Legend of Bhagat Singh, The (2002)
Cast: Ajay Devgun, Sushant Singh, Amrita Rao, Farida Jalal, Raj Babbar
Director: Raj Kumar Santoshi
Music Director: A.R Rahman
Nutshell: commendable effort with strong direction and exceptional music
All of a sudden, there appears to be renewed interest in Bhagat Singh with a spate of films being made on the subject, not least Santoshi’s and Sunny Deol’s home production with brother Bobby Deol in the lead, both being released on the same day amongst much fanfare. Comparisons are inevitable but one must be able to judge each product on its own merit as opposed to in comparison with each other. The Legend of Bhagat Singh opens with the whole film flashed forward before the audiences eyes, almost like a trailer for what it is to come and then settles down to beginning with the aftermath of his hanging. The images of what is to follow sets the scene for what is a stirring and moving film, not without humour and with some excellent performances.
Amongst the opening scenes has a confrontation between an embittered mob and Gandhiji being asked why he did nothing to have the sentences commuted. The film gives you the feeling that Gandhi did little to save his fellow countryman. Gandhi had denounced Bhagat Singh when he assassinated Colonel Saunders and disapproved of his method of trying to prise India out of British Hands. However, Stanley Wolpert in his book on Gandhi states that on the day of the execution itself, he wrote to the then Viceroy of India Irwin in which he “passionately appealed for the death sentences passed on Bhagat Singh and the two other terrorists”. An interesting point comes from this, the use of the word “terrorist” by Wolpert in describing Raj Guru and Sukhdev, Bhagat Singh’s partners in “crime”. Certainly they were viewed as such by the British but would it be correct to call them that? It is open to debate and with the world currently the way it is, it is a dangerous path to tread in trying to make a judgment on the rights and wrongs of their actions. Violence does not pay, as Gandhi would say it but is there room for argument to say that oppression suffered by the British by Indians was reason enough for such violence? Can those who rejected this oppression be called terrorists? It is interesting because of the way history is depicted, much of it by the British and how the “West” is able to almost “criminalise” these people who lived under a despotic empire, who did no better than than plunder and purge the land.
It was against the background to the massacre of Jalianwala Bagh where the British massacred more than 400 people, their constant subjugation of the Indian people that Bhagat Singh grows up, in a land festering with a hatred for the foreigner. Buoyed by the non-cooperation movement pronounced by Gandhi, Bhagat as a 12 year old showed signs of patriotic fervour. This was given a further urgency when disappointed with Gandhi’s turn around and saying that India was not ready for such a non-cooperation movement, he continued to nurture a hatred for the British and passionately wanted an independent India. Wanting to do more than just sit back and watch from the sidelines, he eventually joins Chandrasekhar Azad and his Hindustan Revolutionary Association, which later becomes the Hindustan Socialist Revolutionary association. Attending a demonstration against the Simon Commission, the British beat Lala Lajpat Rai who finally succumbs to his injuries. Gandhi’s request that India be given Dominion status was not enough and cries for independence began to be heard. Bhagat Singh, in revenge for the killing of Lala Lajpat Rai orchestrates the assassination of the Assistant superintendent of Lahore, Colonel Saunders and along with Sukhdev and Chandrasekhar Azad, manages to escape from Lahore and the clutches of the British.
Anxious to have their voice heard, Azad and his colleagues of the HSRA decide to bomb the inside of the assembly thereby courting arrest and making headlines. The object was not to kill and the bombs were merely small chemical explosions, which caused a bang but nothing much else. Bhagat Singh is arrested and subsequently, linked with the murder of Colonel Saunders, spending the next two years in jail before his hanging. Even in jail, he takes on the British by going on a hunger strike because of prison conditions and unflinching before the British despite torture and attempts at forced feeding. The British capitulate to his demands seeing him as a dangerous figurehead who has caught the imagination of people and set about what will be his ultimate destruction.
Santoshi’s film is a brave stab at making the film on a historical figure within commercial trappings. He does this by giving in to the odd song here and there and an unnecessary dream sequence but it adds a human touch to what would be a heavy and unrelenting film. Further liberties are taken …you cannot imagine Bhagat Singh doing a “pagri sambhal jatta” on stage but it is used as a metaphor for his anti British stance…but these are few and far between. Shot in muted colours and sepia tinged tones, the narrative is simple although at times, perhaps a little more time to develop the story would have been preferable. But there is only so much time that can be used and Santoshi certainly gets the essence of the character and the feel of the times in his film. Santoshi is a curious director but never one to try something different. With Bhagat Singh, he succeeds in producing a film devoid of gaudy and overtly patriotic fervour. Melodrama is hardly evident and you are struck that a film like this should not be loud and “in your face”. You also feel a sense of relief that there isn’t excessive violence depicted or the usual heroics and our heroes are expected to perform. Having said that, Legend of Bhagat Singh does not aspire to be anything but a film on a hero in the confines of commercial cinema.
Ajay Devgun is understated and gives another compelling performance as Bhagat Singh. With Company and now Bhagat Singh, Devgun really must earn the respect of his fraternity from having made it from Stunt hero to an actor who wants to be and believes in good work. Sushant Singh as Sukhdev, D Santosh as Raj Guru, Akhilendra Misra as Chandrasekhar Azad and almost all of the rest of the largely unknmown supporting cast are superb. Amrita Rao, in a short role of Singh’s intended bride has glimpses of Nandita Das in looks but makes her presence felt.
A.R Rahman’s background score is mesmerizing and his songs, blended in with the film are exception. Pagri sambhal jatta, Mera rang de basanti chola, sarfaroshi ki tamanna, jogiya jogiya are all songs that you should remember long after the film has come and gone.
I knew nothing at all about Bhagat Singh but having seen Legend of Bhagat Singh, it has spurred on my thirst to know more. I would consider that Raj Kumar Santoshi has therefore achieved his objective. I would strongly recommend this moving and humane film.