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August 1, 1998


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The Rediff Interview/Kabir Khan

'Netaji was like a god'

Amberish K Diwanji in Delhi

The Forgotten Army is an attempt to tell a story not yet told. Fifty one years of Independence, and few know about those brave men and women who joined the Indian National Army and heeding the brave words of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose -- Chalo Dilli (Head for Delhi) -- took on the might of the British empire.

Oddly enough, this 105 minute television documentary (broken into five episodes) did not start out as such. For Kabir Khan, the creator of this saga, it all began one day in 1994 on the sets of the film, Beyond the Himalayas, which followed the Great Silk Route from Bukhara, through China, to Mongolia. “I thought of making a similar travelogue, tracing the famous march of the INA from Singapore up to Imphal.”

But destiny had other plans. Khan began researching, only to discover that there was precious little available on the INA, either by way of history or literature. And the Netaji Research Bureau in Calcutta, manned by Dr Sisir Bose, Netaji's nephew, turned out to be rather unhelpful, dismissing Khan and his queries when he first approached them in 1996.

Khan then turned to the survivors of the INA, the well-known Colonel Lakshmi Sehgal, and the media-shy Colonel Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon. The latter, incidentally, was one of the three (the other two being Shah Nawaz Khan and Prem Kumar Sehgal) who were tried by the British in the famous Red Fort trial in 1946, a case that shook India and even united the bitterly warring Congress and Muslim League.

With Colonel Dhillon and Colonel Lakshmi by his side, Khan realised he had a golden opportunity to recapture the saga of an army that India has forgotten and Indian history, under Nehruvian policies, has ignored. “The film is not about Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, though, of course, he is mentioned in the film,” stressed Khan, “It is the story of the INA, of its formation and its march through Burma right up to the eastern edge of India.” The film is shot through the eyes of Colonels Dhillon and Lakshmi, the seniormost survivors of the INA.

According to Khan, the entire shooting was an unforgettable experience, and especially for Colonels Dhillon and Lakshmi. “There were times when I’d get goose pimples, so you can imagine what it must have been for those two and the other INA veterans who joined us during the shooting,” he recalls. Both Colonels Dhillon and Lakshmi were returning to Burma after 50 years, journeying into a misty past full of glory and honour.

What made the shoot even more poignant is the fact that much of Burma seems to be caught in a time warp, with little having changed from the 1940s when the INA headed for Delhi. “There would be moments when Colonels Dhillon or Lakshmi, or some of the others INA veterans would see a hut or a particular road, their misty memories would clear and they recall having seen it way back then,” said Khan. “For most of the time, they were literally in a trance, remembering details and the experiences that they had. It was truly fantastic!”

The favourite episode (which is also in the film) is the part concerning the 86-year-old Dr Montu Bannerjee, who was the medical supply officer and a close associate of Netaji. Dr Bannerjee had lost touch with the rest, choosing to stay back in Mamyo, a hill town in north Burma (near India). Incidentally, the INA leadership shifted their headquarters from Rangoon to Mamyo when the INA troops neared the Indian border.

Recalls Khan, “We were in Mamyo in 1996 when this old man suddenly walks up to our unit, holds Colonel Lakshmi in his hands, and exclaims: ‘Oh Lakshmi! The most beautiful woman in the world!’ Dr Bannerjee had heard about the unit’s presence and come to meet them. It was a touching moment for everyone present.

“Then Colonel Lakshmi remembered that Dr Montu used to play the harmonica quite well. And to the unit’s utter joy, Dr Montu took out a harmonica from his pocket and began playing the Quami Tarana (Kadam kadam badaye jaa, khushi ke geet gaye jaa) which had been chosen as the national anthem by Bose,” added Khan. Dr Bannerjee, unfortunately, died last year.

Khan’s crew was the first television or film unit allowed into Burma. “Before us, BBC, Channel 4, and umpteen others were not allowed inside Burma. So we were lucky to be allowed because we were able to capture authentic shots,” he says. Yet it was not smooth sailing. The unit was placed under house arrest for 14 days in Mamyo, but later allowed to shoot unhindered.

The unit set out to recreate the long march beginning from Singapore. Few people know that the INA was established a year before Netaji entered the picture in 1942. It was set up at the behest of Mohan Singh, an Indian serving in the British Indian Army who had been captured by the Japanese. “Netaji then was still in India, though later he would escape to Germany,” said Khan, “and from Germany, he would fly down to Singapore to take charge of the INA.”

On February 15, 1941, the 90,000-strong British army in Singapore surrendered to a Japanese army just 30,000 strong. Among the captured British army were about 50,000 Indian troops, who were separated and taken to Ferrar Park, a huge ground where football matches are held. This became the first gathering of the INA, commanded by Mohan Singh, who had been captured by the Japanese earlier.

Is there any memorial at Ferrar Park? “None,” said Khan, “there is only one memorial in Singapore at Pedang (which means an open ground in the Malaysian language).”

Pedang is the same place where the Singer Cup cricket matches were held recently. There was originally a huge memorial at Pedang, but when Singapore was recaptured by the British under Louis Mountbatten, it was blown up. “Much after Independence, at Nehru’s request during a visit to Singapore, another small memorial, the size of a desk, was built,” says Khan.

'The INA had no illusions about capturing Delhi with just 50,000 badly equipped men against the mighty British'

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