How '1917' highlights erased contributions of Indian soldiers during WWI

“I wanted to reflect and acknowledge that it wasn’t just a war fought by white men,” director Sam Mendes has said.
A Sikh regiment in France during World War One
A Sikh regiment in France during World War One.Print Collector / Getty Images

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By Lakshmi Gandhi

With 10 nominations — including best picture, best director and best screenplay — the World War I epic "1917" has quickly become one of the favorites to win big at Sunday’s Oscars ceremony. And for many viewers of South Asian descent, the historical drama is also a chance to finally see the contributions of the Indian military members who fought in the Great War represented.

"1917" tells the story of two British soldiers, played by George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, as they are dispatched to deliver a critical message to a general about a planned attack that would send British troops across enemy lines. As the pair journey through the Western Front, they see several African and Indian soldiers from throughout the British Empire. One of the film’s most poignant moments comes when one of the soldiers meets a group of fellow service members that includes Sepoy Jondalar, played by Nabhaan Rizwan, a Sikh soldier serving in the Indian Army and they begin to talk about their shared experiences on the front.

Moments after "iZombie" and "Harley Quinn" actor Rahul Kohli saw the film in theaters, he tweeted his reaction to the scene. "I sat in the theater with tears in my eyes at the mere sight of a Sikh soldier. I knew representation mattered, I just didn’t know how much,”he wrote.

More than 1 million Indian soldiers served in World War I as part of the British India Army, and more than 74,000 died in the conflict. While much of the conversation around World War I today surrounds the service and sacrifices of British and other European soldiers, the contributions of the Indian, Caribbean and African soldiers who served in the war have largely been erased from the pop culture narratives created in the century since the war ended.

When reached by NBC News, Kohli, who was born and raised in England, said even he was taken aback by his intensely emotional reaction to the Sepoy Jondalar character. “The reason that it resonated so much was because of the lack of representation that came before it,” he said, adding that he never learned about that history as a teen. “There was a definite omission in the curriculum about the contributions during World War I and II by South Asians or any of the other British colonies.”

Part of the reason this chapter of history has been forgotten is because India gained independence from Britain in 1947, just a few years after World War II ended, and many aspects of colonial history were lost. Historians say those omissions are even more glaring once one realizes the full impact of India’s contributions to the war effort.

In 2015, historian Inderpal Dhanjal was one of the organizers behind the Sikh Museum Initiative’s “Legacy of Valour: Sikh Soldiers in World War I” exhibition, which drew from military records and personal stories and photos to highlight what organizers called the “forgotten history” of the war.

“As everyone knows, Great Britain declared war on Germany on Aug. 4, 1914,” Dhanjal explained. But a lack of available military personnel meant the British War Council requested help from India immediately. “Just a few weeks later, the first regiments of soldiers were dispatched to France.”

A legacy that extends far beyond World War I

Director Sam Mendes told Time Out London he was conscious of the need to represent soldiers from the British Empire in his film. “I wanted to reflect and acknowledge that it wasn’t just a war fought by white men,” he said.

For many Britons of South Asian descent, celebrating the impact of Indian soldiers in World War I also serves as another way to highlight how India has always been a part of British history. After actor Laurence Fox went viral for saying "1917" was "forcing diversity" onto audiences with its inclusion of a Sikh character, many viewers were outraged. Fox would later apologize for his remarks.

Scottish-Pakistani writer Amna Saleem said the controversy was indicative of just how whitewashed the narratives surrounding both World Wars are in the U.K. Saleem herself learned just a few years ago that her great-grandfather died fighting for the British during World War II.

“I remember I was talking about British history and I mentioned on Twitter that people were being really racist,” she told BBC. “I was moaning about it to my mum and she said, ‘Well, that’s funny because your great-grandfather died for this country, too, so I don’t know what they are talking about.’”

Saleem was stunned because she had never heard much about the South Asian soldiers who served. The story of the World Wars “is very much romanticized” in Britain, she said. “I think it should definitely be part of the curriculum,” she said.

Many educators note that teaching students of color about the contributions of the empire during the war would have a positive impact. “It's important that young students of all backgrounds learn about this because they need to be able to appreciate that this is called a 'world war' for a reason,” historian Priya Atwal wrote in an email to NBC News. “So many of our ancestors scattered around the globe were touched by this conflict in one way or another, and so we share in that legacy on many levels.”

The need for a story of their own

The Oscar-winning 1996 World War II drama “The English Patient” also featured a storyline about a Sikh soldier, but there has never been a Western film about either war with a South Asian main character.

Several creatives hope that will soon change. Kohli said that since seeing "1917," he’s been on what he calls a “personal journey” to learn more about the Indians who served. “Maybe it is time that we have a story that is centered on that,” he said.

Saleem has had similar feelings since learning her great-grandfather’s story. “I would love to see a film like that,” she said, adding that the stories of the African soldiers who served also needed to be told. “We keep seeing it from the white point of view, so I would love to see something with these brown and black soldiers.”