The filmmaker who sets out to make a nationalistic movie about the Indian independence movement does not quite know what to make of Subhash Chandra Bose. A political maverick whose ideology and methods were at odds with the Congress Party-led freedom struggle, Bose has been fleetingly represented in cinema – until 2017. The Indian National Army, comprising former Indian prisoners of war and steered by Bose, features in the year’s releases Rangoon and Raag Desh. The mystery surrounding Bose’s death in 1945 is the subject of the upcoming mini-series Bose: Dead/Alive, starring Rajkummar Rao.
There have been two full-fledged biopics on Bose: the Bengali Subhas Chandra (1966) and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero (2004). A greater number of films feature the leader as a source of inspiration, and focus on the army that he galvanised with the help of Japanese support in the early 1940s. Bose shows up as a totemic presence in Ami Subhash Bolchi (2011), a remake of the Marathi film Me Shivajiraje Bhosale Boltoy (2009) and in Raag Desh (2017), about the trials of three INA soldiers in 1944.
In Ami Subhas Bolchi, Bose comes to the rescue of Debabrata Bose (Mithun Chakraborty), a middle-class Bengali man in Kolkata who hates himself because he is a “Damn Bengali”. Debabrata Bose finds himself unable to keep up with the city’s non-Bengali nouveau riche, who shame him for his genteel ways. After a drunken fight, he goes on a tirade against his kind in a dream before Netaji arrives and rescues him with pep talk on the merits of the Bengali race.
Raag Desh focuses on the 1944 Red Fort trials, in which three INA soldiers were accused of treason. Bose, played by Assamese director Kenny Basumatary, briefly appears to inspire his troops. The fighting force also features in Shankar’s vigilante thriller Indian (1996). Kamal Haasan’s Senapathy character is a former INA soldier.
One of the earliest films to be made on the army is Samadhi (1950), starring Ashok Kumar as Shekhar, an INA officer who is at loggerheads with his brother Suresh (Shyam), a soldier in the British Army. The drama is complicated with the brothers’ lovers, Dolly (Kuldip Kaur) and Lily (Nalini Jaywant), acting as British spies. In the end, Shekhar dies on the battlefield.
The two biopics on Bose vastly differ in length and treatment. While Piyush Bose’s Subhas Chandra (1966) is a briskly narrated, coming-of-age film, Shyam Benegal’s 210-minute Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero (2004) tracks Bose’s life after his split with Mahatma Gandhi and his departure from the Congress Party in 1939.
Subhas Chandra is more of a bildungsroman about the intellectual transformation of Bose from an inquisitive boy to a firebrand leader than a patriotic film. Bose (Ashish Ghosh) grows up in a wealthy household in Cuttack in Orissa. He is enrolled in a school in which students wear dhotis to class and the teachers are natives. Having been educated in a European school, Bose is shamed by his classmates and teacher for knowing little Bengali or Sanskrit. He begins to question his upbringing and beliefs, and under the tutelage of patriotic headmaster Benimadhab Bas, becomes interested in the works of Vivekananda and Rama Tirtha.
The life of Khudiram Bose captures Bose’s attention after he hears a girl singing Ekbar Biday De Ma Ghure Ashi (Bid me goodbye, mother), an elegy for the militant revolutionary who was hanged in 1908 at the age of 18.
As he grows older, Bose (now played by Amar Dutta) becomes increasingly interested in Hindu philosophy, but he is repelled by his experiences of Brahmin practices and casteism. In one scene, Bose and a fellow ascetic are refused meals in Hardwar because they are Bengalis and eat fish. They are asked to eat at a distance from the Brahmins at the Arya Samaj’s gurukul. Disillusioned, Bose realises, “Without freeing the country, we cannot free people’s hearts.”
Bose (now played by Samar Chatterjee) begins to study at the Presidency College, where he earns street cred as a youth leader. After repeated altercations with the college’s British administration, he is expelled. Bose goes on to pass the Indian Civil Services examination, only to refuse a government job, and instead, opting to join the growing nationalist movement in Kolkata. The film ends with Bose getting arrested by the police for the first time in his life.
Benegal’s biopic, in contrast, is a far more expansive – and thus plodding – account of Bose’s political journey. The story begins with Bose (Sachin Khedekar) falling out with Gandhi and continues with his incarceration, house arrest followed by a daring escape, his travels to Afghanistan and Germany in 1941, and finally Japan in 1943, and his leadership of the Indian National Army.
The movie is painstakingly detailed and boasts of great production values (art director Samir Chanda, cinematographer Rajan Kothari and editor A Sreekar Prasad) and music (AR Rahman). Bose is shown as being obsessed with his cause of freeing the nation from the British.
Benegal also includes an aspect of Bose’s colourful life that usually escapes more hagiographical accounts: his relationship with and secret marriage to Emilie Schenkl in Berlin in 1937. Protests by the All India Forward Bloc, the party founded by Bose in 1939, over the inclusion of this episode from Bose’s life forced Benegal to cancel the movie’s premiere in Kolkata.
Some scenes undermine the realism typical of Benegal’s films, resulting in unintended mirth, such as the moment when Bose walks into a prisoners of war camp in Germany and wins over a group of hostile soldiers within minutes because he is, well, Bose. Or when Bose’s colleague Abid Hasan (Rajit Kapur) shouts “Vande Mataram” right after a group of German officials gives the Nazi salute at the start of a meeting. When Hasan explains what Vande Mataram means, the Nazi superior nods in approval.
Bhutanese actor Kelly Dorji is miscast as Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, and he attempts a stereotypical accent that many would call racist. In one hero moment, Bose tells Adolf Hitler that the latter’s decision to send troops to Russia in the winter is wrong. But nothing tops Benegal’s decision to use Ghum Parani Mashi Pishi, a popular Bengali lullaby, in a scene to underline Bose’s longing as he leaves home forever to escape the country and gather the support of the Axis powers for his war against the British.
Benegal’s film shows Bose as a character who was willing to compromise with Gandhi’s non-violence policy for the sake of gaining freedom. Hitler, for one, was not particularly kind to the cause of Indian independence. He would “rather see India under British rule than under any other”, as he wrote in Mein Kampf. Despite that, Bose did not hesitate to approach Germany and Japan (Nehru called them “brutish, reactionary forces” and said that they should “go to hell”), seeking help to raise an army and snatch freedom through violent means.
Bose’s complicated ideological position, perhaps, makes him a difficult person to revere on celluloid. Throughout his life, he opposed the moderate methods of the party that was not only instrumental in getting India freedom but also was a part of independent India’s central government for 49 years. With the present government being contemptuous of the Congress years, filmmakers are now revisiting Bose’s story with renewed zeal and ensuring that he is far from being forgotten.