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Subhas Chandra Bose birth anniversary: Gumnaami to Bose, a look at films that addressed his valour

Firstpost logo Firstpost 23-01-2022 Subhash K Jha

Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose has always been a controversial figure. Filmmakers have shied away from delving too deep into Netaji’s life. Not Shyam Benegal. In 2014 he made a brave if flawed bio-pic on Netaji entitled Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero. The story goes that media baron Subrato Roy commissioned Shyam Benegal to make the best-possible bio-pic on Netaji, budget unlimited. “So how much do you think you will need to do full justice to Netaji?” the millionaire wondered aloud. “10 crores?” Benegal whose budgets had never gone beyond 5 crores, ventured boldly. “Take 60. But give me a bio-pic on Netaji that will never be forgotten,” Subrato offered.

Benegal who had never known such a budget just didn’t know what to do with that kind of money. He chose the super-talented Sachin Khedekar to play Netaji.

Actor Sachin Khedekar said he was truly blessed by the complete experience of the making of Bose: The Forgotten Hero but was surprised at the film's lack of commercial success. He also admitted to "certain cinematic liberties" having been taken in the making of the film." Those liberties have to be taken to make the story flow well. In 'Bose...' the emotional and political sides of his character have been brought together in one flow," he maintained. “I've no clue why it failed. I poured my heart and soul, sweat and blood into playing Netaji. I researched it thoroughly. It was a complete experience for me as an actor. Not too many actors get such an opportunity. I'm truly blessed. It took away two years of my life, and I'm very pleased with the way critics have responded to my role. I'm grateful to my producer Sahara for venturing so wholeheartedly into something so daringly unconventional. I got the hang of his speech and body language. Documentaries and audiotapes helped. I worked hard on Urdu and English, which he spoke fluently and without an accent. He was a distinctive linguist. Shernaz Patel helped me with the English. Shama Zaidi and Atul Tiwari were there on the sets to help with the dialogues. I've spoken Netaji's dialogues and delivered my speeches in different tones. It's frustrating. But what can be done about it? I'm baffled by the commercial response. But I'm very happy with the way my producers treated the project. Whether it's Bhagat Singh, Bose, or Mangal Pandey, films on our national leaders are the need of the hour. Today's generation has no sense of history. But films of this sort don't seem to have any market. Incidentally, I'm the only actor who got to play such a big part because I look like a real-life character. As an actor, "Bose..." gave me the satisfaction that I needed. Acting is all about reacting. And in "Bose..." I came across so many actors who weren't known to me and yet provided me with such a huge amount of comfort level. He was chosen over other contenders like Madhavan, Paresh Raval, and Jackie Shroff for the role of Netaji. "I think my face did the trick," he chuckles. "In terms of physical resemblance, I come closest to Netaji. I don't need much makeup to resemble him. I have just cut my hair. This is the first time I am working with Shyambabu. Whether it is Govind Nihalani or other eminent directors, they have their clique of actors. Renuka Shahane once joked there is no room for us in those films because we are too fair and prosperous looking."

 Sachin admitted he approached Benegal for the role. "Shooting a Gujarati film cinematographer Rajen Kothari asked me to meet Shyambabu who was looking for actors to play Netaji. He was keen on casting Paresh Raval. Paresh's name was splashed all over for Netaji's role. I think Shyambabu was extremely comfortable with Paresh ever since he saw him in Sardar Patel. Since the role required a 40-ish actor, finding someone fresh was a problem. They wanted someone capable and not very popular. That is how I fit the bill! I did not realise that if I shaved off my mustache, I would resemble Netaji so much. When I did a photoshoot without my mustache, I came out just right for the role. My five-year-old son was shocked to see me without a mustache. I was finalised a month before that but was not supposed to talk about it. I went through all the material about the Indian National Army which Shyambabu had collected and met Netaji's family. Shama Zaidi and Atul Tiwari's script is foolproof. We shot on a set at New Theatres in Kolkata. In March, we will shoot in Uzbekistan [which will stand in for Afghanistan], Ladakh, Germany, Burma, and Malaysia. We wanted to shoot in the Presidency Jail [Kolkata] for a day but were given only two hours. I don't blame them. With 200 convicts and January 26 around the corner, a whole day of shooting seemed impractical. After "Bose...", I realized acting is reacting to the unknown. Without knowing any of the actors in "Bose...", I was given such perfect rhythms to follow. I realized how important it is to have responsive colleagues. The only actor who can give an outstanding performance in isolation is Mr. Bachchan.

