Spy Princess is based on Noor Inayat Khan, killed in France while working as a British spy in second world war
Noor Inayat Khan, the daughter of a Sufi mystic, was captured by the Gestapo and executed in Dachau in 1944. Photograph: Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC)/PA
The Guardian- Dalya Alberge
The story of the daughter of an Indian Sufi mystic, who was killed while a British secret agent fighting with the French resistance in the second world war, is to be told in a TV drama series.
Noor Inayat Khan, who was captured by the Gestapo and executed in Dachau concentration camp, will be portrayed by Freida Pinto, star of the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire.
The series, Spy Princess, is described as an emotional thriller. It will be directed by Anand Tucker and produced by Andy Paterson, known for the films Girl with a Pearl Earring and Hilary and Jackie.
Khan became the first female radio operator to be sent to Nazi-occupied France. Sending vital messages back to London from behind enemy lines, she significantly aided the success of the allied landing on D-day.
Codenamed Madeleine, she became a significant target for the Gestapo and was aged 29 when captured in 1943. She was tortured before being shot in the head the following year, having revealed nothing to her captors.
Pinto, who is also executive producer of the series, described Khan as “a fierce and amazing woman, the most unlikely heroine of the second world war”.
She said that as a wireless operator in occupied France Khan had a life expectancy of just six weeks. “Sending women to the frontline is controversial even now … Sending a Sufi mystic, who won’t use a gun, daughter of a long-haired Indian guru who preaches love and peace – ridiculous! But Noor thrives, not in spite of her differences, but because of them. Her struggle to reconcile her values with the desire to find her own path and with her complex sense of duty is something I am so excited to explore.”
Paterson said: “It’s fabulous, in terms of diversity, to find proper, wonderful stories that take you there without contrivance. She was an amazing character. I can’t believe her story’s never been told by film-makers.”
The series, written by Olivia Hetreed, is based on Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan by Shrabani Basu, who is also consultant to the series.
Hetreed said: “At a time when conflicts about race, identity and patriotism have a new and frightening energy, Noor’s character and her nail-biting story of hair’s-breadth escapes and life and death choices offer us the picture of a heroine who defies every prejudice and stereotype.”
Pinto added: “Noor has a quiet strength that she’s not entirely aware of. Alone in Paris, she lives and loves more intensely in a few months than most of us do in a lifetime, helping establish the ‘secret armies’ of the resistance who will rise up on D-day, astonishing the men who said she should never have been sent to the frontline.”
Tucker said: “Olivia has created a spy thriller, a love story and a search for identity, the true story of a remarkable and complex woman doing the most dangerous job imaginable. Our series challenges ideas of heroism and the portrayal of Asian women on screen – often victims, sometimes terrorists – never the hero.”
Last year, the Guardian reported that the biographer Arthur Magida had acquired an account by Pierre Viénot, Khan’s fellow resistance fighter, written as a private memoir for his family. It revealed that, in autumn 1943, with the Gestapo closing in on Khan, they sought to disguise her appearance by taking her to a hair salon and getting her a whole new wardrobe.
The problem was that everything she picked was blue, just as before, and the Gestapo knew it was her favourite. “That was a key factor that helped give her away,” Magida said.
He published his research in his book, Code Name Madeleine: A Sufi Spy in Nazi-Occupied Paris, which was nominated for a Pulitzer in the biography category.
Hearing of the new series, Magida said: “Noor’s story is extraordinary. She’s not an historical artefact, frozen in time. She’s immensely relevant to our time, just as she was to hers.”
The makers of the series are in discussions with broadcasters.