TELEVISION REVIEW:  The Forgotten Army

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writers: Kabir Khan, Heeraz Marfatia and Shubhra Marfatia

Director: Kabir Khan

‘My enemy’s enemy is my friend,’ it is an old war adage but one that proves remarkably long-lasting in the complex experience of international combat where new alliances can form in the most unexpected ways. The subject of an enjoyable new Amazon Prime series entitled The Forgotten Army, the formation of the Indian National Army (NIA) in the middle of World War II was instigated by the Japanese after they defeated British Empire forces in Singapore and captured Indian soldiers were offered the chance and the resources to fight for India’s independence.

A still controversial step on the path to the British withdrawal from India, the wartime activities of the NIA remain largely uncelebrated in the country they hoped to liberate – hence the “forgotten army” title. Across five episodes, director Kabir Khan working with co-writers Heeraz Marfatia and Shubhra Marfatia seek, quite successfully, to restore the NIA’s reputation, charting the bravery, humanity and military credentials of its male and female fighting units. Compellingly told, this series takes the viewer on a fascinating journey through the socio-political and emotional experience of a little-known aspect of the 1939-1945 conflict.

A loyal and gentle Captain in the British Indian Army, Sodhi and best friend Arshad are captured during the Battle of Singapore and offered the chance to fight against their former comrades for a far bigger prize. Initially reluctant, renewed patriotism convinces Sodhi just as his heart is won by local photographer and firebrand Maya who soon joins the female unit as training and strategic planning lead them to a vital battle. Meanwhile in 1996, a much older Sodhi agrees to help his great nephew – also an aspiring photojournalist – to cover the protests in Burma where danger and painful memories lurk around every corner.

With episodes lasting around 35-minutes, and a finale of 45-minutes, a huge amount of information is compressed into The Forgotten Army, yet the war sections never feel lightweight or overly difficult to follow, in fact the narrative clarity of Khan, Marfatia and Marfatia’s storytelling will make you want to bingewatch multiple episodes, an impressive achievement for a combat-based series. And it is the quality of the battle sequences which richly convey the complex experience of war in a tropical environment where fighting the elements becomes as challenging as facing the enemy.

Aseem Mishra’s cinematography is particularly rewarding on a show designed for the small screen that also intersperses archival footage often exactly mirrored by the actors in the recreation of place and style. And with most episodes containing some form of enemy engagement, the variety of these sequences is especially impressive. The Singapore attack in Episode 1, a train explosion and first advance in Episode 4 and the final confrontation in a shell-battered town are outstandingly staged, while the effects of boredom, wounds and horrific disease are not overlooked, creating a surprisingly complete understanding of an army at war in what amounts to little more than two and a half hours of television.

But central to viewer engagement is the classic romance that develops between Sunny Kaushal’s Sodhi and Sharvari Wagh’s Maya, playfully introduced in the early days of the NIA’s formation but quickly becoming a will-they-won’t-they love affair that is full of heart. Sodhi’s relationship with his comrades, especially joker Arshad (Rohit Chaudhary) feels equally multidimensional, and it is both historically and artistically satisfying to see the experience of female soldiers so well represented, showing not only the terrible consequences of living under occupation for women especially but ensuring that the female characters have agency in their role to shape and determine their future.

The Forgotten Army is not perfect, however, and the Burmese sections add little to the overall narrative other than creating a spurious reason for veteran Sodhi (a nonetheless excellent M.K. Raina) to return to the battlegrounds of his youth. The audience learns very little about the Burmese campaign in the 1990s, other than a sense of how frequently wars are fought over the same patches of land, while the rather cheesy family sections in the first two episodes feel far too soapy in comparison to the much stronger construction of the wartime era – although even they suffer slightly in wide-shot from the use of poor computer-replication to create a scaling panorama.

We are told that over 25,000 men died fighting in the NIA with many more imprisoned for their part in fighting against the British army. But if American movies have taught you that the Second World War was a Europe-based fight of good versus evil, then Khan’s show has much to say about the complicated experience of Colonial rule and the opportunity to fight for national freedom. A fine achievement, romantic it may be but never simplistic, the decision to join forces with the enemy was not an easy one for the men of The Forgotten Army, and this enjoyable series takes you every step of the way.

Available to Stream from 24 January 2020 on Amazon Prime

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