 In 2018 Prosenjeet Chatterjee played Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose in Srijit Mukherjee’s Bengali-Hindi Gumnaami. Based on the controversial Mukherjee Commission Hearings it fuses a fictional Orson Welles-inspired hero who like Citizen Kane sets out to uncover the truth about the death of Netaji, with a fund of historical facts that permeate imminently into the narrative.

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It is a fascinating character study of an obstinate leader determined to free India from foreign rule, though the film is not fully freed of foreign influences (Citizen Kane, Roshomon). Ironically Anirban Bhattacharya as the Netaji-obsessed journalist Chandrachur Dhar gets much more footage than Bose who is played by the redoubtable Prosenjit Chatterjee as a cheerless(didn’t the Netaji ever smile?) stoic mumbling self-righteous statesman whom both Gandhi and Nehru(played respectively and respectfully by Surendra Rajan and Sanjay Gurbaxani) conspired to sideline from the top post. Most of the narrative tries to piece together the provocative hearsay regarding Netaji’s death by weaving in and out of lives that are documented by history and fomented by the imagination. Believe it or not, there is a marital drama tucked away in the folds of this historical treatise. While Chandrachur becomes progressively obsessed with Netaji(he even buys rounded spectacles like Netaji) his wife(Tanushree Chakraborty) is understandably embarrassed to share the marital bed with this unlikely competitor for her husband’s attention. She quits the marriage while her husband continues to mumble Netaji’s name. Director Srijit Mukherjee feeds on the nation’s relentless curiosity about Netaji’s death by drawing hypothetical situations in a seamless flow of known and unknown facts. For the sequences in the 1940s, Mukherjee makes telling use of black-and-white images with some interesting ‘period’ touches that don’t go overboard. Since the film follows the proceedings of the Mukherjee Commission it tends to get wordy. But when we come away from Gumnaami we do get a sense of a mysterious nationalist who has been wronged by history. And that’s more of a takeaway than most biopics these days.

Srijit Mukherjee had Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s family deeply incensed. They collectively put out a statement that Mukherjee is trying to malign Netaji’s name in his new Hindi-Bengali bio-pic Gumnaami by propagating the theory that he masqueraded as an anonymous Baba in his last days.

However, Mukherjee felt Netaji’s family doth protest too much, and too soon. “Have they seen Gumnaami? I’ve in no way maligned Netaji. You see, there are three theories put out about his last days and his death. One is the Russian theory. The other is the plane-crash theory. And the third is the ‘Baba Gumnaami’ theory. I have not gone by any of the three theories. Instead, I’ve taken an ambiguous stand. It was my long-cherished dream to make a film on Netaji. I tried to be as objective as humanly possible. Given the budget constraints of non-Bollywood cinema, I think I did what I could.”

How does Srijit compare his Subhas Chandra Bose bio-pic with Shyam Benegal’s Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose The Forgotten Hero released in 2005?

Observes Srijit, “I thought the war scenes could’ve been done better. But Sachin Khedekar as Nataji was a revelation. He transformed himself physically and emotionally to become the character. Let us see how the audience reacts to Prosenjeet (Chatterjee) as Netaji.”

  In 2017’s Bose: Dead/Alive Rajkummar Rao played Netaji. The saga, directed by a young Bihari named Pulkit with an abundance of inputs from the series’ creative director Hansal Mehta, sprawls in 9 episodes of 20 minutes each. I advise you to watch the entire series in one go to fully comprehend the resonant reach of the research that envelopes the gripping tale of a freedom fighter who defied Gandhian norms of anti-Colonialism to forge his language of protest and to eventually form his army.

