How World War II Brought India & Poland Together: An Interview with Filmmaker Anu Radha
During World War II, thousands of Poles fled their country and sought refuge around the world. One of the first countries to help was India, starting with the so-called ‘Good Maharaja’ Jam Saheb, who took in many Polish orphans. Now a feature film is in the works to concentrate on another story from this dramatic period of history.
Over the last few years, the Indian producer-director Anu Radha has been working on telling the world the stories of Polish WWII refugees in India. In 2014, she was even awarded the Bene Merito by Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs for her work promoting awareness of the country abroad.
She recently visited Poland yet again, giving Culture.pl an opportunity to talk to her about her latest intriguing project: a feature film with the working title A Home Away.
Marek Kępa: I attended the Jam Saheb high school in Warsaw and am very pleased to be speaking with someone who’s done so much to bring his noble deeds to the world’s attention. I’m guessing you know there’s a square in Warsaw called Good Maharaja Square, named in honour of him?
Anu Radha: Of course I know, I filmed it. Jam Saheb has also been awarded with Poland’s highest order, the President’s medal. He was always very passionate about education, so Poland has done him a great honour by naming a school after him too.
A couple of years back you made a documentary film about Polish war refugees in India called A Little Poland in India, where you show how Jam Saheb helped out Polish children during World War II. What made you take an interest in this topic?
It’s a very interesting, universal story, a piece of history connected to Poland. It’s all over the Internet, you get 500 odd links if you just type in ‘Polish refugees in India’ into your search engine. It’s important like Mahatma Ghandhi’s struggle for India’s independence. The subject itself was shared in a conversation I had with the former Ambassador of India to Poland. She mentioned to me: ‘Why don’t you do this interesting story about an Indian Maharaja protecting Polish children?’
I went online and I saw all the materials. Later I approached the Polish Embassy in New Delhi, which led me to a book entitled Poles in India 1942-1948 (published both in Polish and in English). This book relates the whole story, the background, the history of how Polish exiles to Siberia found refuge and protection in India. Not only with Jam Saheb, but also in Valivade, the second camp, a much larger one than the Maharaja’s.
For how long were the Polish refugees in Valivade?
From 1943 to 1948. After that, they moved when the International Red Cross and Polish Red Cross found their relatives across the world, including Poland. Depending on where the family was found, they would go there. Some went to the UK, some went back to Poland. Nobody could remain in India because India gained independence and at that point in time foreigners had to leave.
A Little Poland in India premiered in 2013, 4 years ago - why do you now return to the topic of Polish refugees in India by making a film about a different part of the story, the Poles in Valivade?
Actually I didn’t decide on this lately. The Valivade story was already being discussed at the time of the first film’s premiere when I proposed to make a feature film based on it. I just feel that Jam Saheb began a journey and it’s up to us to complete it, to provide closure.
Over the last four years, we’ve done a lot of work in this direction. The Polish Institute in New Delhi and the Polish Ministry of War Veterans have funded and supported its main part: research and documentation. I visited survivors of Valivade in Poland and London, interviews with them are on Youtube and on my website. We have also put records online about Polish survivors in India, researched by me from the National Archives of India in New Delhi. After all this was done, we started the actual feature film process itself and now we’ve come to explore possibilities here in Poland.
Why a feature movie this time, not a documentary?
I think now the story needs to be told to the world. And the world needs to see the story in a feature film format, which is more interesting and has a wider reach with a larger canvas. As a filmmaker, I feel that is what the scope of this project should be.
The film is meant to tell a forbidden love story between a Polish refugee Wanda Nowicka and an Indian student named Vasant Kashikar, both real-life characters. Will the film show the culture clashes that caused this love story to be forbidden? For example, Vasant’s parents were pure vegetarian Brahmin and Wanda was, as their son Ashok put it in an interview, ‘a meat-eating white woman not from India’.
Wanda passed away just a few months after I met her. She was over 80. Due to that, much of my research of Wanda’s and Vasant’s story was done through the eyes of their son Ashok Kashikar. But nevertheless, she still appears at the end of the interview with him.
