Kabir Khan On Making A Show About Patriotism In Modi's India

The 'Bajrangi Bhaijaan' filmmaker opens up about how populist narratives ought to be countered with nuanced and complex stories.
A file photo of filmmaker Kabir Khan.
A file photo of filmmaker Kabir Khan.

Kabir Khan, director of major Salman Khan films such as Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Ek Tha Tiger and more recently, Tubelight, has two big gigs this year: Amazon Prime Video’s new show, The Forgotten Army (on Subhash Chandra Bose’s Azad Hind Fauj), which drops this Sunday, and ’83, the story of India’s World Cup win featuring Ranveer Singh as Kapil Dev.

Over the years, Khan has cemented his position in the Hindi film industry as a mainstream director who is politically conscious. His films, he says, are an extension of his politics.

Writing in The Indian Express last month in the backdrop of the massive protests against the divisive Citizenship Amendment Act, he had said that he could “forgive a bad screenplay, but I can’t forgive bad politics”.

In this interview with HuffPost India, the director spoke about what it means to be an artist in times of Narendra Modi, the collective responsibility and why the jingoistic narrative ought to be countered.

Excerpts:

You’ve been speaking about ‘The Forgotten Army’ for a while and it’s clearly one of your passion projects.

After every film, this is a script that I’ve picked up. But what’s different now is that it’s also a marriage of the right platform and the subject. I’m glad I did it as an original series.

You mean the long-form storytelling format is more conducive to a project such as this?

Not just that. I also feel certain mainstream limitations of say, language,would’ve probably put a little constraint. The whole attempt to attain a certain pace in mainstream cinema would not help me put down the historical context correctly. In a long-form original series, I can do that. This is the format that needs to be used to tell the story in all its complexity.

How did you manage the time to shoot ’83 (the World Cup film with Ranveer Singh) and this? Were you shooting simultaneously?

No, I wasn’t. It looks like I was but it didn’t overlap. We had finished the shoot for Forgotten Army before we started the prep for ’83. But yes, there was one team working on ’83 while Forgotten Army was happening. Both these subjects demanded huge amounts of research. There was around one-and-a-half years of research on Forgotten Army and close to two years of research on ’83. I finished and edited Forgotten Army and then left for ’83. The reason why it took so much time was because of the VFX. These were two separate journeys but today it looks like an overlap.

’83 is being touted as one of the most awaited films of the year.

’83 is a great story. I don’t know what happens at the box office and all but it’s an amazing story. It’s—as a filmmaker, despite it being a true story—it’s the best story that I’ve ever read in my entire life.

Really? And I’m guessing you have a lot of behind the scenes...

Yeah, there are a lot of things that people do not know and I was shocked when I sat down with the 14 cricketers and took down their stories. I thought how could their stories not have been told for the last 35 years? It is unbelievable! It is the best underdog story that I’ve ever heard in my life. It’s about a bunch of boys who landed in London with every newspaper writing them off and saying these jokers should not even have been invited because they can’t achieve anything in One Day International. And those bunch of boys pulled each other up to go and win the World Cup.

I mean yeah, you cannot not root for them.

Yeah, absolutely. Because it’s cricket, it’s also an India story. Simply put, it’s a coming-of-age story of a country. Cricket is a medium through which you say the story. So it’s not only about those boys but also what’s happening to Indians around the world at that point in time and that adds another layer to it.

Given the current context, you’re dabbling into a territory that has been tarnished by the jingoistic narrative that has taken over. We’ve seen a slew of mainstream films that depict Muslims as barbaric demons. My question is: how tricky is it to depict patriotism without fetishising it or blindly demonising the other side?

To show someone’s patriotism, you don’t need to show a counterpoint or the enemy to be particularly evil. You don’t. Forgotten Army doesn’t do that, it shows true beautiful patriots without demonising anybody because at the end of the day everybody is human, this side and that side.

In Forgotten Army, there are a lot of dilemmas. What are they fighting and who are they fighting? They’re fighting their fellow Indians too. All that is discussed and spoken about in the series. But there’s a different ethos to it and that’s the difference between patriotism and nationalism. That’s the subtle sense that Forgotten Army has.