So was Bose killed or not killed in a plane crash? The entire series is designed as a cat-and-mouse game between various representatives of the British Raj and Bose, Rajkummar Rao taking us through the various stages of transition in the enigmatic leader’s life with a surehanded cockiness that never suggests a shred of smugness. Yup, Rao is at the peak of his excellence and enjoying every bit of it without growing complacent.

Bose’s early scenes of youthful rebellion in Kolkata are shot with a spry mischievousness. In one sequence he beats a Gora teacher with his chappal for insulting the Hindu religion and walks away from the mayhem with not an iota of fear or remorse, as the background score erupts with a ‘Bose Bose!’ chant that Salman Khan would have wanted in his next Dabangg film.

 Patralekha has a cute cameo in the first episode as a prospective bride for Bose who shares a stolen smoke with him on the rooftop. The cigarette smoking habit is clumsily incorporated. Rao doesn’t seem comfortable with the cancer stick. And that’s fine by us.

The writing borrows trivial vignettes from Bose’s life turning the bio-pic into a celebration of rebellious splendor unfettered by the rules of governance. I enjoyed the personal moments between Bose and his German wife Emilie(Anna Ador) and his insurgent allies more than the pointedly political run-ins with Gandhiji(played with reasonable credibility by Surendra Rajan) and Nehruji(actor Sanjay Gurbaxani strips the charismatic man of all charm and warmth).

 The more ‘epic’ moments in the saga suffer from monetary constraints. Let’s not forget, this series is meant to be watched on mobile phones and computers. Not the best way to get to know a national leader who has for generations been much misunderstood and hugely maligned. However, the key performers and some outstanding writing (Eklavya Bhattacharya, Jyoti Kapoor Das, Anuj Dhar, Reshu Nath) ensure our interest-level in the subtle often sharply executed flag-waving doesn’t flag. Locations standing in for Manchuria, Vienna, and other places that Bose resorted to as Colonial fugitive have been chosen well and serve the series’ purpose effectively.

 However, the Britishers are portrayed as quasi-caricatures. Edward Sonenblick (seen giving company to Kapil Sharma in the recent film Firangi) struggles to imbue dignity in a role that’s purely a colonial cartoon. Besides Rajkummar Rao, it is Naveen Kasturia playing the conflicted havaldar Darbari Lal who brings an endearing world-weariness to the role of a British stooge who would rather not finger a fireball called Subhas Chandra Bose. The bantering between Bose and Darbari Lal contoured by the shifting loyalties is a high point in every episode.

 This series dares. And for its audacity alone, it deserves our attention.

On getting to play Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Rajkummar Rao said, “ Playing Netaji on screen is one of the most fascinating experiences for me. It's not an easy task to portray him on screen. There was a lot of preparation involved. Starting from reading a lot about him through his autobiography and some other available books, watching a lot of documentaries, and visiting his house in Kolkata, learning a new language. Gaining 12 kgs of weight, going half bald to try and look as close to him as possible but more than the look I tried to catch his passion, his unconditional love for his motherland, and his drive and vision. For me, it's the emotional journey which is more important than the physical appearance.”

 The most recent attempt to bring The Forgotten Army was for a web series on Amazon Prime Video. The sheer volume of emotional and physical distance that Kabir Khan covers in the 5 episodes of this homage to the soldierly valour of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s breakaway army, is mindboggling. But then Kabir is no stranger to impossible challenges. In Bajrangi Bhaijaan he made Salman Khan ACT. Remember?

There is a gallery of competent actors surrendering to their characters, not unlike the Indian POW in this film who lay down their weapons before the Japanese in the hope that their country would be freed from British rule through the new alliance.

 The politics of The Forgotten Army is complex. Kabir Khan doesn’t shy away from biting into those bitter politics of a time when Gandhi was God, and self-governance was a religion. By exploring the most neglected subsidiary of the Indian Freedom Movement—the contribution of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and his Indian National Army(INA) -- this spellbinding series weaves a web of unforgettable images.

