Saturday, August 5, 2017


Release date:
July 28, 2017
Tigmanshu Dhulia

Kunal Kapoor, Amit Sadh, Mohit Marwah, Kenny Desai, Kenny Basumatary, Mrudula Murali, Kanwaljit Singh, Zakir Hussain, Vijay Verma, Rajesh Khera

A string of Hindi films have been made in the past century about the life of Bhagat Singh and his hanging along with his associates Shivaram Rajguru and Sukhdev Thapar on March 23, 1931. Most recently, at least three productions on the subject were released within the same year in 2002, including Rajkumar Santoshi’s excellent but unfortunately underrated The Legend of Bhagat Singh starring Ajay Devgn as the charismatic Singh.

Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Raag Desh is about another conviction, far less spotlighted, that took place 14 years later in vastly different circumstances although the British still ruled India at the time.

What came to be known as the INA Trials or the Red Fort Trials of 1945 involved three soldiers of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army (INA): Major General Shahnawaz Khan, Lieutenant Colonel Prem Kumar Sahgal and Lieutenant Colonel Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon. After being taken prisoners of war by the Japanese during World War II, they had joined INA and were involved in some of its more notable successes on the battlefield against the British in south-east Asia, but as their force gradually got depleted, were later compelled to surrender.

Khan, Sahgal and Dhillon were court martialled and their trial – held within Delhi’s historic Red Fort – attracted widespread attention. Defending them in court was an illustrious panel of lawyer-freedom fighters including Jawaharlal Nehru, Bhulabai Desai and Asaf Ali.

The trial became a rallying point for an Indian public that could see Independence within touching distance. Though the trio were found guilty of treason, the expected death sentence did not come, with the British sensing the possible disastrous consequences of such a move, keeping in mind the national mood and their own waning influence on the country.

Despite the many inherently melodramatic elements in this real-life tale of bravery, bloodshed, patriotism and sacrifice, writer-director Dhulia (who is credited with the film’s screenplay and dialogues) has taken a commercially risky route in Raag Desh with his clinical, documentary-like approach to the subject. There is no Sunny Deol-esque screaming in this film, no love songs wafting about although there is a romance, no chest-thumping nationalism, only facts, plain facts, about men and women who risked their lives that we might live in a free country.

In making this narrative choice, Dhulia reminds us that you do not need to raise your decibel levels to stir an audience when life itself is so packed with stirring moments. “Tum mujhe khoon do, main tumhe azaadi doonga (give me your blood and I will give you freedom),” was not a dialogue conjured up by a film writer – Bose actually uttered that line to inspire a people. “Lal Qile se aayee awaaz / Sahgal Dhillon Shahnawaz… (A voice comes from the Red Fort / Sahgal, Dhillon, Shahnawaz),” was not coined by a novelist to articulate an imagined secular ideal, it was a slogan from reality that rang outside the Fort while the trial was on inside.

The happenstance of this story’s protagonists being a Hindu, a Muslim and a Sikh is not a fiction created to propagate communal harmony, these were real people who fought side by side for a common cause without allowing their differing backgrounds to be a hurdle. In today’s divided India, where mob lynchings of Muslims have the covert and sometimes even overt support of the Central government (look no further than Union Minister Mahesh Sharma paying obeisance to the body of one of Mohammad Akhlaq’s alleged murderers, with the national flag wrapped around that body) and where a concerted effort is being made to keep minorities and liberal Hindus insecure, Raag Desh’s unspoken message speaks more than a thousand words.

In the noisy times we live in, where yelling matches have become standard fare on news TV, it is a relief to watch the story of Netaji’s men and women being told in such muted tones. Dhulia adopts a non-linear timeline, going back and forth between courtroom scenes on the one hand and the central trio’s journey with the INA. The result could have been confusing, but Geeta Singh’s even editing and the director’s smooth storytelling combine to ensure clarity instead.