And you’re right, I have been uncomfortable with certain narratives in history where there’s an attempt to dehumanise Muslims or Mughals. Now, it’s a historical fact that a lot of Muslims invaded India but that had nothing to do with religion. It only had to do with territory. In the medieval times, if there was any king strong enough to go and occupy another kingdom, he would go and do it. So when Babur comes in to invade India, who does he find? Ibrahim Lodi. He doesn’t say that ‘oh this is my Muslim brother, let me not fight him’ or ‘I’ll leave him and fight a Hindu Rajput’. No, he wanted Delhi and Ibrahim Lodi had Delhi so he went for him. And who did Lodi take it from? From the Tughlaqs! So it’s never been about religion. Today all the battles are being presented in a binary—as if they were between Hindus and Muslims which is so unfair. It’s unfair to history and unfair to the people it’s being presented to.

Yes, and it works because it’s an easier, narrative to believe, falls into the ideological canon of the current dispensation and contributes to the othering of Muslims.

Yeah absolutely. Even the attempt of renaming the roads that were named after Mughal emperors completely negates any role that the Mughals played in nation building. I mean, really? All the history we read about Mughals in nation building was all false?

As a filmmaker, as someone who is right in the middle of the culture, how do you counter that narrative which is so powerful and in some cases, state-sanctioned? This is a very specific ideological project that has the most sophisticated apparatus advancing its cause.

You just have to keep putting the counter-narrative and you have to keep doing it. If you give that up then you’re letting them win. You have to keep pushing it harder. All of us who feel that a wrong narrative is being spun, they need to stand up and put forward a counter-narrative. We have to fight the wrong information.

Propaganda, let’s call it what it really is.

Yeah, propaganda.

But tell me something, when you see back-to-back films that are well, essentially, government pamphlets masquerading as movies, do you feel something more conscious at play? What’s your reading of it? Is it systematic?

I wouldn’t know if there is a systematic process to it. Once a narrative catches on, people feel emboldened to repeat it and feel that that’s the right narrative to repeat because it will be more popular with the people. I think that’s what happened. Whether it’s been backed or organised in a certain way, I don’t know

But it’s sad that the atmosphere is such that people are beginning to believe such narratives. People are compelled to bring out such narratives and feel like this works. Therefore, people who have another point of view, all we have to do is keep putting the counter-narrative to offset that.

If I want to present Forgotten Army with my politics, I need to push it out. If I want to present ’83 with my narrative, I have to push it out. Anything that I push out which reflects my politics will probably counter the politics that I don’t agree with.

It’s also about popularity. If it’s a more popular narrative, then more and more people will join it. That’s what it happening.

Do you believe that the majority is silently consenting to this idea? After several filmmakers and actors joined the protest against the attacks at JNU, allegedly by ABVP, there were people trolling them. I mean what are they calling out here exactly? Even if you leave CAA-NRC, it’s about armed goons attacking university students and that’s like, you know, wrong.

Absolutely. I am an optimist, I would always like to believe that the majority does not silently consent. I don’t think any right-minded Indian can agree with goons with masks going into a premium university of our country and attacking and violently beating up students. No right-minded Indian will agree. I will be shocked if anyone can say that I am proud of this as an Indian. I don’t think they can do that. I would hate to see the day that it happens. I don’t think that they can in any way agree with what is happening with these universities. I’m not saying that I’m naive. I’m not saying that there are no prejudices in society. Prejudices are being fed and nurtured but I would not like to believe that the majority agrees with this.

In The Indian Express, you wrote that you feel conscious about your religious identity, which kind of also hints at how broken the system is. You shouldn’t be made to realise where you come from. Would you say that your ideology percolates into your work and cinema?

Yeah, of course it will. Even if you’re making a historical film, it’s always going to be relevant to the contemporary times. There will be a political statement. Even in the trailer you can see that. Maya’s character in the show says that it doesn’t matter which caste, race, culture or religion you’re from. As long as you’re Indian, you can join the Azad Hind Fauj. Nobody’s going to ask you how much of an Indian you are to fight. If you believe you’re Indian, you will stand up for your country and fight.

There’s no loyalty test.

Exactly! Why should there be?

They’re institutionalising it.

Yeah absolutely.

In that context, I think the show’s politics is very relevant.

It is absolutely relevant to the current times.

Help me understand if I’m not on the right thought here but today, when we talk of rebellion or revolution we look at it through the prism of the Gandhian ideology of non-violence. The story you’re telling—about Bose—is about an armed revolution. How do you negotiate a line where you are able to portray the account without justifying violence as a means of protest, which could easily be appropriated by the Right?