The cultural clashes, however, may not be there between the two partners. Ashok told me that they celebrated all festivals, that their children never asked their mother why was she white and why was she from another country or why she left it. She didn’t go back to Poland. She stayed back while her sister who had also been in Valivade returned. So everybody went back to their siblings or parents, but Wanda stayed and married Vasant. Indeed, she was ousted by Vasant’s parents because they were pure Brahmins.
But the thing is, that between the two of them, they actually brought their cultures together. Instead of separating, they merged the best of both cultures into one. And that’s the information we would like to share in the feature film. Which by the way will be not only about Vasant and Wanda. It’ll also tell the story of a young boy Andrzej Chendyński who comes of age. That’s an important character.
You’re making a film with a wide reach as you say, so it has to hit certain notes so that people can relate to it. How much will you need to fictionalise, embellish? A few years ago, there was Polish war film about the Battle of Warsaw in 1920, a very important part of European history, but the love story that makes up the majority of the film turned out distracting, and it didn’t really connect to the history…
We’re not going to show the love story in a way that will distract. It’s not this rosy tale of a white girl marrying a Brahmin boy, that’s over and done with, it’s an overrated topic. When I say ‘forbidden love story’ the point is ‘love between people from different countries’. We are going to show the merging of cultures through these characters. Also, the character of Andrzej Chendyński will play an important role in the film. He comes of age and then he fits in with the love story.
We also want to focus on what happens to people of different ages when they are removed from their roots. So it’s a different thing, our main focus is to show the partnership of pain and love, human emotions which, like I said, connect all of us. Not pain caused by love, but the pain of war. And love, compassion, the largeness of hearts. That is what is important in the film. Yes, a bit of history will be shown to introduce the story. But the idea is to show the cultural strength of human beings that binds them. And to make it lively, happy.
And Andrzej is also a real-life character, presently the President of the Association of Poles in India…
An association made by the survivors who lived in India. The survivors formed an association and meet every two years at a reunion where they share their Indian stories.
The film will tell about him befriending a local boy.
Yes, they go to the local pond and Andrzej learns how to swim with him, although the village boy already knows how to swim very well and doesn’t need to learn how to do that! Andrzej on the other hand takes him to watch an English film, even though neither the local Indian boy nor Andrzej know English [laughs].
To the cinema in Valivade, the one the refugees built?
Yes, it was actually a whole village, they had a cinema. The school is still standing. You can see the pictures on my website.
You’ve been to Poland many times. For a person like you, from a beautiful, faraway land, what are your impressions when you come over here?
I love Poland and this is not just a clichéd statement. I’ve been not only to Warsaw but also to Hel on the Baltic Sea, Zakopane and other places. And I found a lot of cultural similarities to India when I was filming the survivors. Their cultural system is so similar to the Indian one. I’ve travelled far and wide. When you go to the West, there is this kind of cultural divide you feel. But it’s not so in Poland. It’s not so with Polish people. Maybe it’s because both our countries suffered from war, different kinds of it, but nevertheless. We had non-violence with Mahatma Gandhi – that’s a silent, internal war. You’ve suffered from external war.
I think that pain and love are two things that universally connect mankind. A strong similarity is your saying ‘Guest in the house, God in the house’ and our saying ‘Atithi Devo Bhava’, which means ‘Guest is God’ in Sanskrit. Your family system, the strong bonds within the family are the same as in our culture. So I think we have a lot in common and that’s why I don’t feel like I’m away from home when I’m here. Since I come over so much, I know every corner of Warsaw and I just love it.
When do you think there is a chance we’ll see the movie, when will the feature premiere?
Actually you can already see the premise of the film on Youtube. This is a compilation of archival materials, a documentary film and interviews with survivors, called Jindobrey India.
It was made in collaboration with Doordashan, India’s state TV channel. Also, on my website you can find interviews with Indian survivors who used to train the Polish children in scouting or would come into the camp and sell goods. They had very interesting anecdotes, some of which we’d like to use for the film. All of this is in the public domain. So if anybody wants to see what the story behind the feature film is, they can do that. The feature film makes it into a larger canvas, that’s what it will do. When? Well I that ask myself… Hopefully soon.
Interview conducted 25th April by Marek Kępa, assisted by AZ, April 2017