Indian National Army soldiers.
What made the shoot even more poignant is the fact that much of Burma seems to be caught in a time warp, with little having changed from the 1940s when the INA headed for Delhi.
“There would be moments when Colonels Dhillon or Lakshmi, or some of the others INA veterans would see a hut or a particular road, their misty memories would clear and they recall having seen it way back then,” said Khan.
“For most of the time, they were literally in a trance, remembering details and the experiences that they had.
It was truly fantastic!”
IMAGE: Dr Montu Bannerjee.
The favourite episode (which is also in the film) is the part concerning 86-year-old Dr Montu Bannerjee, who was the medical supply officer and a close associate of Netaji.
Dr Bannerjee had lost touch with the rest, choosing to stay back in Mamyo, a hill town in north Burma (near India).
Incidentally, the INA leadership shifted their headquarters from Rangoon to Mamyo when the INA troops neared the Indian border.
Recalls Khan, “We were in Mamyo in 1996 when this old man suddenly walks up to our unit, holds Colonel Lakshmi in his hands, and exclaims: ‘Oh Lakshmi! The most beautiful woman in the world!’ Dr Bannerjee had heard about the unit’s presence and come to meet them.
It was a touching moment for everyone present.
IMAGE: Dr Montu Bannerjee plays the harmonica for Colonel Lakshmi Sehgal.
“Then Colonel Lakshmi remembered that Dr Montu used to play the harmonica quite well.
And to the unit’s utter joy, Dr Montu took out a harmonica from his pocket and began playing the Quami Tarana (Kadam Kadam Badaye Jaa, Khushi Ke Geet Gaye Jaa) which had been chosen as the national anthem by Bose,” added Khan.
IMAGE: Colonel Lakshmi Sehgal and her Indian National Army colleagues visit pagodas in Burma.
Khan’s crew was the first television or film unit allowed into Burma.
“Before us, BBC, Channel 4, and umpteen others were not allowed inside Burma. So we were lucky to be allowed because we were able to capture authentic shots,” he says.
Yet it was not smooth sailing.
The unit was placed under house arrest for 14 days in Mamyo, but later allowed to shoot unhindered.
IMAGE: Mohan Singh who set up the Indian National Army.
The unit set out to recreate the long march beginning from Singapore.
Few people know that the INA was established a year before Netaji entered the picture in 1942.
It was set up at the behest of Mohan Singh, an Indian serving in the British Indian Army who had been captured by the Japanese.
“Netaji then was still in India, though later he would escape to Germany,” said Khan, “and from Germany, he would fly down to Singapore to take charge of the INA.”
IMAGE: When the British army in Singapore surrendered to the Japanese army.
On February 15, 1941, the 90,000-strong British army in Singapore surrendered to a Japanese army just 30,000 strong.
Among the captured British army were about 50,000 Indian troops, who were separated and taken to Ferrar Park, a huge ground where football matches are held.
This became the first gathering of the INA, commanded by Mohan Singh, who had been captured by the Japanese earlier.
IMAGE: A memorial in Singapore at Pedang (which means an open ground).
Is there any memorial at Ferrar Park?
“None,” said Khan, “there is only one memorial in Singapore at Pedang (which means an open ground in the Malaysian language).”
There was originally a huge memorial at Pedang, but when Singapore was recaptured by the British under Louis Mountbatten, it was blown up.
“Much after Independence, at Nehru’s request during a visit to Singapore, another small memorial, the size of a desk, was built,” says Khan.
IMAGE: Colonel Lakshmi Sehgal looks at the Cathay Cinema building.
The turning point in the INA’s life came when Bose took command and gave his first address to the fledgling INA at Cathay Cinema, which stands till today.
IMAGE: Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose speaks at the Cathay Cinema.
“When we were at Cathay Cinema, Colonels Dhillon and Lakshmi were really caught up with the moment.”
“Colonel Dhillon pointed to the spot where he had sat while Bose was speaking, Colonel Lakshmi too did the same,” says Khan.
IMAGE: The Imperial War Museum in the United Kingdom. Photograph: Kind courtesy IxK85/Wikimedia Commons
From there the movie begins to trace the march.
The film is shot in the present, with Colonels Dhillon and Lakshmi, and in flashback.
Khan has used archival material from the Films Division, Bombay, and the Imperial War Museum, London, to recreate some famous scenes and shots.
Khan is dismayed by the fact that India has done little for these brave men who did so much for their motherland.
“They were not given the freedom fighters pension until the mid 1960s, by which time many of them were dead,” he laments, “we found some INA veterans actually living in slums in Burma.”
As Khan points out, besides the soldiers, many Indian civilians living in Malaysia and Singapore, descendants of the indentured labourers who had been sent by the British to work on plantations, also joined the fight to liberate their motherland.
