A tale of two Bhagat Singhs

Print edition : July 20, 2002

Two recent films on the legendary revolutionary draw attention - one for its inaccurate rendering of history and another for its largely objective narration of facts.

THIS monsoon, it is raining Bhagat Singh in Mumbai. There are five films on the revolutionary in various stages of completion. Two or three have been released.

This event has been greeted with considerable cynicism. Far from signifying an upsurge of Left ideas in the commercial film industry, the five films are seen as examples of the cannibalisation of an authentic, anti-colonial people's hero for the sake of profit and jingoism. Two of these films come with the prestige and money power of big banners attached to them. One, Shaheed: 23 March 1931, is produced by Dharmendra and features his younger son Bobby Deol as Bhagat Singh, while elder son Sunny Deol plays Chandrashekhar Azad. The other, The Legend of Bhagat Singh, comes from Tips Films with Ajay Devgan playing the lead under Rajkumar Santoshi's direction.


There is more than enough reason to look at both films sceptically. Sunny Deol starred in the biggest box office success of 2001, Gadar, one of the most communal and jingoistic films in recent times. Subsequent- ly, he evolved a brand identity around a potent combination of anti-Muslim, anti-Pakistan rhetoric in films such as Maa Tujhe Salaam and Indian. Getting younger brother Bobby Deol to do Bhagat Singh is clearly an effort to cash in on the brand image.

Rajkumar Santoshi's films, on the other hand, have been a mixed bag. His early hits included Damini, where a rape victim is defended by an alcoholic lawyer (played by Sunny Deol), and Ghayal, where a youth (Sunny Deol again) is caught in the vortex of mafia violence. While in these films Santoshi displayed touches of sensitivity normally absent in commercial directors, his recent films have included Pukar, a jingoistic, rabidly anti-Pakistan film, for which its hero Anil Kapoor received the National Award for the Best Actor from a jury that included the editor of the mouthpiece of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

The Deol version of the cinematic life of Bhagat Singh has been entirely predictable: historically inaccurate, loud, tasteless and pop-patriotic. The other, the Rajkumar Santoshi version, has sprung a surprise: contrary to the fears of sceptics including this writer, it has turned out to be well-made, historically more or less accurate, sober, and, in the context of commercial cinema, politically progressive.

Bhagat Singh, of course, is one of the most enduringly charismatic figures of the Indian anti-colonial struggle. A martyr at the age of 23, his life and struggles have passed into countless folk songs, plays and films. In popular perception, Bhagat Singh is seen as a fearless patriot who did not hesitate to sacrifice his life at the altar of freedom for his country. If all that one had as evidence of Bhagat Singh's life was the first of these two films, Shaheed: 23 March 1931, one would not be faulted for thinking that he was just a romantic, raving and ranting, nearly jingoistic youth. He wears designer jackets as an ethereal Aishwarya Rai not only sings and dances for him, but even presses his legs. Worse, he seems perpetually to wear an expression that says, "Look at me, I'm so cool." In a recent interview to a film magazine, when asked how he had prepared for the challenging role, Bobby Deol claimed that while he did not read a single word on Bhagat Singh, he was told stories of the hero by his grandmother. Hence Bobby Deol knew that Bhagat Singh loved his mother a lot, but also that he loved his country more. Fittingly, then, Bobby Deol's Bhagat Singh looks thoroughly moronic throughout the film.

The film is full of inaccuracies. For instance, Lala Lajpat Rai, the Congress leader who later went with the Hindu Mahasabha, is shown to be a Ghadar Party leader! Even the basic chronology is sometimes unclear, as is the location of several scenes. The film is a typical product of the Mumbai film industry, where the market and its perceived preferences overrule all else. As a result, none of the comrades of Bhagat Singh, played as they are by lesser-known actors, register. Forget about Bhagwati Charan Vohra or Phanindranath Ghosh, even Sukhdev and Rajguru appear merely as appendages to the hero. As one leaves the film hall, one is hard-pressed to remember even what Rajguru looked like. However, his is probably a better fate than that which befalls poor Sukhdev, who is played by a glamorous model and is remembered only for that reason.

The film, like any Mumbai potboiler, showcases the hero, Bobby Deol, at the expense of all else. Except, of course, elder brother Sunny Deol, who appears as Chandrashekhar Azad, the legendary revolutionary who, when cornered by the British police, preferred to shoot himself than be captured alive. In fact, initial reports had indicated that Sunny Deol was going to direct the film. When it became clear that Santoshi's film was going to be released in June, Sunny Deol, hard-pressed for time, handed over the direction to his cousin Guddu Dhanoa. Sunny Deol himself stepped into the role of Azad to boost the star value of the film. Sunny Deol merely repeats his by now well-known film persona - a loud, jingoistic, what some call earthy but is, in fact, merely an uncouth he-man with rippling biceps. Expectedly, Bobby Bhagat and Sunny Azad monopolise screen time. And on screen, the two brothers seem merely to play out their real life relationship - kid brother forever deferential, forever hoping to match the achievements of big brother. In the event, the film becomes a love story between two brothers.

