Written by Ram Venkat Srikar
The Forgotten Army has its creator’s signature all over it. And that doesn’t quite work in its favor. Kabir Khan brings on his documentary heritage to all of his feature films. Beginning with his debut, Kabul Express, followed by New York, Ek Tha Tiger, Bhajrangi Bhaijaan, Phantom, and his last release Tube light, all the films have war, and travel in common. Characters travelling in pursuit of something has been a key narrative tool. And The Forgotten Army is no different, and that’s where things go haywire.
The Forgotten Army just feels like yet another Bollywood movie minus the dance numbers, even though we get Arjit Singh singing the Aazadi Ke Liye, aiming to pump energy into us. But it’s not effective to the slightest. After a point, you can see the song coming from a mile. Responding to the beats placed by the filmmaker is different from predicting the beat and its frequency much in advance. The predictability victimizes what could have been a high-tension drama.
The problem begins right from its opening scene, the structure the writers chose to tell the story. In the very first scene, set in 1945, Surinder Soedhi (Sunny Kaushal), along with his fellow troops are brought as prisoners to the Laal Kila (Red Fort) in Delhi. It’s raining, and Surinder steps down from the vehicle. A guard asks another who they are. The response he gets basically explains the plot to us. That these men who were in the British-Indian army fighting the Japanese in Singapore, joined hands with the Japanese, and fought against the British for India’s freedom. It is supposed to build the curiosity of how the show is going to arrive at this point. When asked what will be done to them, the response is they will be hung for treason. It sets the stakes, you want to know will they survive or not. It’s semi-effective. It at the least had me curious for a few seconds.
The next scene, we have a 70-something Surinder landing in Singapore in 1996. Now, that kills whatever the little suspense the preceding sequence did. We know Surinder is alive and kicking, we know that he wasn’t hung at the Red Fort. Now the focus shifts from ‘will they’ to ‘how did they’. And that in the very first episode, killed the suspense, simultaneously killing the pleasure of watching it.
Like Surinder who sees glimpses of his past in Singapore, there are glimpses of what the show could have been. No doubt, there is patriotism, an idea of the country coated all over, but sadly, all of it is diluted in a Bollywood-ized treatement. On the plus side, there is an emphasis on the Rani Jhansi women’s regiment, which was the first time in the world, women fought alongside men. Yes, the path it takes to arrive at the point is suffocating and cringy. It’s a true-blue ‘falling in love’ narrative that occupies half of the runtime, serving as a stepping stone for Maya, an Indian born and bought up in Singapore to join the INA, so we can waste some more time.
After a semi-effective sequence where the Japanese attack the British-Indian army in the opening episode, things go nowhere. The political pressure, which played a significant role in the outcome of the attack, is merely reduced to one scene and is never discussed again. Not even referred. When British-Indian soldiers captured by the Japanese are declared Indian National Army (INA) to fight against the British to free India, there is slightest of resistance. And all is sorted within minutes. They do realize the fact that the INA has to now gone to war with the British-Indian army, which consists of Indians. They have to kill their own brothers, and there is barely any internal turmoil on the path they have been forced to choose. When the writers can spend chunks of pages building a love-story which makes no difference to the plot, why reduce the internal conflict which shapes these characters to three to four dialogues.
Coming again, it’s not the story that’s the issue, but the way Kabir Khan chose to tell the story that’s the most problematic aspect of the show. When the now older Surinder decides to go to Myanmar in 1996 amidst the internal conflicts in the country, we know what the screenplay is trying to do: drawing parallels between Surider’s past to the present. But it’s obviously shoved on the fact that you know what’s coming up. Again, predictability is the worst enemy of suspense. The stakes in the present are horribly low, even though the characters are in high-physical danger.
That brings me to the characters. Both sets of characters from the 1945 and 1996 sequences are mere caricatures with one-line descriptions. We travel with these characters for three and a half hours covering two points 50 years away from each other, yet, there is little what we get to know about them that goes beyond their description. Perhaps the screenplay bites more than what it can consume, but hey, you have bundles dedicated to a Surinder and Maya’s love-story which we apparently know isn’t going to have a happy ending. Having that helps no one apart from raising some contradictory questions.
When the INA’s train is attacked, there are casualties are high. Surinder only panics when he senses Maya might be dead. But when he finds her alive, there is a relief on his face. Isn’t a person lying dead not a concern when you are in the army? You are in the army and refer each other as brothers, right? Then why didn’t a person’s death be a big deal if the dead person is not your lover? The scene is morally and ethically wrong.
The character choices in the 1996 segment are soo poorly written that you start questioning the point of the whole story. Silly is the word to go with. No matter how well the war sequences are staged and shot, they cannot make up for the emotional investment.
The Forgotten Army is a barely effective war drama in search for a strong point it can stick to, and sadly, it never does.
The Forgotten Army streams on Amazon Prime Video.