Heroism, poha and Kabir Khan’s The Forgotten Army
The most perplexing detail about the now-famous, anti-poha anecdote by Bharatiya Janata Party’s Kailash Vijayvargiya is not the lack of logic or prejudice on display, but that a man from Indore made disparaging comments about poha.
On Thursday, at a seminar in Indore, Vijayvargiya shared how his keen radar for ‘outsiders’ pinged mightily when he encountered a group of Bengali construction workers. “They were eating a lot of poha on a big plate,” said Vijayvargiya. “I asked the contractor why they were eating poha and he said they only eat poha, not roti. I thought, where are these people from that they eat poha in such quantities?” He then suffered a short coughing fit, which we can only take as divine indictment for making disparaging comments about poha while living and breathing in Indore. If the people of Indore will not stand up for poha – I’m assuming there were Indoris in the audience – then the universe must intervene. Unfortunately, the coughing fit wasn’t potent enough to stop Vijayvargiya from proceeding to conclude the labourers must be from Bangladesh.
Thanks to the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, many conversations are underway in the country about what constitutes one’s identity. In Indore, it’s relatively simple – if you’re from the city, then you know that while different parts of Madhya Pradesh put their spin on poha (with toppings ranging from crushed chips to jalebis), Indori poha is the only real poha in the world.
Last year, the government of Madhya Pradesh applied for a geographical indication (GI) tag for poha – to forever silence the pesky claims of Maharashtra and Bengal on the dish – and this year, Vijayvargiya is saying eating poha is a sign of being Bangladeshi. Weep, Indore, for your son has failed you (and your poha).
So while the country ate poha in resistance, on Prime Video, a new series on the Indian National Army (INA) by director Kabir Khan was launched. From taking up arms to forking flattened rice, the nation needs heroes of all appetites.
The Forgotten Army: Azaadi ke Liye is an ambitious project, well-researched, made on a big budget and shot all over south-east Asia, in multiple languages and with a multi-ethnic cast. The series begins in 1942, when the INA was conceived, and ends in 1945, when it fought a brave (but doomed) battle against the British in Myanmar. The narrator is Surinder Sodhi, who as a young man (played by Sunny Kaushal) was an officer in the INA. In the 1990s, as an old man (played by MK Raina), Sodhi retraces his steps in Singapore and Myanmar. While most of the show’s violence feels staged, there are some good battle scenes and it’s to Khan’s credit that a contingent of Japanese men on bicycles does in fact look menacing, rather than hilariously proto-hipster.
It’s obvious that The Forgotten Army is a passion project. Unfortunately, passion does not birth writing skills. The plotting is bad and the dialogues are awkward. Characters with potential – like the labourer Rosamma who joins the INA because she dreams of dignity and self-respect – are side-lined so that the privileged can hog the spotlight. There are also too many oversights. For instance, why does a Tamil family in Singapore speak Hindi? Why would a member of the INA who adopted a new name and identity after its defeat, hang on her walls a gigantic photo of herself in INA uniform? Why does the Japanese officer slice himself in half when he has orders to retreat? The stilted acting from most of the cast and the lack of detailing on the computer generated imagery (CGI) don’t help The Forgotten Army’s cause.
It took a certain combination of genius and madness to conceive of the INA and believe that it could challenge the mighty British army. Faced with the certainty of defeat, the INA dreamt of an India free of not just the British but also gender, religious and class-based prejudice. That’s a powerful idea that manages to crawl out of The Forgotten Army for all its failures. We could do with reminders from a time when being faced with the brute force of the establishment built backbones instead of breaking them.