Director: Tigmanshu Dhulia
Cast: Kunal Kapoor, Amit Sadh, Mohit Marwah, Vijay Verma, Kenny Basumatary, Mrudula Murali
Early on in Raag Desh, there’s a fleeting scene that pretty much symbolizes the “greedy” grammar of its director Tigmanshu Dhulia’s storytelling. The film is based on the iconic Red Fort trials of 1945, where three patriotic Azad Hind Fauj (Indian National Army) soldiers are tried for crimes against the British Indian Army in a war that was lost with the death of INA leader, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. Vishal Bhardwaj’s Rangoon earlier this year was theatrically centered upon this in-house conflict, too.
Much like the Dunkirk evacuation (brought to life by Christopher Nolan’s film last week) in World War II, this defeat – and the subsequent trial – stoked a slow-burning nation-wide fire that would lay the foundation for India’s freedom battle to truly take flight. In both instances, this fire is sensed and not seen; the filmmakers’ chosen confines (in this case, a courtroom drama intercut with flashbacks of the war leading to it) are meant to communicate the gravitas of its ripples.
In this scene at an INA prison camp, a British Indian soldier summons the convicts to a square to make an announcement. Without any fuss, he tells them that Bose has died in a plane crash, and walks away. He is essentially telling an army – a mentality, a movement – that they are finished. If there were ever a time for some good, old-fashioned melodrama, this is it.
But Dhulia quickly cuts to the faces of the two of three on-trial prisoners (Kunal Kapoor as Lt. Shah Nawaz Khan, and Amit Sadh as Colonel Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon) in their cell. Their beloved friend and leader is no more. They barely register any disappointment, before the next scene – an intimate funeral where Gandhi’s message halts proceedings – quickly plays out. And then, the next, and the next, without so much as a pause to let us digest the extensive research Dhulia and his writers are visibly eager to share.
There is so much history to narrate, so many sub-stories and political angles to touch upon, that the makers rarely let any emotion register fully. This is a pity, because we are inclined to genuinely pay attention to its machinations. There’s much to be enlightened about, and equally enough to be disenchanted with.
In fact, it’s only the “now” and the specificity of certain proceedings – famed lawyer Bhulabhai Desai’s (a fantastic Kenneth Desai) precise closing argument, the parallel thread of an ambitious young journalist (Pink’s Vijay Verma) tracking the case – that add some real cinematic heft to a rushed, over-planned narrative. We root for these underdog moments because there’s enough time to. The pauses are pronounced, for a change.
It feels like the actual “meat” of history, not just the crowded exoskeleton. Until the next clumsy war scene appears with a screaming Amit Sadh, and until awkward shots of Desai “planning” the trial with his chilled-out clients in between, or until the next half-hearted smile of a lovely Tamilian doctor carving her way through the structural chaos.
There is so much history to narrate, so many sub-stories and political angles to touch upon, that the makers rarely let any emotion register fully. There’s much to be enlightened about, and equally enough to be disenchanted with.
Perhaps concentrating exclusively on the courtroom and its prime characters going about their routines might have omitted the noise and exposition, thereby amplifying its watershed significance without compromising on authenticity. Less, in this case, could have been so much more. But Dhulia never does less; he’d rather translate relentlessly than ever get lost in translation. His mainstream filmography – Saheb, Biwi aur Gangster (2011), its sequel, and Bullet Raja (2013) – is a running demo of such extremes.
The second half, for example, is a series of flashbacks as the soldiers and witnesses painfully recollect their events in court. At no point are their personalities fully registered in our senses. It gets a little confusing to see the process after the result – the war after it has happened – like a complex, non-linear history lesson being read out rapidly by a demanding teacher who insists on full concentration.
In fact, at one point, a Bengali character (Zakir Hussain) is introduced in court merely to educate us about the detailed formation of the INA. We see a good-natured Bose (Kenny Basumatary) in its early days, often punctuated by the abrupt addition of a quintessentially peppy training anthem. We get it: he galvanized the troops with a sense of purpose. He is turned into a figure, a device, with this outbreak of music.
You can almost sense the “edit” here – the ruthless, business-like merging of every peripheral event possible. There’s also an absurdly random insert of Winston Churchill in London, the half-baked ramifications on the Indian Muslim League, and a mandatory Gandhi scene to lend credence to the gathering movement. As a result, what we have is plenty of information, many important characters and a couple of decent supporting performances that get lost in the din of quasi-documenting.
Even Paan Singh Tomar (2010) , Dhulia’s most acclaimed film, had to be unevenly cobbled together to at least capitalize on his knack to pick the right subjects. It was choppy and broad, but just about salvaged. I can understand his excitement, though. This is a country ripe with untold – and unfelt – stories. The less definitive they are, the more they become worth telling. When you find one, you feel the uncontrollable urge to do full justice to it as an artist.
Some directors become jumpy little kids who must utter and relay every word and sigh of what they’ve learned, while others learn to summarize the essence of their knowledge into the reader-friendly “spirit” of micro processing. No guesses for which breed Tigmanshu Dhulia represents. And in this country, it helps to be placed exactly in between.