The battle sequences are to die for. I was especially awestruck by the sequence where a young Indian girl Rasamma(T J Bhanu) is chased down by a Gora soldier and brutally raped when suddenly hundreds of Japanese soldiers descend on bicycles peddling with a passion that indicates determination. A determined vision embraces Kabir Khan’s narrative. He negotiates his plot through two different time zones. In one, young soldier Sodhi(Sunny Kausal, admirable) befriends and falls in love with a soldier colleague Maya(Sharvari Wagh) as canons, bombs guns, and rhetorics boom in the background. In another time zone, Sodhi is now in his 70s and played by the commanding M K Raina. interacts with his young journalist-grandson amidst the turmoil of student unrest in Burma.

Admittedly the going gets overly dramatic towards the end with Sodhi and Maya’s love story threatening to over-run the film’s combative fulcrum. However, the editing and performances ensure a safe landing for this soaring drama of unadulterated nationalism. Miraculously Kabir’s tone of narration jumps over puddles of sentimentality and mawkishness, maintaining a tightly reined-in mood throughout. Even when portions of the love story get predictable Kabir infuses the familiar with a sense of wonderment.

Scores of actors surrender to their characters in a way that shows their commitment to bringing alive the atmosphere of impassioned patriotism. Gender dynamics are brought in fluently in the way the men in the INA respond to the women’s wing. There is one especially stirring sub-plot about a leery South Indian soldier who learns to respect his female colleagues through his love for one of them. I’d love to see a whole film devoted to these two characters. When the soldiers in this series salute one another an electric current passes from one to the other and then to us in the audience.

The Forgotten Army is an admirable work of cinema with a canvas that accommodates generations of anguish for the raw deal given to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose by those who wrote the history books. Kabir Khan’s superbly crafted series doesn’t rewrite history. It throws forward a volley of passionate arguments and images in support of an unsung hero. The canvas is as large as the filmmaker’s ambitions. This is a film to be watched on the big screen, not on the phone. That’s more disservice to Netaji’s memory.

Kabir, at the time when the series started streaming in pre-pandemic January 2020 also wanted to make a feature film on Netaji. “I had made a documentary on the INA(Indian National Army) entitled  The Forgotten Army for Doordarshan in 1999 and the idea of making a film on the subject stuck in my head. The story of Subhas Chandra Bose’s army stayed with me. I remember as a 25-year old I visited all the places where the INA had been, imagined what they had been through. It was a story that I needed to tell. After I made documentaries I realized there won’t provide me with a sustainable career. I wanted The Forgotten Army to be my first feature film. But then,  Kabul Express happened. Then New York and the others…Now, it’s finally happening on Amazon’s OTT platform,” said Kabir experiencing the sense of elation that comes after a long wait.

Did The Forgotten Army take so long to materialize because it was impossible to make as a feature film? “No, it’s not that,” Kabir corrects me. “Adi( Aditya Chopra) and I had been discussing The Forgotten Army as a feature film for years now. Although I made other films for Adi I somehow never got down to doing this one project that I wanted to.”

 Is it because of budgetary constraints? “No, it’s not the budget. But yes, if I made  The Forgotten Army for the big screen I’d probably have to have a big superstar in the lead role. I guess every story has its destiny and this one was destined to be made as a 5-part series. How different would The Forgotten Army have been as a feature film?

Kabir mulls over that one. “ I don’t know if it would have been any different. I have told the story of these incredible foot soldiers and subalterns exactly the way I wanted to. What this 20-year wait taught me was to not let my story be a slave to history. By that I mean, the characters need not move in a particular rigid way. While filming the story I gave myself the liberty to make the characters mouldable.”

As experience has taught Indian cinema, you can’t do a mouldable Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. At the same time humanizing Netaji rather than mythicizing him would be seen as an exercise in cutting the National hero down to size. So another Subhas Chandra Bose bio-pic shortly? Not likely.

Subhash K Jha is a Patna-based film critic who has been writing about Bollywood for long enough to know the industry inside out. He tweets at @SubhashK_Jha.

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