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Alumna Stars as World War II Heroine
Grace Srinivasan, B.A. '13, plays lead role in film to premiere at Warner Theatre on Feb. 15.
February 12, 2014
By Julyssa Lopez
When people think of World War II heroes, many might not recall Noor Inayat Khan, a Muslim woman in her late 20s who gave her life serving as a British secret agent. She epitomized courage by tackling one of the most dangerous jobs a woman could have as a wireless radio operator in Paris. When her entire operation was compromised, Ms. Khan was one of the last people in her unit left—but she refused to back down and continued gathering information on the Nazi regime until she was ultimately caught and executed in a concentration camp.
Although she didn’t know much about the radio operator’s short but heroic life, Grace Srinivasan, B.A. ’13, drove to Baltimore last summer to audition for the role of Ms. Khan in a dramatized documentary. Once she’d done more research on Ms. Khan’s bravery, she knew she wanted the part.
“She was unbelievable. She was only in her 20s and by all accounts, she’s this beautiful Indian woman who couldn’t exactly blend in, but she kept radioing for as long as she could,” Ms. Srinivasan said. “It’s this fascinating story no one knows, and one that definitely needed to be told.”
Warner Theatre will be doing just that on Saturday when it premieres “Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Story.” The 60-minute “docudrama” tells the heroine’s story through narration by Academy Award-winning actress Helen Mirren, interviews with experts and dramatized reenactments starring Ms. Srinivasan.
The film team dressed Baltimore up to look like Paris for the 11-day shoot. Ms. Srinivasan, who describes herself as reserved and a little shy, had recently graduated and had never made a film before. Much of her acting experience had been onstage in high school and at GW, where she performed in an opera and as part of the ensemble cast in “Sweeney Todd.” She was at first nervous about all the cameras and people constantly fixing her hair and makeup. Although she was treading new ground as an actress, she was committed to portraying Ms. Khan as accurately as possible.
“You don’t normally hear stories about women in World War II, and not only was she a woman, she was a woman who looked like me,” Ms. Srinivasan said.
Just like Ms. Srinivasan, Ms. Khan was born to an Indian father and an American mother. Her father was a spiritual Sufi leader who opened an Islamic center in the heart of Paris, where intellectuals convened to discuss religion and philosophy. Ms. Khan grew up a creative, dreamy child, surrounded by brilliant minds and heavily influenced by her father’s peaceful nature. He died when she was about 11, and she took on the role of caretaker for her despondent mother and sister.
At the outbreak of World War II, Ms. Khan was living in London. She was jolted by the violence that surrounded her and constantly drew on her father’s lessons of peace and acceptance before deciding she had to take more drastic action.
“Contrary of what you would think of an ethereal girl coming face to face with this war, she didn’t shy away from it. She felt it was her duty to step up, so she buckled down and became a radio operator,” Ms. Srinivasan said. “Even when she was caught, she never gave the Nazis any information.”
Ms. Srinivasan said that while the film vividly depicts Ms. Khan’s story, it is a documentary at its core. Historians contextualize the war and two of Ms. Khan’s nephews are featured prominently—including one who has become a Sufi leader, similar to Ms. Khan’s father, and enlightens the audience by talking about the spiritual teachings Ms. Khan learned as a girl.
“You get all the information that goes along with this beautifully shot, movie-like reenactment portion of the film. It balances well without being overwhelming, which makes it watchable,” Ms. Srinivasan said.
Support for Ms. Srinivasan’s work in the film has abounded, and she said she’s received especially enthusiastic praise from the George Washington University’s Department of Music Chair Douglas Boyce and Professor of Music Robert Baker.
“I’ve graduated from GW but I’m around a lot, and I talked to Dr. Boyce and Dr. Baker about the project. They were really excited—everyone has been really supportive and wants to brag about me, which makes me want to blush and hide my face, but it’s also incredibly sweet,” said the music major.
The burgeoning actress still hasn’t seen a final cut of the film, but looks forward to watching it with friends and family at Warner Theatre and reliving her first movie-making experience.
“I loved every minute of it. It still seems like a fantasy, but if the opportunity to make another film came up, I would definitely go for it,” she said.
Tickets for the Warner Theatre premiere of the film can be purchased here.