When Rajya Sabha TV offered Tigmanshu Dhulia the choice to direct a film on either the historic Indian National Army trials or Vallabhbhai Patel, the answer was a no-brainer.
Dhulia had previously worked on Ketan Mehta’s Sardar, and didn’t want to redo the same material. At the same time, he also discovered something about the 1945 trials that he had been unaware of despite studying history in college.
Dhulia had always felt that India had won her independence without much effort. While he knew that freedom fighters, including his grandfather, had struggled to break free from the British – by staging protests, going to jail, chanting slogans – he felt that the events lacked a cinematic quality. That perspective quickly changed after his research into the events surrounding the trials, which were conducted after WWII and during which soldiers were tried for treason, among numerous other charges.
“I kind of felt like this was the final nail in the coffin,” Dhulia said. “When this INA thing happened, Britishers must have thought that it was difficult to stay on, and it gave the final and most deadliest push to their rule.”
Another factor that appealed to the 49-year-old director was the period during which the trials took place. It reminded him of an India that does not exist anymore, when disparate groups in society came together to make common cause and even real-life villains seemed to have redeemable qualities.
The first of the trials, which were conducted in Delhi’s Red Fort, had a Hindu, a Sikh and a Muslim as the defendants. “What happened was completely unprecedented,” Dhulia said. “For the first time, the Hindu Mahasabha, the Muslim League and the Indian National Congress united and came together to protest against their sentencing.” A fact that is particularly heartening considering the fractured state of today’s India, said the director of Haasil, Paan Singh Tomar and Saheb, Biwi aur Gangster.
Raag Desh, the resulting film, will be released on July 28.
Shot with anamorphic lenses to create the look and feel of 1940s India, the period film stars Kunal Kapoor, Amit Sadh and Mohit Marwah. Featuring a mix of sets and real-life locations such as Red Fort and Rashtrapati Bhavan (where Dhulia points out that even the makers of Gandhi were not given permission to shoot), Raag Desh has elements of a war film as well as a courtroom drama.
The movie will focus not only on the landmark trial of Colonel Prem Sahgal, Colonel Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon and Major General Shah Nawaz Khan, but also the events leading up to the trial, including the activities of INA founder Subhash Chandra Bose. Dhulia will be expanding on the subject for a six-part television series for Rajya Sabha TV.
Since books, documentaries and photographs were easily available, and family members and descendants of the key figures were still alive, research wasn’t the problem. The challenge was in assembling a team to help Dhulia sift through the voluminous material.
“These kinds of films don’t have a background in our cinema history, so that kind of research is absent,” Dhulia said. He was eventually able to find a team of four “like-minded” people who were able to work on a single “dry subject” for a long period of time.
Trying to create drama and conflict from real-life events came naturally to Dhulia, following his period film Paan Singh Tomar (2013) , about the Chambal Valley dacoit and athlete. The experience of working on Paan Singh Tomar also helped the director during the editing of Raag Desh.
Dhulia discovered that the INA trials were highly complex, and there were too many intricacies involved that needed explaining. What was India’s role in WWII? Who was the British Indian Army and how was it different from the Indian National Army? Dhulia returned to a lesson he had learned while making Paan Singh Tomar: “Amidst the personal achievements, you have to find the human element and the rest will follow.”
As a result, Dhulia became fascinated by the counter-narrative of the INA. Radio and newspapers of the time labelled its members as traitors, and this dichotomy formed the spine of the film. There was drama inherent in deciding whether the members of the INA were heroes or villains, and the film came together around that central idea.
A large part of the narrative will also be a courtroom drama, which has often tended towards the cartoonish in Hindi cinema. Dhule wanted to move away from the trope by focusing on the arguments, which he describes as endlessly interesting, while also remaining committed to the real procedures, especially since he came from a family of judges and advocates.
One of the models for these scenes was Judgement at Nuremberg (1962), which Dhulia called his favourite film. The director also looked towards Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) for the war scenes. In the World War II drama, Spielberg placed the camera in the centre of the battle to create the feel of a documentary, a technique that Dhulia has attempted to replicate for Raag Desh.
Choosing to focus on the complexities of a historic event could easily lead to controversies, both in the form of public outcry and censorship, something that Dhulia is well aware of. “Who will not be afraid of censorship in the present climate,” he said, but added that since the film does not feature the most controversial aspect of Bose’s life – his death – he has little to worry about. “What people could have a problem with is the way I have shown Netaji’s philosophy, but that can only be judged once the film releases,” he said.
Raag Desh marks Dhulia’s return after Bullet Raja (2013). The intervening years have seen several starts and stops. He has numerous projects in the pipeline: the WWII-set drama Kesar, a biopic of Dalit left-arm spinner Palwankar Baloo, the third Saheb, Biwi aur Gangster film, and a project close to his heart, Milan Talkies, which has been constantly struggling to see the light of day.
The director takes a pragmatic approach to the situation. “I’d be lying if I say it isn’t disheartening, but every film has its own destiny,” he said. “So many films struggle to get made.”
Dhulia points to 2012 at the pinnacle of a movement of a certain kind of cinema pioneered by him and his like-minded peers, including Anurag Kashyap and Dibakar Bannerjee. That year saw the release of films such as Paan Singh Tomar, Vicky Donor and Kahaani. The problems began soon after. The small-budgeted offbeat films had relative success at the box office and this attracted the big sharks, he said. “Just like it happens in film industries around the world, everything went wrong after that.”
The main problem with Hindi cinema currently is that the “stories are not rooted”, according to Dhulia. By that, he does not mean a village setting. Films like Dil Chahta Hai (2001) and Kapoor and Sons (2016) understand the milieu in which they take place.
According to Dhulia, a certain knowledge of history and culture is missing from Indian society, which was previously accessible to all but can now only be gained through education. Citing the example of K Asif, who studied till the fifth standard and was a tailor before he made Mughal-e-Azam (1960), Dhulia said that a similar kind of autodidactism would not be possible today. In Raag Desh, Dhulia is trying to avoid the generalised nature of mainstream films by having characters speak in language they normally would: Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali.
The filmmaker who made his debut with Haasil (2003) isn’t particularly optimistic about the future of Hindi cinema. “No one treats cinema as an art form anymore,” he said. “Films no longer have the life they used to have. Not enough people are watching movies. It’s all become about spectacle, about selling popcorn, not tickets.”
The shift from a good mix of commerce and art to its current state is propelled in part by the fact that none of the “corporate head honchos” who greenlight projects has a creative bent of mind. “Hollywood will kill us,” Dhulia said. But that doesn’t mean he will stop doing what he is doing. “Making films is the only thing I can do and I need to make them to survive.”