Raag Desh feels like a history lesson delivered by a conscientious teacher. The detailing in the legal arguments presented in court makes for particularly exciting viewing. It is evident that the team has done painstaking research for their film.

Neither of the above – the understatement or the meticulousness – should come as a surprise, considering that Rajya Sabha TV (RSTV) is the producer of Raag Desh. Many of India’s private television channels now bow and scrape before the present government, indulging in raucous displays of patriotism to prove their credentials in keeping with the demands of the current establishment, and competing to out-shout each other in a bid to attract sensation-seeking audiences. RSTV – owned by the Upper House of Parliament and headed by the House’s ex-officio chairperson, the Vice President of India – has remained sane, sobre and non-partisan though under VP Hamid Ansari. The tenor of Raag Desh is but natural then.

Despite the focus of the film being INA’s formation, its work and the trial, it gives us enough information about its three protagonists to make them people we cannot help but emotionally invest ourselves in. The manner in which we are acquainted with their personal lives, however, is an almost amusing contrast to J.P. Dutta’s brand of filmmaking. Without LOC Kargil-style maudlin music, Raag Desh, for instance, brings home the tenderness of the relationship between Sahgal and Captain Lakshmi Swaminathan, head of INA’s all-women regiment, who met and fell in love during their time together in the Army.

What I missed in the film though was the debate that is so much a part of RSTV’s programming. Raag Desh, for instance, steers clear of taking a position on the great Bose’s deeply disturbing, questionable alliances with fascist forces during WWII that many people rationalise with an end-justifies-the-means argument. No, they do not – however much you may respect and admire an individual’s intentions. It is disappointing that a filmmaker as politically aware as Dhulia would take a blinkered (or safer?) view of Netaji.

The acting in the film is uniformly good. The sweet-faced Amit Sadh downplays his looks and physique here (quite the opposite of what he did when he first attracted national attention in Kai Po Che). He perfectly portrays Dhillon’s more rustic effervescence in comparison with the other two lead characters. Kunal Kapoor as Khan and Mohit Marwah as Sahgal are both distractingly handsome in uniform, but do not let their great beauty subtract from the gravitas and conviction they bring to their roles.

While all three are impactful, Marwah (who, by the way, is Anil Kapoor’s sister’s son) stands out for his matinee idol looks and innate sincerity. He was impressive even in his dismal debut film Fugly (2014), but should hopefully attract the attention of sensible producers with Raag Desh, where he gets more material to sink his teeth into.

The supporting cast features a bunch of familiar faces who are well styled to represent the historical personalities they portray, and deliver on-point performances relying on immersion in the character rather than bombast. Kenny Basumatary as Netaji, Kenny Desai as Bhulabai Desai and – in smaller roles – Mrudula Murali as Captain Lakshmi Sahgal nee Swaminathan and Rajesh Khera as Nehru are all memorable.

The film is on shaky ground though in certain tehnical areas. Some outdoor settings look like sets in a not-very-expensive stage production. And the no-fuss narration that works so well elsewhere in Raag Desh takes the edge out of some battle scenes. Compensation comes in the form of Rana Mazumder and Siddharth Pandit’s music, including a rousing rendition of the INA’s marching tune Kadam kadam badhaaye jaa.

Dhulia made his directorial debut in 2003 with Haasil, a gem of a film on campus politics in Allahabad starring Jimmy Sheirgill, Hrishitaa Bhatt and Irrfan Khan. It remains his best till date. Raag Desh, which he has written and directed, may not be up there, but it is special.

If you plan to watch it, do not go looking for Border or LOC Kargil. This one is more akin to Sankalp Reddy’s Telugu/Hindi The Ghazi Attack (2017), albeit even more under-played and also less swish on the production front. Raag Desh is a docu-drama, not a high-pitched weepie.

In an age of armchair nationalists fighting wars on the social media, the experience of watching these genuine heroes and heroines who put their lives on the line for us – and are not half as well-known as they ought to be – is both educational and poignant.

Rating (out of five stars): ***

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
137 minutes

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