The Forgotten Army review: Kabir Khan’s Amazon show sympathises with student protests, wastes big budget
The Forgotten Army
Director - Kabir Khan
Cast - Sunny Kaushal, Sharvari, Rohit Choudhary, Karanvir Malhotra, MK Raina, R Badree, TJ Bhanu, Shruti Seth
Director Kabir Khan said in a recent interview that while he can forgive poor filmmaking, he can never forgive poor politics. The politics of his first show as a creator, Amazon Prime’s The Forgotten Army, may be above reproach, but the filmmaking certainly isn’t.
There were many ways in which the five-episode war drama could have gone wrong, especially in today’s volatile climate, when history can be reshaped to suit popular sentiments. But before you can heave a sigh of relief at the show not falling into the same torrent of nationalistic pride that consumed recent ‘historicals’ such as Manikarnika and Tanhaji, it drowns in its own good intentions.
Watch the Forgotten Army trailer here:
Among its many faults is a narrative that merely grazes its subject without ever penetrating its depths, like a poorly aimed bullet against an enemy’s skin. It honours the bravery of real heroes by reducing them to composite characters, effectively diluting their achievements by chucking in multiple storylines into the mix, in a manner that doesn’t do a single one of them any favours.
The Forgotten Army aims for the poignancy of HBO’s Band of Brothers, but displays none of the patience.
For instance, a character who mocks another in episode one for being ‘the black sheep of the family’ gushes that it would be an honour for him if they’d travel to a protest together in episode three. This would be a fine progression for either of them had the show taken its time in fleshing them out. But all we’re told, essentially, is that one of them is a ‘student of journalism’ with some vague idea about making a difference, and the other is a PTSD-ridden war veteran. One chill-out session and proximately 15 minutes of screen-time can’t transform their equation.
Khan frames the show in two timelines, with the same character at different ages – one timeline is set in the past, during World War 2, and the other is set in the late 90s – monumentally complicating an already disjointed structure. Before we can settle into one storyline, we’re hurled across decades, once again forced to form a connection to characters we know next to nothing about. What motivates the soldier Surinder Sodhi (Sunny Kaushal), besides a strong sense of duty? Whom is he fighting for – is he a traitor or a true nationalist? Is a passionately delivered call to arms all it takes to rally thousands towards an uncertain cause?
All these questions are addressed with only a slight interest, which is fine, but did they learn nothing from the mistakes made by films like Pearl Harbor, whose insistence on shoehorning in a romantic subplot against the backdrop of a real tragedy was summed up by a scathing New York Times headline: ‘War is hell, but very pretty’?There is a similar romantic track in The Forgotten Army, involving Surinder, who should, in all honesty, have been concerned with graver matters, and a young photographer with a misplaced sense of identity. Another subplot, with feminist overtones, must have sounded like a good idea on paper, but exists as if in a vacuum.
The show jumps back and forth between these two timelines with the subtlety of a cannonball to the chest – a scene on a train in 1943 is mirrored by a similar scene in 1996; when a character goes to a certain country in the 40s, he makes sure to visit the same countries again in the ‘present day’ timeline.
The episodes, at 20-25 minutes long, are too short to sell the personal struggles of these people, especially Surinder, whose past as a soldier in the Indian National Army still haunts him, many years later.
With such a restrictive runtime, Khan and his writers are forced to deliver exposition in a rather blunt manner. So when the elder Surinder asks his grand nephew, Amar, if he’s heard of the Battle of Singapore, the angsty teenager proceeds to recite a hypothetical Wikipedia entry about the historical event, as if he’d memorised it just moments before. To be clear, both Surinder and Amar are aware of the battle. The recitation was merely for the audience’s convenience, perhaps because the writers assumed that even in the year 2020, we prefer context be spoon-fed to us and not conveyed dramatically.
To have a stilted young actor deliver dialogue as dry as this is boring enough, but to have one of the biggest stars in the country narrate what are essentially episode recaps, is pointless. I will not reveal whom Kabir Khan has cast to do this narration, but I will tell you this: It’s not Salman.
It’s quite obvious that Amazon spent good money on the show, but in a trend that is slowly becoming overwhelming clear, Indian filmmakers seem to equate scale with CGI. There isn’t a single computer-generated shot that can’t immediately be indentified for what it is. Instead of seamlessly blending into the background and servicing the story, the shoddy CGI draws attention to itself, thereby distracting from the emotional core of what is happening.
On one of the few occasions that Subhash Chandra Bose makes an appearance – despite being the founder of the INA, he mostly remains a background presence – he’s facing a sea of CGI soldiers, cloned with perhaps the same technology they used to animate crowds in FIFA video games, circa 2002.
For some strange reason that I can’t quite understand, Khan has shot the show with long lenses, inadvertently creating a metaphorical chasm between the audience and the characters, as if the literal one he’d already constructed with the writing wasn’t enough. The action set-pieces have little sense of geography, robbing them of urgency and cohesion. An early battle scene meant to evoke classic Hollywood war movies resembles a playground brawl more than anything else.
It remains to be seen if an undemanding crowd takes to the The Forgotten Army, but ask yourself this: can a show that is itself at risk of being forgotten be relied upon to shed light on a forgotten piece of history?