Director: Srijit Mukherji
Cast: Prosenjit Chatterjee, Anirban Bhattacharya
There’s a scene 30 minutes into Srijit Mukherji’s Gumnaami that puts Netaji in perspective. The India-Australia Cricket World Cup Finals of 2003 is on, a match India famously lost. One of the viewers in a newspaper office canteen, as though consoling himself, says that regardless of the result, Sourav Ganguly will be remembered as a great agent of change in Indian cricket. His colleague, Chandrachur (Anirban Bhattacharya), cuts him, saying something like ‘History only remembers the victor’. Chandra is a journalist, a hardened cynic, and his views on Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose turn out to be even more acerbic. When his editor gives him an assignment to work on a story on Netaji (in the wake of the setting up of the Mukherjee Commission), he says that he doesn’t get the fuss behind the life-long Bengali obsession of speculating on Bose’s death. ‘Thankfully, Tagore and Ray’s deaths were well-documented,’ he says.
It’s a scene that not only shows where Bose stands in the hallowed galleries of the popular Bengali consciousness, but also makes light of it. It’s irreverent and insightful, and does it with a certain economy. More importantly, it establishes a real, palpable link between the past and the present.
Things that can’t be said about the rest of the film, which is such an information overload of theories and conspiracy theories that you start feeling bad about not being an expert on Netaji. It revolves around the Justice Mukherjee Commission — not the first of its kind — which was formed in 1999 and submitted its findings in 2005. In the commission, the three theories on Netaji’s death were discussed and debated: one that he died in a plane crash in Japan in 1945; the second one that argued that he staged the crash and went to Russia, where he died; and three, he lived the life of an ascetic in a hideout in Uttar Pradesh, the one that the film throws all its weight behind.
The film should’ve tried to capture the essence of Netaji, and make a case for his relevance today. In the way, say, Lage Raho Munnabhai or Rang De Basanti did in terms of connecting Gandhi and Bhagat Singh with present-day characters with invention in screenwriting and cinematic flair. Gumnaami should have dug deeper.
It’s a job that squarely lies on the shoulders of Chandra, the non-believer who would be converted to the point that he will start wearing round-rimmed glasses like Netaji. It’s a spiritual transformation, but of which we only see the transformation and no spirit. The film should’ve tried to capture the essence of Netaji, and make a case for his relevance today. In the way, say, Lage Raho Munnabhai or Rang De Basanti did in terms of connecting Gandhi and Bhagat Singh with present-day characters with invention in screenwriting and cinematic flair. Gumnaami should have dug deeper. There is a sense of injustice about how Bose, along with other Bengali freedom fighters, have been overlooked by history. But how does it play in today’s socio-political context? Does it relate to issues that concern the Bengali today? (The bit about Hindi not being the national language comes off as tokenism and forced) Wasn’t Subhash Chandra Bose one of the original rebels — the proto anti-national? But the questions Mukherji’s film asks don’t go beyond ‘Did Bose die an ascetic’? ‘Did he die in the same place as Lord Ram’? It just ends up being an empty exercise in parochial pride.
The film wants to be an investigative thriller, giving credence to one theory over the other, which is fine. Part of the fun then should’ve been in seeing life being infused into these conspiracy theories, which are full of pulpy possibilities. It’s a tricky thing to pull off. How do you live up to the images that have formed in the mind’s eye? Mukherji needed something more imaginative for these portions. Instead what we get are just period reconstructions that chug along perfunctorily, devoid of any intrigue. Bose in Siberia, on his way to the Stalin’s camp. Bose, dressed as a monk, in the mountains of Nepal making his way into India. The treatment of the early portions — fashioned like black and white footage from the archives of the Raj — feel novel at first but it wears out soon. Although Prosenjit Chatterjee is aptly cast as Netaji. For the most part, he is able to give him the aura of a near-mythical figure without making a caricature of it.