Freida Pinto a perfect fit to play World War II secret agent Noor Inayat Khan: Author Shrabani Basu

London - The writer hopes the new television adaptation of 'Spy Princess', her book about a British-Indian secret agent from World War II will inspire people in these tough times


Enid Grace Parker

Published: Sun 31 Jan 2021, 11:06 AM

Last updated: Fri 5 Feb 2021, 10:21 AM

Even on a cold and windy day in locked-down London, author and journalist Shrabani Basu has good reason to be cheery. Her novel Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan, is finally getting the Hollywood treatment: Slumdog Millionaire actress Freida Pinto is all set to star in and executive produce a limited series based on the story of a woman of royal Indian descent who became a British secret agent for SOE (Special Operations Executive) during World War II.

Noor Inayat Khan (Photo/Supplied)
Noor Inayat Khan (Photo/Supplied)

Shrabani’s book, first published in 2006, has been described as “the definitive biography of Noor’s life” and Pinto commented that Noor was “a fierce and amazing woman, the most unlikely heroine of World War II.”

In a Zoom conversation with Khaleej Times, Shrabani - who will be a consultant on the new series - reveals what first inspired her fascination with Noor’s story and why she decided to devote a book to the Moscow-born war heroine who was one of only three women SOE agents ever awarded the George Cross; she died in the Dachau concentration camp in 1944 after being captured by the Germans.

“It’s been a long journey that first started almost 20 years ago. It was the fiftieth anniversary of VE Day (Victory over Europe Day) and there were some articles about Indian contribution in the Second World War. There was a big spread about the Indians - and I saw a tiny photograph of Noor in her Air Force uniform with her hat, and a little smile. It just had a little caption and I was intrigued. I wanted to know more - how was this Indian woman in the heart of the war in Europe? That’s what started me off really.”

Shrabani, who was born in Kolkata and has been residing in London for over three decades, draws on her love for history and the shared history of Britain and India for her literary works, which include Curry: The Story of The Nation’s Favourite Dish, and Victoria & Abdul which was made into a major feature film in 2017 with actors Ali Fazal and Judi Dench.

How does she feel about Freida Pinto, who is well-known to audiences from both the West and the subcontinent, taking on the role of Noor? “She’s someone who can do a lot of roles - we’ve seen her in serious roles like Trishna, where she’s playing a really sensitive character, and she can do comedy as well. So I think she’s a perfect fit - she’s a very good actor, that’s what matters.”

Shrabani says “it’s a good thing” the multi-layered story of Noor’s life is being told through the medium of a limited series. “A television series gives you space to really explore the story. I think the format is a great advantage because Noor’s story is not just a war story. There are so many layers, so many aspects - her background, what she does in the war, her family life, the sufism (Noor’s father was a Sufi preacher). There’s just so much to explore here. So I think it will really work well.”

Would it have worked well as a feature film, like Victoria & Abdul did?

“It would be beautiful as a feature film too but since it has gone into television and television is something that goes into people’s houses there is a huge advantage, and one has to exploit the medium that is so much in demand right now.”

Shrabani believes in times like the present heroes are needed more than ever and Noor Inayat Khan’s story will inspire people. “Watch the series because it’s about an extraordinarily brave woman. Noor’s story is full of events, there’s also a thriller element because she’s a secret agent; it ends in tragedy, but it is very inspiring. I’ve lived with this story now for 14 years. I’ve campaigned for a memorial for her which we have in London, unveiled by Princess Anne. I campaigned for a blue plaque which they invited me to unveil last year. She’s been with me for a long time and people I’ve met have been inspired by Noor’s story. So I think those who don’t know her story, well of course, read the book, and look out for the series after that. Noor will touch you, that’s guaranteed.”

Shrabani has been keeping busy during the lockdown covering the pandemic and working on her new book, The Mystery of the Parsee Lawyer, though as a journalist she misses “going out all the time.”

“Social life is out, has been for months now. So you do get more time to write. I finished my book, did the final edits under lockdown. The situation is something you just have to get used to. It’s very frustrating especially now that we are in our third lockdown; it’s really hard, especially not meeting friends or doing the small things you enjoy doing. But you just have to keep up with it and get on with life and wait for the vaccine. I can’t say I have ever waited so eagerly to be jabbed!”

We’re looking forward to Shrabani’s latest book, described by an early reviewer as “punctiliously researched history”. Scheduled to release in March, it presents an intriguing tale of Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle and the only case he ever investigated in real life - that of a foreigner in an English village. She calls it “non-fiction, history, and a little bit of mystery”.

“It’s about a historical figure (George Edalji) with links to India and Britain, Arthur Conan Doyle, and a case that happened in England; it’s the only one that Doyle investigates himself. So he puts on the hat of Sherlock Holmes and he gets into this story and well, it happens to be an Indian whose case he is investigating! Who doesn’t love a mystery? I do, I’m a great Sherlock Holmes fan!”

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