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‘Raag Desh’ film review: A history lesson from 1941 that echoes in the present

Tigmanshu Dhulia’s period drama rewinds to the historic trial of three Indian National Army soldiers in Delhi in 1945.

Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Raag Desh provides a snappy history of the Indian National Army through the court-martial of three of its soldiers at Delhi’s Red Fort in 1945. The trial, one among many, was meant to be a showcase of the colonial imprimatur on its vast colony. Prem Sehgal, Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon and Shahnawaz Khan were being tried for the specific act of killing deserters during battle with the British forces and the general act of treason against the Crown. The Congress mounted a legal defence, led by Mumbai lawyer Bhulabhai Desai, and although the men were found guilty, their sentences were commuted after unrest raged across the country.

Some of the complex history of the INA and its controversial allegiances (with Nazi Germany, Japan) has been dealt with in Shyam Benegal’s biopic Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero (2004). Raag Desh narrows in on the INA trials, regarded as one of the events that quickened the demise of British rule over India. This defeat enfolded victory, according to Dhulia’s astute screenplay, written along with Pramod Singh.

Through the depositions of Sehgal (Mohit Marwah), Khan (Kunal Kapoor) and Dhillon (Amit Sadh), Dhulia also delivers a summary of the INA’s formation, its early success in mounting an armed attack on British rule, its charismatic leader Subhash Chandra Bose (Kenny Basumatray) and its eventual collapse against superior British military skills.

Raag Desh.

The film has been culled out of footage intended for an eventual series on Rajya Sabha TV. This shows in the cramming of events that deserved greater exposition, the short shrift given to key characters, and the impoverished production values that might pass muster on the small screen but show up on the big one. Raag Desh’s under-funded attempts to recreate the pre-Independence period result in a tacky and messily assembled production. Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982) remains the unmatched gold standard for a freedom struggle drama that marries spectacle with an intimate portrait of one of its giants, and no Indian production has managed to replicate its sweep or impact.

Staffed with mostly serviceable actors (there are exceptions, such as Mrudula Murali’s Laxmi Swaminadhan), Raag Desh’s pleasures are decidedly on a smaller scale, and emanate from the realm of ideas. Dhulia’s views of pre-1947 India are by no means idealistic – a character wryly explains an ideological argument as preparation for a life after independence from colonial rule – and he is clear-eyed about the INA’s achievements. His admiration for the brave men and women who believed enough in the cause to be mowed down on the battlefield is evident, as is his recognition that they were ultimately a means to an end. They are easily plucked out by the British in battle, but even in their surrender, Dhulia excavates the audacity of hope. Despite numerous rousing speeches for freedom, the movie never slides into chest-thumping jingoism, and at 137 minutes, provides an absorbing account of a fascinating and underexplored chapter of the freedom struggle.

(L-R) Amit Dadh, Mohit Marwah and Kunal Kapoor in Raag Desh.  Image credit: Rajya Sabha TV.
(L-R) Amit Dadh, Mohit Marwah and Kunal Kapoor in Raag Desh. Image credit: Rajya Sabha TV.

In the hands of a more skilled director, Raag Desh might have been a more streamlined and less repetitive film, better cast and performed, and more mindful of the hunger of contemporary audiences for a more impressive presentation of the freedom struggle. But it might also have missed on some of the more exciting qualities of Dhulia’s writing, evident in Haasil, Paan Singh Tomar and Saheb Biwi aur Gangster – his ability to generalise from the specific, and his serious approach to knotty political questions. Raag Desh doesn’t meet the requirements of the historical epic in terms of its production values, but it does match the genre’s basic requirement: the only reason to travel back into the past is to ponder about the present.

Despite the framing voiceover that sets the events in context, most of the ideas are subtly conveyed. The conventional historical drama makes room for debate and doubt. Dhulia depicts the India of 1945 as a time when the not-yet-free nation still retained its ability to accommodate differences of opinion and ideology. Bhulabhai Desai agrees to mount the defence even though he has fallen out with the Congress leadership, while journalist Jameel Kidwai (Vijay Verma) provides a counterpoint to rabble-rousing Muslim League supporters, who are keen to claim Shahnawaz Khan as their own. The Indian National Army’s struggles are humanised by minor exchanges between characters, such as the disapproval of Khan’s brother, a British Indian Army soldier, and the busy screenplay makes some time for the romance between Prem Sehgal and Laxmi.

If the soldiers from different religions on trial represent a microcosm of India, the multi-lingual INA cadre and their numerous anonymous supporters too represent a country marked by diverse passions. The INA was formed by Indian soldiers of the British Army who had been captured as Japanese prisoners of war. Trained by their colonial masters, these men and women turned on them. Released during an age of hyper-nationalism that demands a complete surrender to a narrow idea of India, Raag Desh is a reminder of a time when the idea of unity in diversity actually meant something.

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