We’re living in a time where everything seems to be black and white. It’s like if you’re taking this point of view then it’s contrary to that. It’s not. In no way does Forgotten Army take away from what Gandhi and Nehru have achieved for this country. It is just telling you another aspect of the freedom struggle which is the reason why I’m making this is. You can judge them, you can always say that it was the wrong approach, you can always say that this isn’t the way India wanted independence but at least get to know what they did.

Don’t sit without knowing what they did. It’s not necessary that it’s always contrary to something, it is not at all a binary. I’ve seen that the Azad Hind Fauj and Netaji were getting appropriated by the right wing also and being presented as counter Nehru. I’d like to put out a point. The two largest brigades in Bose’s army—there were 5 in all—the two largest ones were called the Gandhi brigade and the Nehru brigade.

Ideological difference does not mean that there was personal enmity there. Today’s politicians don’t understand that there could be an ethos where you are ideologically different. Who was the gentleman who fought the red foot trials on behalf of the Azad Hind Fauj? It was Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and his father Motilal Nehru. Despite the fact that he publicly said that he doesn’t believe in the armed struggle. These are the nuances that get lost. In the first military review of the Azad Hind Fauj where Netaji took the salute, standing with General Tocho of Japan with 30,000 soldiers standing, there is only one portrait hanging above their heads. It’s Mahatma Gandhi. These are the nuances that get thrown away because they want to present it as per their agendas—as if it was Nehru vs Patel.

Finally, I know you don’t speak on behalf of the industry—

Because the industry is comprised of so many different people and ideologies. How can I speak for so many?

Of course not but don’t you think that maybe now it’s time? Because it’s become impossible to look away. History is going to judge every artist, painter, writer, comedian, lawyer, journalist who are bearing witness to this moment in time. Could there be a certain sort of communion or people coming together in a more organised way? I understand individual fears, I understand why the Khans won’t speak but if the industry shows collective support, how many theatres are they going to vandalise?

I think that’s already happening. Maybe not happening in an organised way of putting it together but it is happening. You’ve seen that, even last night, a large number of people in the industry came out. I didn’t even know about it, I got to know a few hours later when I was stuck somewhere and couldn’t make it. But it happened right? It is already happening and like they say, courage, like fear is contagious. You know one speaks, the second will speak and then more will speak and that’s what is happening.

I don’t think it needs to be done with a strategy or in an organised way, I think organically is the best way. You will see, I know so many people who wanted to stop everything and drive down to Gateway of India and sit with those students. If I was free, I would’ve gone. And that’s going to happen. That’s how it should happen, that’s the only way it will sustain. If you try to organise and match people’s schedules to come for a meeting to protest, it won’t happen. People need to feel it from within. I am not a political activist. There are people speaking today that didn’t speak ten days ago. Something must’ve happened in these ten days. They must’ve seen someone speaking up and thought ‘hey, I feel the same way’.

What are your conversations like with your other famous friends?

I’ve spoken to a lot of people who probably have publicly not expressed their positions and they’re deeply disturbed.

Is there fear?

There must be, I’ve not questioned them because it’s incorrect of me to question them. I’m no one to judge them for that, whatever their reasons are. It’s also a sad reflection of the times we’re living in. Where is the fierce independent media that will protect you? It’s not there. Where is the civil society that will come outside your house and protect you when their effigies are being burnt? Where is it? If we cannot go to protect them then we cannot go and push them to speak up. We should do what we feel is comfortable for us. I feel I want to speak up, so I will. I don’t want to rub it in anyone’s face.

I don’t think it’s an unfair expectation.

It’s not! I would love it if everybody spoke up but I feel it’s unfair to keep pushing them. It has to come from within and it might.

I agree with you but then maybe also don’t click those selfies. You can’t say I am apolitical and then hang with the man.

We don’t know what compelled them to do that. Their silence is also a reflection of what made them click those selfies. How do we know? We are assuming that everyone in that frame went happily, maybe they didn’t.

Some grudgingly, some happily, who knows.

Yeah, we should not start making this into ‘hey you’re not standing up and being accounted for’ and I think that’s unfair. Leave them, give them their space, let them think it through and be comfortable and they will come out. If the right to speak is your democratic right then the right to remain silent is also your democratic right. Let’s not push it. I think it becomes counterproductive. People have to come out and speak when they’re comfortable.