Swatantrya Veer Savarkar Review: A Portrait of Our Attitudes in the Present

Randeep Hooda turns director in this historical biopic, in which he also plays the titular role.
Swatantrya Veer Savarkar Review: A Portrait of Our Attitudes in the Present

Director: Randeep Hooda

Writers: Randeep Hooda, Utkarsh Naithani

Cast: Randeep Hooda, Amit Sial, Anikta Lokhande

Duration: 178 mins

Available in: Theatres

Word on the street is that writer and political activist Vinayak Damodar Savarkar is part of the syllabus in not just Maharashtra but in other parts of India too — last year, state boards of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh announced Savarkar would be part of their curricula — which means the hypothetical audience of Swatantrya Veer Savarkar may find themselves giving thanks to their school History teachers. No matter how good or bad those teachers may be, chances are they didn’t finger-wag as much as Hooda does in his Savarkar avatar and classes didn’t go on for 178 minutes. 

Hooda begins his film with a disclaimer that declares Swatantrya Veer Savarkar is based on research, but also takes the liberty to imagine some incidents and details. Then comes a note that sounds like it wants to be a provocation and a warning — “We have all been told India got it’s independence by non-violence. This is not that story.” (It is also incorrect grammar and bad spelling since it should “its” and not “it’s”, but maybe that’s just Hooda finding his own way of rebelling against the colonial imposition of the English language.) What follows is a biopic that feels curiously narcissistic in the way it uses fact and fiction to glorify its protagonist.

Randeep Hooda in and as Savarkar
Randeep Hooda in and as Savarkar

Imagined History

Bulked up with padding that includes everything from imagined scenes in Bombay during the bubonic plague of 1897, to the bombing of Nagasaki, and faux black-and-white footage showing an actor playing Nehru kissing the hand of a woman standing in for Edwina Mountbatten, Swatantrya Veer Savarkar is a straightforward biopic. To its credit, the film manages to pull off a historical period piece with a limited budget, mostly by relying on close-ups and setting scenes in either enclosed spaces or semi-darkness. Swatantrya Veer Savarkar pitches Savarkar as the real father of the nation while showing M.K. Gandhi as a smooth-talking politician, played with singular blandness by Rajesh Khera (once upon a time, he played an Onida devil. How’s that for a trajectory?). However, for all those feeling saffron, there is disappointment: Hooda’s Savarkar does not approve of Gandhi’s killing. Also, Gandhi might have the best line in this magnum opus when he rushes towards Savarkar’s wife Yamuna with folded hands and says, “I bow my head to you who have spent a lifetime with Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. I couldn’t manage an hour.” Even those in the audience who had cheered Savarkar’s previous jibes at Gandhi burst out in laughter.   

Swatantrya Veer Savarkar has all the stories you’ve heard about the man, from the world-famous jump to swim to France, to his petitions begging for release from the Cellular Jail in Andaman, and being dubbed “one of the most dangerous men that India has produced” by British officials. Additionally, the film’s Savarkar is a man who makes the statement that women’s opinions are to be respected (never mind the minor detail that there are barely any speaking parts for women in this film. Hooda and Naithani are able to imagine a range of outlandish incidents, including Savarkar and Lenin shaking hands through a bookshelf, but not an evolving arc for Yamunabai, Savarkar’s wife. Even in the scene where Savarkar says he will only marry Yamuna if she accepts him after knowing the dangers of marrying a revolutionary, Yamuna doesn’t get a line of dialogue. She’s only filmed artfully through a screen, glimpsed as a creature of silence and photogenic details).

A still from Savarkar
A still from Savarkar

Reel-ing It In

Rather than a film, Swatantrya Veer Savarkar feels like content designed to be clipped into byte-sized pieces to go viral on social media. Scenes of Savarkar being tortured in the Cellular Jail are interspersed with shots of Indian royalty paying obeisance to the British crown, making it seem as though no Indian royal stood up to the colonial project (look up Sayajirao Gaekwad III, just as an example). There are scenes in which Savarkar’s declarations veer dangerously close to hate speech and the vitriol for the Congress party is unmistakable, which feels particularly pointed given we’re officially in election season. Savarkar’s conviction that every religious identity in India can and should be erased and subsumed within the term “Hindu” includes not only an assertion that some Muslims may be considered Hindus, but that “Sikh sabse bade Hindu hain (Sikhs are the greatest Hindus)” — in addition to being tone deaf and offensive, this scene is a viral reel waiting to happen.

Having taken over Swatantrya Veer Savarkar after director Mahesh Manjrekar walked out of the project, Hooda has made a film that seems fuelled as much by narcissism as history and the politics of the present day. No other actor or character gets the spotlight, leaving actors like Amit Sial (as Savarkar’s elder brother, Ganesh) and Ankita Lokhande (she plays Yamuna) to make do with scraps. In one scene, Savarkar and Madan Lal Dhingra (Mrinal Dutt) stand with their foreheads touching, eyes locked on one another, arms on each other’s shoulders. “I’m the one with the looks of a hero,” Dhingra says jokingly and technically, this is true, but you’d be hard-pressed to tell because the faces are lit in a way that casts Dutt mostly in shadow. The camera lingers in awe and adoration over only Hooda’s face and body, and the script is essentially a series of setups for Hooda to show off how he transformed himself into Savarkar, and Savarkar into the improbable one-stop-shop for all revolutionary fervour. From Bhagat Singh to Subas Chandra Bose, everyone came to Savarkar and got the ideas which would later make them the stuff of legends, according to Swatantrya Veer Savarkar. It’s the kind of fiction that would definitely earn you a finger-wag if you said this in your History class in school.   

A still from Savarkar
A still from Savarkar

One Hero to Bind them All

There’s only one aspect of Hooda’s film that can be described as liberal: Its dismissal of facts. To establish Savarkar as a towering hero rather than a cult ideologue, his contemporaries have to be reduced or caricaturised. The ones who are allowed glory are the freedom fighters who die before Savarkar and whom the film has linked to the political thinker’s ideology. The character of Dr. Ambedkar is mostly shot in a way that his face stays in shadow. Muhammad Ali Jinnah is seen only as a smirking, pipe-smoking troublemaker. Savarkar himself is not allowed any moments of doubt or weakness, which makes for a boring hero, especially when he has no real adversary. At one point, we’re told that if the Indian freedom movement had followed Savarkar instead of Gandhi, India would have got independence sooner, which suggests even the British empire couldn’t pose a challenge to Savarkar’s awesome heroism. Swatantrya Veer Savarkar is also the latest addition to the project that claims Savarkar’s multiple mercy petitions were part of a masterplan to outwit colonial authorities, rather than desperate pleas that stand out because the conditions in the Cellular Jail were horrific, but only a handful of prisoners wrote these mercy petitions. 

Perhaps more interesting than the departures from history is how Savarkar is framed to be a hero for the present through this film. Even though it’s set in a historical time that inspired heroism in so many, Swatantrya Veer Savarkar can only make room for one great leader. The film’s Savarkar is a man who has always been flawless. He’s manly, muscular, and angry. He’s a man who urges others to violence but is a man of letters himself. He travels to the West but doesn’t lose his Indianness; he makes the white man sit up and take notice. The Savarkar in this film is a man whom the Hindus revere and whom Muslims first abuse and then, fear. For all its notes and footnotes, Swatantrya Veer Savarkar seems less about the past, and more a portrait of our attitudes and aspirations in the present.  

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