Bringing Bhagat Singh Back

We have a legion of brave freedom fighters in our history, but few have inspired so many films as to have a sub-genre of their own. Here’s a look at the Bhagat Singh biopic
Bringing Bhagat Singh Back

Bhagat Singh — revolutionary, martyr and folk hero — was a movie buff and a fan of Charlie Chaplin. Writers Shubhendu Bhattacharya and Ritesh Shah snuck this bit of trivia into the script of Sardar Udham (2021). When a 20-something Bhagat Singh (Amol Parashar) is asked what he sees himself doing on the day India finally secures independence, he replies, "I'll first watch a Chaplin film, buy some expensive wine, and ask an English lady for a dance." It's a detail that simultaneously makes this icon of courage and patriotism feel relatable, human, and impossibly cool. 

Born in a village in British India, which is now in Pakistan, Singh was hanged when he was 23 years old. Although criticised by his contemporaries for his pro-violence stand, he became a legend after his death and remains one of those rare historical figures who commands admiration across the political spectrum. The values he cherished during his lifetime — socialism, communism — make him a Leftist hero. The religious Right admires him even though he was an atheist. Centrist liberals admire him despite his interest in anarchism. After his hanging in 1931, Singh became "the symbol of the new awakening among the youths," to quote Subhas Chandra Bose. Stories about him were passed down generations, turning the young revolutionary into an icon. Ninety-one years later, his legacy in contemporary India is in the films his life has inspired. The first film about Singh was made in 1954 (Shaheed-e-Azad Bhagat Singh) and it unwittingly started what would become a sub-genre within the larger category of the Indian patriotic film — the Bhagat Singh biopic. 

Inspiring questions

In a culture that likes deifying heroes and prefers its patriotism to be stripped of all nuance, the films inspired by Singh's life and work have been some of the most progressive patriotic films made in the last 75 years. Take, for instance, this crucial scene in Rajkumar Santoshi's The Legend of Bhagat Singh (2002), in which Ajay Devgn as the young Bhagat Singh says at a meeting of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA), "Freedom is not our goal!" HSRA was a revolutionary group founded by Ram Prasad Bismil, Ashfaquallah Khan and Chandrashekhar Azad among others. The attending members look flummoxed. Bhagat rephrases himself: "Freedom is not our only goal!" He urges his fellow revolutionaries to think about what will happen once the nation gains independence. A handful of rich, powerful Indians will replace the British overlords, he points out. Will it change the lives of the peasants or the working class? Will they be guaranteed their rights? "Maqsad hai watan banana (the goal is to build a nation)," says Bhagat, and the crowd erupts in applause. For a brief moment, the film goes beyond the binaries of "good revolutionary versus bad colonial" and urges introspection among Indians. The goal Bhagat puts forward is not a sentimental, token victory; but a concrete step towards building an equal, just society. 

Among Bollywood's earliest takes on Bhagat Singh came in the form of the Manoj Kumar-starrer, Shaheed (1965). Written by Batukeshwar Dutt (a contemporary of Singh) and Din Dayal Sharma, the film chronicled Singh's life in a linear fashion. Not only was it one of the highest-grossing films of 1965, Shaheed went on to inspire filmmakers well into the 2000s. Writer Kamlesh Pandey said he was so struck by Kumar as Bhagat Singh that he kept revisiting Shaheed while writing the Aamir Khan-starrer, Rang de Basanti (2006). Pandey began writing Rang De Basanti in 1997, after being handed a few books on Bhagat Singh and his fellow revolutionaries while working on a documentary. He started dreaming about bringing "Bhagat Singh back" for a generation that Pandey felt had "lost itself" to a consumerist culture of cars, cafés and jeans. 

For Anjum Rajabali, who wrote The Legend of Bhagat Singh, the starting point was KK Khullar's biography on Bhagat Singh. Rajabali was intrigued by the mismatch between the popular notion of Bhagat Singh, and the actual man. "They thought he was a man of 'direct action' – bandook uthaake maar diya (he picked up a revolver and shot someone), desh ke liye jaan de di (martyred himself for his country), yahi hota hai asli hero (this is what a real hero does!). None of them knew what a knowledgeable man he was," said Rajabali. 

