Revolutionary, leader, politician, humanist, socialist, Marxist, communist; Subhas Chandra Bose was a remarkable figure in the struggle for India’s independence. Director Shyam Benegal’s exceptionally researched historical biopic has an undeniably epic sweep complemented by a towering central performance from the wonderfully talented Marathi actor Sachin Khedekar – it is a faultless and charismatic turn by Khedekar exuding a defiance constantly expressed through his impassioned voice. Had Benegal not been at the helms of this project it is more than likely casting would have been a point of conflict for any other director up against the cynical economics of the box office. In a way, casting is what ultimately compromises the sincerity of recent historical films including Jodha-Akbar and Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey – both had the potential to be great films but the emotional and cinematic baggage brought by mainstream stars (who are weak actors) jeopardises audience engagement. If you are going to make a historical film that should be both didactic and entertaining then cast it properly even if this means turning to non professional actors. Of course the problem with this scenario for a producer is that the film may fail commercially but sometimes it is worth taking a risk so that the material does not lose its creative integrity.
However, the danger Benegal seems to have faced with dramatising the extraordinary intricacies of Bose’s learned life is a continuous deference to the performance of Khedekar who appears in virtually every scene. The film steers clear off providing a complete overview of Bose’s career, leaving some personal aspects including his childhood and the formative relationship with Gandhi in the background, and by focusing on what are the most controversial years of his life Benegal constructs a narrative dominated by the politics of revolutionary struggle. The emphasis on ideological debate makes this more of a political film than a conventional biopic and whilst the very nature of the subject matter cannot fail to adhere to some of the more crowd pleasing elements of the biopic genre, namely drawn out speeches and epic crowd scenes, the ideological significance of bringing the story of Bose to film and governing an authentic voice for him is immeasurably an achievement in itself.
Admittedly, much has written about Bose now and his position in the history of India’s fight for independence has become a point of celebration today. Benegal’s regular scriptwriter and collaborator Shama Zaidi approaches the narrative in three distinctly structured parts. The first part explores his escape from British house arrest in Bengal, entering Afghanistan and finally arriving in Kabul under the identity of a Pathan. Affectionately known as ‘Netaji’ (Respected Leader) by his friends, the first part also gives us an insight into his family life in Calcutta whilst the political threat he posed to the British establishment remained more volatile and revolutionary in its ideological stance than Gandhi’s passive position. Bose believed that India’s independence could only been achieved through violent uprising and an open call to arms; independence had to be absolute and not waged through protracted negotiation with the powers that be. In many ways, his hope of an intellectual awakening amongst those Indian soldiers subjugated by the British Empire fails to transpire. Instead, the Indian National Army that he attempts to build into a mighty military force with a strong ideological agenda falls apart and he duly acknowledges that perhaps Gandhi’s belief in civil disobedience was ultimately the most moral and just path to achieving an independence that could be regarded as dignified.
In Part Two, Bose finds political and military sympathy from the Germans, Italians and mostly notably the Japanese who encourage the expansion of an Indian National Army that could potentially be used as a force of liberation. In Nazi Germany, Bose meets with Adolf Hitler and though he denounces their racist policies he sees the liberation of India as the ultimate goal, thus in a way temporarily tolerating the Nazis to build a political platform for propagating the desperate need for a national army. His time in Europe also sees him falling in love with his personal secretary, the Austrian born Emilie Schenkl, whom he marries and has a daughter with. The endless meetings underline the lengthy negotiations and discussions that went on with both the Germans and Japanese in terms of granting political recognition to Bose’s make shift Indian government in exile. For me, Part Two is the most ideologically fascinating as it does not shy away from exploring the dubious political relationships Bose forms with both the Nazi Party and the Japanese, implying he was willing to forge uncertain political alliances so that the aims of achieving independence could be met at any cost.
With the escalation of World War II, the early promises of full military and political support never transpire and this forms the final part of the film, examining in detail the attempt to put together a formidable army and push through Burma to arrive in India. Whilst Bose’s dream of complete independence through military opposition ends sourly, it is the inspirational refusal to compromise both politically and personally that imprints itself on the conscience of the Indian people. It is still not clear how Bose exactly died. Whilst many argue he was killed in a plane crash due to a technical fault, some say he was assassinated and others contest he went into hiding. Benegal opts to reiterate the stance that Bose was killed in a plane crash but the film seems to hint at the possibility of a political assassination orchestrated by unnamed nation(s). Bose’s death is surrounded in mystery and deserves to examined in length in another film whilst on another point the life of Bose would arguably work well as a documentary.
I’m not so sure if this is one of Benegal’s greatest achievements but I do feel that Indian cinema as a whole needs to continue making films of such historical importance as it not only revisits the struggle for independence but constructs history through indigenous eyes. Benegal is supported by a cast and crew representing some of the finest talent in the industry, including stunning cinematography by Santosh Sivan and V. Manikandan, editing by Sreekar Prasad, lyrics by Javed Akhtar, costumes by Pia Benegal, a solid supporting cast, and of course A. R. Rahman’s moving soundtrack made up of 19 tracks including instrumentals. The song that sores is ‘Azadi’ which is sung beautifully by Rahman and patriotically rendered by the pen of Javed Akhtar. Oddly enough for such a prestigious picture that received international acclaim, it is very difficult track down a copy of the film on DVD. However, it is regularly and encouragingly shown on some of the Asian TV channels. I do hope a distributor is brave enough to pick this one up one day and give it a proper 2 Disc release including a making of and interviews with the cast and crew as it deserves a much wider audience and appreciation from film academia.