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'A Call To Spy' Tells The Story Of Three Of WWII's Most Daring Women

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"A Call To Spy" tells the story of three of the first agents to risk their lives as spies for Britain in occupied France during the first days of World War II. They are three women - Vera Atkins, a Jewish refugee who had become a famed spymaster, Virginia Hall, an American who walks on a wooden leg, and Noor Inayat Khan, the daughter of a prominent Indian Muslim family who tells the British officer who recruits her...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A CALL TO SPY")

RADHIKA APTE: (As Noor Inayat Khan) Because I am a British citizen and I grew up in France, that's my home. I cannot just stand by and let the Nazis do what they're doing.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Is that all, Noor?

APTE: (As Noor) Actually, I also wish that an Indian would win high military distinction in this war because, you know, if a few of us could do something brave in the allied service, it might bridge the gap between the Indians and the British.

SIMON: That's Radhika Apte as Noor Khan. Film's now playing in select theaters across the country and several streaming platforms. And Radhika Apte, well-known Indian film and stage actress, joins us now from Great Britain. Thanks so much for being with us.

APTE: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: I gather - this is a famous story. I can't believe it hasn't hit the screen before. British intelligence had to be convinced to use women. And then they wound up thinking, well, what a brilliant stroke. They're less conspicuous than men.

APTE: Absolutely. You know, we were actually internally having this discussion at that time and wondering if the situation has changed. And what would gender bring to a spy, you know? And I think, in general, women are always told to take into consideration the other people and what they are thinking and what they need all the time. And I think because of that, women are far more secretive. They're more discreet. And I think all of this also really must have come handy. You know what I mean?

SIMON: Yeah. Noor Khan became a legendary wire operator.

APTE: Yes.

SIMON: And we ought to note, in these days of microchips and, you know, iPhones, wireless communications devices, which were considered to be revolutionary at the time, were about the size of steamer trunks, weren't they?

APTE: Yeah (laughter). You know, they gave me a real one to carry throughout the shoot. I can't - it was really heavy. And I'm quite short, and I'm quite petite compared to the other actresses in our crew. So there's a joke in the film, actually. She's trying to lift that. And she's just saying that, oh my God. This is literally like exercising. I can't - how am I ever going to do this and be discreet about it?

SIMON: Yeah. What made you interested in playing Noor Khan?

APTE: I mean, of course, I had heard about her. But I hadn't ever done so much research. But the more I read about Noor Inayat Khan, I was absolutely fascinated because, I mean, like most people in the world, I'm always baffled at war. And people are so driven by anger and revenge and power and loss. And she was somebody driven by hope and peace, the exact opposite. I mean, her struggle, her fight was not led by anger at all, not hatred at all. So it was a very inspiring character.

SIMON: Yeah. We should explain. She's from a pacifist family...

APTE: Absolutely.

SIMON: ...Muslim tradition. And at one point, she says, what? I'm a pacifist, and they're teaching me how to kill.

APTE: Yeah (laughter). The whole training involves killing and, you know, combat. And she just can't cope with it. And she said, this is not what I've signed up for. I will save lives, yeah. But I'm not going to kill. And that's when Virginia says, no, this is - actually, this is saving lives. This is how you save your own life. But yeah, I think it's such a thin line and such a difficult one to walk. But I'm sure that she must have come across so many such questions at every step.

SIMON: Yeah. And we should explain the women we're talking about, including, of course, your character. They weren't what we'd call Mata Haris. They were soldiers, really.

APTE: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Absolutely. I mean, they had risked their lives. They had risked their families. They sacrificed absolutely everything. And they fought in the most dangerous situations, not knowing whether they'll have shelter, whether they'll have food, whether they'll have - or they'll die of cold. I mean, it's literally like - they fought like soldiers. Absolutely.

SIMON: I'm struck when one of the characters says towards the end of the film, we are here for only a short time. But what we do changes the course of the future.

APTE: Yeah, I think that's what drives her to participate because she believes that everything that's going on - I'm against it. You know, I'm not - I'm a pacifist. I'm not going to do it. But when you see such massive destruction, there's a purpose why I'm here. And if I just sit at home, do nothing, then I'm of absolutely no relevance. So how I do it, what I do is going to make a difference. So I will fight in the war, but I will do it my way, you know. And she does it her way, which is very different from some of the other people who fought in the war. And absolutely, I always believe that there's something we all have to contribute. And instead of getting overwhelmed, we just have to act, you know, just have to act every day and fight every day. I think that's all we can do.

SIMON: Radhika Apte, one of the stars of "A Call To Spy" - that's now in local theaters and on several streaming services. Thank you so much for being with us.

APTE: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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