“These were poor and ordinary people, mostly South Indians, who had never seen India, only heard about it from their elders.
Yet they gave up everything on Netaji’s call, just to fight for the country of their origin,” said Khan, clearly in awe by all that he has learnt from his research.
IMAGE: Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, whose 123rd birth anniversary we celebrate on January 23, 2020.
What came out most clearly during the shooting was the immense awe in which the INA held Bose.
“He was akin to a virtual god for the INA people.”
“They would remember small things like he had looked at them, or just nodded at them. Of course, if he spoke to anyone, it was manna from heaven,” says Khan.
“There is no doubt that he had a tremendous personality, something one can make out from old films and footage, but alive, he must have been incredible!”
IMAGE: Colonel Shah Nawaz.
Ditto for the INA, whose valiant struggle was blacked out by the British during World War II, leaving most of India ignorant about it.
“The INA saga burst on the public consciousness only when the British put up Colonels P K Sehgal, Shah Nawaz and Dhillon for trial at the Red Fort,” said Khan, “And this was a big mistake, because they had chosen three of the best officers, men of honour and integrity.
“Colonel Shah Nawaz had won the Sword of Honour at the Indian Military Academy, Colonels Sehgal (Colonel Lakshmi’s husband) and Dhillon were highly-respected officers.”
“The British could have easily chosen some of the lumpen elements who had joined the INA.”
IMAGE: Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose meets Adolf Hitler in Germany.
Bose’s decision to ally with Germany and Japan has been criticised by many over the years.
Khan is at pain to point out that his film makes no value judgement.
“This film is just about the 50,000 persons who made up the INA.”
“In fact, the film clearly states, ‘This is the story of those who returned’.”
“They are part of our history and I just want to tell their story,” he stresses, adding, “It is also not a definitive history of the INA.”
The last bit is quite a bother for Khan who has been receiving calls from various quarters asking why so-and-so has not been shown in the film or why some aspect was left out.
“How can I show everybody or everything?” he asks, “I keep telling them that this is just a story as seen through Colonels Lakshmi Sehgal and Dhillon.”
IMAGE: The Indian National Army.
An unresolved debate is whether the INA made any contribution to the Freedom Struggle.
Khan is convinced that the INA did make a difference, even if it amounts to just two per cent of the entire movement.
“The INA had no illusions about capturing Delhi with just 50,000 badly equipped men against the mighty British armed forces,” says Khan.
“Their aim was to reach Assam and once there, they were sure that the whole of India would rise up against the British.”
“And the fact that that this rag-tag army reached Imphal, just a few miles short of Assam, speaks volumes for their courage and conviction.”
While what would have happened had the INA crossed Imphal into Assam cannot be answered, Khan points to the famous Naval Mutiny in 1946, partly inspired by the INA and the Red Fort trial.
“All these events must have scared the British and forced them out even faster,” he says.
IMAGE: Indian National Army soldiers march.
In Burma, Indian troops also fought in the British army against the Japanese, and the INA.
Did the two Indian forces face each other?
“There is one instance when an Indian regiment under the British was fighting and they heard the other side cry out ‘Chalo Dilli!‘ So the Indian troops began to wonder about their enemy speaking in Hindi.”
“This, in turn, forced their British officer to use the Lancashire Regiment, which had no Indians in it, against the INA the next time round,” says Khan.
It is a film worth watching, if only to remember those brave men and the thousand women of the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, commanded by Lakshmi Sehgal, whose only aim was to see their homeland free.
‘She must have been one hell of a lady’
IMAGE: Colonel Lakshmi Sehgal.
I came to know Colonel Lakshmi Sehgal when I was directing the documentary, The Forgotten Army, retracing the Indian National Army’s attempt to free India from British rule.
The film traced the INA march from Singapore to Imphal, where it was defeated and forced to retreat, looking at the events through the eyes of Colonel Sehgal and Colonel Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon (another famous INA veteran, he passed away a few years ago).
IMAGE: Colonel Lakshmi Sehgal in the early 2000s.
Since the film’s producer, Akhil Bakshi, had made all the necessary preparations, I did not get a chance to meet Colonel Sehgal till we both were in Singapore just before the shooting began.
This was December 1996; she was over 80 years old then.
Yet, she and Colonel Dhillon were amazingly fit, both physically and mentally.
They remembered details of events that had occurred over 50 years ago.
In fact, they would cross a ground and recall what exactly had occurred there, the exact dates, and so forth.
When we were planning the documentary, we were worried whether Colonels Sehgal and Dhillon would be able to take the strain of travel.
They agreed, but we had to make a lot of arrangements, including promising to fly them out in case they fell ill.
