In 1942, as the colonial British regime turns up the violence on its increasingly restless Indian subjects, a group of young people with their lives ahead of them pledge to “Do or Die”. Ae Watan Mere Watan tells the story of one of these youngsters, the 22-year-old Usha Mehta, and her radio rebellion.

Kannan Iyer’s Hindi-language movie for Prime Video is set during the decisive Quit India movement. When the Congress party gets banned and its top leadership is thrown into prison, Usha (Sara Ali Khan) sets up an underground radio station that will keep Indians informed about events.

The short-wave brainwave is executed like a bank heist. Scheming in the shadows while looking over their shoulders, Usha and her friends Fahad (Sparsh Srivastav) and Kaushik (Abhay Verma) run Congress Radio, as it comes to be known, with uncommon daring.

They have the backing of Congress leader Ram Manohar Lohia (Emraan Hashmi), who has managed to evade arrest. The British unleash the odious John Lyre (Alex O’Nell) on the plotters. Usha has other battles to fight, including the disapproval of her judge father Hariprasad (Sachin Khedekar).

The involvement of Usha Mehta, the iconic Gandhian, with Congress Radio have been documented in several books, including Usha Thakkar’s Congress Radio: Usha Mehta and the Underground Radio Station of 1942. The film cites the play Kharr Kharr, written by Amatya Goradia and Pritish Sodha, as a source.

Emraan Hashmi in Ae Watan Mere Watan (2024). Courtesy Amazon MGM Studios/Dharmatic Entertainment.

The portrayal of sonic youth who lined up for self-abnegation deserved a more immersive movie. Darab Farooqui’s screenplay has a capitalised earnestness that often comes in the way of the staging. Some of the dialogue is stilted to the ear – “I want to fly, father!” Usha tells Hariprasad.

Sincere, studious and stodgy, Ae Watan Mere Watan tries to ratchet up the drama through frequent sloganeering and fist-clenching. The best-observed relationship is between Usha and Fahad, both of whom are striving to do their best for a country that is aching to be free.

Usha Mehta is played with Sara Ali Khan with the same valour with which the movie tries to recreate a near-forgotten age. While the contradictory impulses between a pulsating thriller and a human story are never satisfactorily resolved, Usha’s choices – family versus the freedom movement, love versus her Gandhian principles – provide a bit of understanding about her spitfire personality.

The 133-minute movie is handsomely mounted, with spiffy production design by Amrita Mahal Nakai and Sabrina Singh. The throwback to a time when the radio incited people rather than willed them into numb obedience, as well as the depiction of the Congress party as the country’s greatest hope rather than its biggest enemy, are unmistakable.

Ae Watan Mere Watan (2024).

Also read:

‘Congress Radio’: This book recounts how the underground radio of India’s freedom movement was run

Ramachandra Guha: What the RSS could learn about nationalism from freedom fighter Usha Mehta