There is not a single scene or dialogue in the film that tells us anything about Bhagat Singh's ideology. But what is most unforgivable is that he is turned into a theist and a Hindu nationalist. Early in the film, we see Bhagat Singh singing a patriotic song at a function where the backdrop on the stage has an image of 'mother' India, a woman's picture rising out of the suitably saffron map of the country. This, of course, is an image one sees everywhere, and is systematically disseminated by the RSS. And in the RSS image, as in the film, the country is seen in its original, undivided state, which is also the fascist fantasy of the future akhand Hindu rashtra. In the Dushehra bomb scene, Bobby Bhagat metomorphosises into a Ram-like figure, setting the effigy of Ravan on fire with a shot from his pistol. Later in the film, when his mother comes to meet him one final time, Bhagat Singh asks her not to be morose, for he will be born again. When asked the perfectly reasonable question of how she is to recognise him in his future birth, she is told to look for the mark of the hanging on his neck. And later still, when the prison official comes to him pleading that at least now, in his final hour, he should recall God, Bobby Bhagat refuses because, first, he does not want people to think he is afraid of death, and second, recalling God is only an external act: God resides in each one of us!

From The Legend of Bhagat Singh, in which Ajay Devgan plays the lead role.-COURTESY: TIPS FILMS

The Legend of Bhagat Singh

This comes from the mouth of the man who, awaiting death in the condemned cell, wrote thus in that famously spirited celebration of atheism, 'Why I am an atheist': "I know in the present circumstances my faith in God would have made my life easier, my burden lighter, and my disbelief in Him has turned all the circumstances too dry, and the situation may assume too harsh a shape. A little bit of mysticism can make it poetical. But I do not want the help of any intoxication to meet my fate. I am a realist." And a socialist, he may have added. For Bhagat Singh's atheism was not a matter of personal vanity, as he was at pains to point out. He embraced atheism because he was fighting for a just social order. "British rule is here not because God wills it, but because they possess power and we do not dare oppose them. Not that it is with the help of God that they are keeping us under their subjection, but it is with the help of guns and rifles, bomb and bullets, police and militia, and our apathy, that they are successfully committing the most deplorable sin against society - the outrageous exploitation of one nation by another. Where is God? What is he doing? Is he enjoying all these woes of human race? A Nero, a Changez: Down with him."

His atheism was not a mechanical subscription to a conspiracy theory, but actually quite nuanced. He wrote: "Unlike certain of the radicals I would not attribute [the] origin [of the idea of God] to the ingenuity of the exploiters who wanted to keep the people under their subjection by preaching the existence of a supreme being and then claiming an authority and sanction from him for their privileged positions, though I do not differ with them on the essential point that all faiths, religions, creeds and such other institutions became in turn the mere supporters of the tyrannical and exploiting institutions, men and classes. Rebellion against the king is always a sin, according to every religion."

To turn this militant atheist into a believer and a Hindu nationalist: a greater insult to the memory of a revolutionary can scarcely be imagined.

For that is what he was, a true revolutionary, not a romantic terrorist. He, along with his comrades, was clearly moving towards socialism and Marxism when his life was brutally snubbed out by the colonial regime. Two of his comrades were Shiv Verma, who helped found the Communist Consolidation at the Andaman Cellular Jail, and went on to become the Uttar Pradesh State secretary of the undivided Communist Party of India, and Ajoy Ghosh, who became the general secretary of the undivided party. This aspect, that Bhagat Singh was not a lone hero, but a part of a remarkable group of revolutionaries, is something that the Santoshi film, The Legend of Bhagat Singh, brings out quite admirably. Not only does Ajay Devgan bring passion and maturity to his portrayal in the lead role, his supporting cast - Sushant Singh as Sukhdev, D. Santosh as Rajguru, Akhilendra Mishra as Chandrashekhar Azad, Raj Babbar as Bhagat Singh's father Sardar Kishan Singh and Farida Jalal as his mother - are all superb. The other revolutionaries, Jatin Das (who died on the 63rd day of the epic group hunger strike undertaken by the revolutionaries in jail for better living conditions), Bhagwati Charan Vohra, Shiv Verma, Ajoy Ghosh and Phanindranath Ghosh are not only mentioned but their faces and personalities linger in the mind long after the film is over. Particularly powerful is the hunger strike sequence. The camera moves slowly from face to emaciated face, revealing for the viewers both the tremendous hardship undertaken and their iron resolve.

