Culled from archives and personal testimonies, heartwarming stories, including romantic ones, about Indian soldiers, including Sikhs, who fought in World War-I as part of the British army, feature in a new documentary made in France by Punjab-born filmmaker and novelist Vijay Singh.
“Mademoiselle France Pleure” (Miss France is in tears) attempts to piece together the lesser known fact about the 14-lakh Indian soldiers and civilian workers who came to France and Belgium to defend their freedom against invasion.
“The soldiers faced hardships, casualties and diseases in the war. The documentary will highlight stories from within the British army and hospitals,” says Paris-based Vijay Singh.
The man who has shot critically acclaimed feature films such as “Jaya Ganga” and “One Dollar Curry” was here to announce the new project and firm up plans to shoot in India, France, Austria and Belgium. “Everybody remembers India’s freedom struggle but few recall the contribution of our soldiers in the Great War,” says Vijay Singh. The film shows the tragicomic situations that the French and the British faced while feeding Indian soldiers as per their religious beliefs; and the hospitality of the French hostesses that won hearts of Indian soldiers during their convalescence in French barns.
With help from the French government and embassy, Vijay has gathered testimonies from the archives and the descendents in France, India, Belgium and Britain of brave soldiers of which 10,000 didn’t return home. There are accounts of the soldiers who fell in love with French women and had children with them.The film features a woman, 71, whose grandfather was Indian. Part of it is shot in Chamba nagar panchayat in Tehri region of Uttarakhand, where Gabbar Singh Negi Mela, dedicated to a war hero, is still held every April 21 for the past 94 years with assistance from Chatwal Regiment.
Sikhs' long hair had French spellbound
There, people recount that the French were spellbound when they saw the Sikh soldiers combing their long hair or tying their turbans and having a bath between two trains; or even the khaki shorts they donned.
“What astonished the French was the huge cavalry and cattle that the Indian regiment had arrived with,” says Vijay. The film will include a high-profile war-centenary ceremony in 2015 at Neuve Chapelle, a battle memorial dedicated to the Indian soldiers in France.
The soldiers wrote their experiences in nearly 600 letters while in hospitals, the record of which is kept in the Haryana Academy of Art and Culture, to which soldiers would send a rupee each month for the education of students.
For 3 years, Vijay researched on the subject of his multilingual film produced by France TV. Vijay has used photographs, portraits, war songs, sound recordings, and interviews with the solders’ descendants to stitch the narrative. “It is a remarkable example of what India and France can do together,” said a French embassy official.