Remember, this was not easy because, once we entered Burma, there was no airport nearby.
That country’s infrastructure is very poor.
But once we began shooting, all these concerns were thrown to the wind.
They would be up and about at 5 am, they’d be walking all day long with us following and they’d be narrating all these stories about the INA and its march…
It was an absolutely amazing experience!
IMAGE: Colonel Lakshmi Sehgal and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose with the Rani of Jhansi regiment.
In Singapore, she narrated how the INA was formed and how her own regiment, the Rani of Jhansi, was formed.
She was a member of the crowd that Netaji was addressing (circa 1943) when he announced two things: First, that he did not want an army composed only of captured Indian soldiers and that it should also comprise civilian Indians settled in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand; and, second, he wanted to create a women’s regiment.
The INA was formed in 1941, comprising captured Indian soldiers in the British army after the Japanese had claimed Singapore and Malaysia; Netaji took command of the INA later.
IMAGE: Colonel Lakshmi Sehgal put together some 25, 30 women; they had no uniforms so they hunted around for white saris and they practised with rifles for days with the help of some military officers in the INA.
So Colonel Sehgal — in 1943, she was not married and was known as Dr Lakshmi Swaminathan — then a practising doctor in Singapore, began collecting women to form the regiment.
She managed to put together some 25, 30 women; they had no uniforms so they hunted around for white saris and they practised with rifles for days with the help of some military officers in the INA.
And then, they presented a guard of honour to Netaji, who was absolutely thrilled with the effort.
That was the beginning of the Rani of Jhansi regiment.
She went on to head it and later became a part of Netaji’s cabinet.
So we began the march from Singapore, through Malaysia and Thailand, and into Burma.
The amazing thing was that Colonel Sehgal’s memory was crystal clear; she’d remember houses and grounds and recall what had happened there.
And, while narrating, they’d go from one story to another to a third and so on.
IMAGE: The Rani of Jhansi regiment.
In Maymo, which served as the provisional headquarters of the INA, she actually met the man who was Netaji’s doctor (Dr Banerjee) and who, after the war, had stayed on there.
She was very happy when we visited Mount Poppa, where she had never been before.
It was due to the INA action at Mount Poppa that the British put on trial (in the famous Red Fort case) Colonels Shah Nawaz Khan, Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon and P K Sehgal (who Colonel Lakshmi would marry after the war).
My impression of her is that she is an amazingly engaging lady.
Such an interesting person, such an individual person.
It is easy to see why she has been chosen by the Left parties to be their Presidential candidate.
When I met her, she was so full of pep and enthusiasm that I can imagine what she must have been like in the 1940s, at a time when there was a great cause to fight for.
A lady who, at her age, runs a clinic every day where she treats poor patients!
In fact, there was a report in the papers recently about how her patients were missing her because she had gone off to Delhi to file her nomination papers.
So I can imagine how she must have been 50 years ago, when she was just in her 30s running around, galvanising the other women and inspiring them.
IMAGE: Colonel Lakshmi Sehgal marching with the Rani of Jhansi regiment.
The Rani of Jhansi regiment was not a showpiece as some like to believe.
True, they lacked military training but they were highly motivated.
I met a lot of them during the filming and all of them would run to meet Colonel Sehgal.
The way they’d meet her, the way they’d talk about her…
She must have been one hell of a lady, a terrific role model!
IMAGE: Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose addressing a meeting.
Remember, the bulk of the men in the INA were already military personnel who then joined Netaji.
The women were all civilians who had given up everything to go and fight for their motherland; and it was a motherland most of them had never even seen since they were second or third-generation Indians who had grown up in Southeast Asia.
The fact that she was able to mobilise them and take them up to the front to play a supporting role to the men who were fighting the British speaks volumes for her qualities.
If you meet her — and I haven’t met Colonel Sehgal for a few years now, especially after I shifted from Delhi to Mumbai — you will notice the sparkle in her eye, which completely overwhelms anyone who meets her.
She can discuss anything you want, she is very aware of everything around her.
That is probably why the Left picked her as a candidate.
IMAGE: The Rani of Jhansi regiment in training.
What is sad is that this is being done at a time when she is 87 years old.
She is no doubt an amazing lady and she has been like this for all these years.
So why is the Left picking her up now?
Why could they not have picked her up earlier?
There is no doubt that she would make a terrific President.
Unfortunately, it is a foregone conclusion that she won’t win.
It is just so sad that she has been picked as a candidate so late in her life and at a time when she has no chance of winning.
The report on The Forgotten Army was first published on KhabriBaba.com on August 10, 1998.
The report on Colonel Lakshmi Sehgal as Presidential candidate was first published on KhabriBaba.com on July 5, 2002.
Production: Ashish Narsale/KhabriBaba.com