Much of the politics of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) is also brought out in the film. In fact, in a powerful speech at the historic Phirozeshah Kotla conference of the organisation (where the word 'socialist' was added to the original name of Hindustan Republican Association), Bhagat Singh outlines his vision of freedom. According to him, freedom cannot mean merely the replacement of the white man by the brown man while exploitation of the masses, the workers and the peasants continues. Freedom must stand for freedom from want, hunger, poverty, and oppression; in a word, socialism. This is a theme that runs through the film. Early on, as students, when Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Bhagwati Charan Vohra are first introduced to the idea of socialism by their teacher Vidyalankar, in the background pictures of Marx and Lenin; through the film, Bhagat Singh stresses the need to reach out to the workers and peasants; visuals of striking workers in Bombay being lathi-charged are shown as a prelude to the revolutionaries deciding to protest the Trade Disputes Bill and the Public Safety Bill; when they are asked in court if they even understand what their slogan means, we see each of the revolutionaries spell out the meaning of revolution in a stirring sequence of pithy one-liners; and finally, as the jail staff come to march Bhagat Singh to his death, we find him reading Lenin. Shockingly, if press reports are to be believed, the Board of Film Certification intervened to have some more references to Lenin and the Communist Party edited out.

To his right D. Santosh, in the role of Rajguru, and to his left is Sushant Singh, as Sukhdev.-COURTESY: TIPS FILMS

What also comes out is the revolutionaries' commitment to secularism. This is brought out in songs and in many scenes, but what is perhaps most significant is when, early in the film, we hear the revolutionaries disapproving of Lala Lajpat Rai's flirting with the Hindu Mahasabha. That the film actually criticises Lala Lajpat Rai is significant, not simply because he is a nationalist icon, but because it is his death that the revolutionaries avenged by killing the police officer Saunders. Nor is Bhagat Singh's atheism concealed. His mother makes a reference to it fairly early in the film, and finally, as he mounts the steps of the gallows, he says to the prison official who implores him to remember God: "I have neither fear of death, nor belief in God."

THE other nationalist figure who comes in for severe criticism in the film is Gandhi. This is cause for some uneasiness, given the RSS antipathy to the Mahatma. Yet, the fact remains that Gandhi's role in the whole episode was questionable. It may be recalled that talks between Gandhi and the Viceroy, Lord Irwin, began on February 17, 1931, and culminated on March 5 with the Gandhi-Irwin Pact. Bhagat Singh and his comrades were hung on March 23. What did Gandhi do in these 18 days? Certainly, he did not make the commutation of death sentences to life terms a condition for signing the pact. Although he later claimed he tried his best to save the young revolutionaries' lives, is it entirely true? For a balanced answer to this question, one can turn to A.G. Noorani's excellent study, The Trial of Bhagat Singh (Konark Publishers, New Delhi, 1996). Noorani says: "Gandhi alone could have intervened effectively to save Bhagat Singh's life. He did not, till the very last. Later claims... are belied by the record which came to light four decades later. In this tragic episode, Gandhi was not candid either to the nation or even to his closest colleagues about his talks with the Viceroy, Lord Irwin, on saving Bhagat Singh's life." What the film also brings out is that it is the growing influence of the revolutionaries that forced the Congress, which had until then been asking for dominion status, to adopt purna swaraj as its slogan.

THIS is, of course, not to say that the Santoshi version is flawless, cinematically or politically. For instance, one would have liked to see more of the substance of Bhagat Singh's brilliant defence in court, not just its rhetoric, or to find some reference to his fierce opposition to the caste system. Moreover, Bhagat Singh's intellectual calibre is not fully apparent, nor is his voracious reading. His love of poetry is, likewise, absent. Even more jarring is the absence of Ashfaqullah, one of the main architects of the Kakori action, from the film. The British, particularly Lord Irwin, come across as somewhat dull in the head, as does Nehru. And the romantic angle could have been avoided. Lastly, while Ajay Devgan performs with dignity and fire, there is some merit in the argument against casting an established star in such a role: you keep seeing the star, not the revolutionary.

What is interesting, however, is that a film like this has actually been made in the times we live in, when the commercial film industry has been virtually taken over by the saffron brigade. Not being an insider, one can only hazard a guess - more than Rajkumar Santoshi, perhaps the credit for this should go to Anjum Rajabali and Piyush Mishra, who have written the script and dialogues for the film. While Rajabali is known to have a progressive background, and has in the past taken public positions on a range of social issues, Mishra, a National School of Drama graduate, has been associated with a progressive theatre group in Delhi. (In fact, a play by this group on Bhagat Singh scripted by Mishra has been acknowledged for having provided some of the background for the film.) Even if infrequently, then, the fortress of commercial Hindi cinema can be breached. Regardless of the fate of the film at the box office, that surely is cause for a small celebration.

Sudhanva Deshpande is an actor and director with the theatre group, Jana Natya Manch, and works as editor in LeftWord Books, New Delhi.

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