Rajabali surprised his director, Rajkumar Santoshi, when he said that while the script would note popular milestones (like the murder of British police officer John Saunders and the bombing of the National Assembly) the film would "actually begin" once Bhagat Singh entered jail. "Santoshi threw up his hands asking how being in jail or going to court through most of the second half would give us a popular connect," Rajabali said, laughing. However, the more Santoshi heard about Singh and his group fasting to demand they be accorded basic dignity as political prisoners, the more he was convinced by Rajabali's point of view. 

Mirroring the present

Rajabali said few films have been able to do justice to the man that Singh was because it's difficult to delve into the mind of a 20-year-old who studied so much. "That kind of understanding of political processes, the knowledge of how the freedom struggle would shape the society to come, this kind of deep thought was something only he was capable of," noted Rajabali. 

Although Shoojit Sircar's Sardar Udham isn't technically a 'Bhagat Singh film', he looms large over the narrative through Udham's memories of Bhagat in prison. Bhagat is like Udham's conscience and played by Amol Parashar, he exudes charisma. After being cast as Bhagat, Parashar got his hands on Bhagat Singh Aur Unnke Saathiyon Ke Dastaavej. "I found an immense hunger for knowledge and life, youthful candour, deep humanity, unwavering loyalty, polite manner, sharp wit, levity, and more in those pages," he said. 

Pandey, Rajabali and Parashar all feel Singh's story is still relevant because his understanding of freedom was never narrow in its scope. "Bhagat Singh and his group were anti-oppression, and I think that's something that has always existed, and will forever exist," Pandey said. This is perhaps why so many films about Bhagat Singh seem to reflect the politics of the era in which they're made, rather than only those of British India. The Legend of Bhagat Singh released only a few months after the Godhra carnage and was packed with social commentary that included showing Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress party in a less-than-flattering light. The film was released when an Atal Behari Vajpayee-led, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government was at the centre. When asked if he was at all concerned about any repercussions while writing the film, Rajabali said, "No, I wasn't. Those days there was no fear like there is today."

In Rang De Basanti, the film alluded to corruption and kickbacks in the present-day government by drawing comparisons between the fictional Defence minister (played by Mohan Agashe) and General Dyer (who was responsible for the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre). According to this HuffPost piece, despite facing hurdles while getting certified for release, Rang de Basanti gave Pranab Mukherjee an opportunity to make a statement. "I'm the Defence Minister of the country. My job is to defend the country, not to censor films," Mukherjee reportedly said after a screening organised specially for him. Rang De Basanti ultimately became one of the biggest hits of 2006. 

Sardar Udham, despite coming out during one of the most politically volatile times in modern Indian history, seemed to urge viewers to think about state-sponsored violence and the responsibilities of a government towards its citizens. The unfair treatment suffered by Bhagat and Udham, who are labelled "terrorists" and "revolutionaries", would for many be reminders of how so many activists and journalists have been cast as "anti-nationals". When we got in touch with director Shoojit Sircar and asked if he would  expand on Sardar Udham's political aspects, he replied with  "No comments please" and the folded-hands emoji. 

One can't help but wonder how Bhagat Singh would have responded to the rise of political conservatism and communalism in contemporary India. "He would be heartbroken," said Rajabali, "This young man of 18 or 19, was able to foresee a problem, but we didn't do anything and here we are. He spoke of socialism and secularism, and wanted them to be the central, driving principles of our society. Neither of which seem to be around today. He would be devastated." Parashar said, "From whatever little I understand, wherever he would be, in whatever time and place, he would stand with the ideas of freedom and equality for everyone, especially the marginalised." 

In Sardar Udham, there's a scene in which Bhagat stresses on the importance of idealism. "Independence without an ideology will be worse than slavery," he says, and the line is drawn from the letters Bhagat Singh wrote, indicating how at a very young age he saw something others didn't foresee. For freedom to be meaningful and have a real impact on the everyday lives of all Indians, it had to be more than a political token. If his words remain inspiring 91 years after his death, it's because the social inequalities of his time have lingered and survived into ours.   

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