Conspiracy theorists who believe that Subhash Chandra Bose did not die in a plane crash in Taiwan on August 18, 1945, will find plenty of fuel for their fantasies in ALTBalaji’s new web series Bose: Dead/Alive.
The nine-episode series, directed by Pulkit, written by Reshu Nath and creative produced by Hansal Mehta, is streaming on the AltBalaji app and website. The alternate history chronicle is based on Anuj Dhar’s 2012 book India’s Biggest Cover-up (2012). Dhar is a proponent of the theory that Bose ended up as a hermit in Uttar Pradesh. The series uses Dhar’s claim that the Indian National Army leader emerged alive out of the plane crash in 1945 as the basis for a portrait of Bose as one of Indian history’s greatest escape artists.
The series is marked by an energetic narrative style and a capitalised young-and-therefore-cool vibe. This is the kind of filmmaking that believes that the history of the freedom struggle is too boring to be told in a conventional manner and must therefore be presented as The Amazing Adventures of the Bengali Dude with the Invisible Cape. Accordingly, Bose, played by Rajkummar Rao with added kilos and a semi-tonsured pate, comes off as a Harry Houdini-like figure who appears and disappears at will.
It is not for nothing that one of the episodes is titled “Catch Me If You Can”. Like Leonardo DiCaprio’s confidence trickster from the 2002 Steven Spielberg movie, Bose is always many steps ahead of his opponents, represented here by British police officer Stanley (Edward Sonnenblick) and his Indian lackey Darbari Lal (Naveen Kasturia). The question here isn’t “Who is Bose?” since he is presented from get-go as the epitome of chutzpah and charisma. Bose appears on the screen fully formed, and commands attention at every stage of his eventful life as he charts out an audacious route to freedom from British rule.
The bigger question is “Where is Bose?” As he keeps slipping in and out of police custody, travels to Afghanistan, Russia and finally Germany to find allies in his war against the British, and supposedly ends up in the Manchurian region after having survived the plane crash, the question that needs to be asked is, “Where isn’t Bose?”
A clutch of men chase the peripatetic leader on his real and imagined adventures, but only two emerge as fanboys. Stanley starts out as a detractor but eventually becomes a devotee, as does Darbari Lal. The attitude of the series towards Bose’s feats is represented by the master-servant pair, one played with earnest hamminess by Sonnenblick and the other with resigned maturity by Kasturia. The glee on their faces when they learn – yet again! – that Bose may be alive is a probably unintended meta-moment.
The series does not lack in research. Bose’s 48-year life includes a break with the Indian National Congress over the question of a non-violent path to Independence, the leadership of the Indian National Army, which allied with the Germans and the Japanese during World War II, and a relationship with the Austrian typist Emilie Schenkl, which produced Bose’s only child, Anita. All these details are present in Bose: Dead/Alive, and have also been depicted in Shyam Benegal’s biopic Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero (2004). The web series skips over the INA sections, probably because these have been explored by Tigmanshu Dhulia’s 2017 movie Raag Desh and will be the subject of Kabir Khan’s upcoming web series.
Instead, Bose Dead/Alive dresses up radical politics as a caper, laced with Benglish pop-rock songs and filled with unabashed admiration for its cartoonish hero. Rajkummar Rao, the gifted actor with a talent for conveying character development, undercuts his character’s relentless daring by playing the role straight. But Rao does not always appear comfortable playing a man who never changes from since we first see him slapping a British professor. A more relaxed performance is by Naveen Kasturia, whose Darbari Lal easily overshadows the risible actors cast as British officers forever running in the opposite direction from the comic-book superhero in the dhoti.