Bose: Dead/Alive review - Beyond Rajkummar Rao's performance, racy plot, production design stand out
In the second episode of the web series Bose: Dead/ Alive, we see the shadowy figure of a man in a train. His face is hidden underneath a big hat, and covered by a long, scraggly beard. Surrounded by a thick cloud of cigarette smoke, there is mystery in the air. The cigarette in his hands, is the clue to his identity. Until now, he has been seen chain smoking, sometimes sharing a cigarette with his jailor in prison and even giving a young girl the first puff of a cigarette at an arranged matrimonial meet with her. He is quite the cool dude. He is Bose, the most wanted man by the British, following reports of his death in a plane crash in Japan.
The title soundtrack with its beats of "Bose…Bose…Bose..” sets the tone of this thriller.
Alt Balaji’s 9-part web series Bose: Dead or Alive addresses Indian history’s biggest controversy, the mystery behind the death of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, with entertaining doses of fiction. Based on the book, The Biggest Cover-Up by Anuj Dhar, and with Hansal Mehta as Creative Producer, the series works in parts because of the pacy writing by Reshu Nath.
While the first episode is a little hurried and even tacky in its sudden use of an English song, the series soon engages with the controversial story of the rebellion phenomenon that was Bose. The facts and history on the show are liberally loaded with heroic, patriotic dialogues delivered with fearless arrogance by Rajkumar Rao.
Sample these — “Mujhe azaadi hai naukri chodhne ki,” he says when asked about why he left the prestigious job in Indian Civil services. “Chaakri nahin karni, krantikari karni hai.”
Bose’s introductory scene at Presidency College shows him beating up a British professor (Zachary Coffin). Naveen Kasturia is well cast as 'Bihari' — a seemingly pleasant villain. The British are now wary of this Indian revolutionary and rightly so. He does not limit himself to kraantikari slogans, neither does he submit with his head bowed. Instead, he trains young men to fight with the laathis, and forms an army. “Meri army ke liye Calcutta bahut chota pad jayega,” he warns the British corporal head, Stanley (a good-looking Edward Sonnenblick ).
And indeed, as history witnessed eventually, Bose revamped the armed forces in Indian National Army in Southeast Asia during World War II, to fight against the British for Indian Independence.
The use of Bihari as a narrative thread and Stanley, as representative of various British officials, add an interesting equation to Bose’s story told in flashbacks. It takes us through his journey as the Congress President in 1938, to various imprisonments, to several theories of his whereabouts in Japan, Germany and Manchuria.
The series is rich in its production design, with costumes and props from the '30s and '40s (a telephone operator office in particular) that build an authentic setting. Rajkummar Rao’s look has been meticulously designed, ranging from a younger, full-cheeked, thick haired man to a naturally, semi shaved head for his balding years later. The screenplay also weaves in humorous yet romantic scenes between Bose, his matrimonial date Nandini (the refreshing Patralekhaa) and his supposed German wife Emilie (Anna Ador) who is believed to have kept 165 letters from Bose. Both women are instrumental in what he calls his first love — freedom fight for his country.
The series does not shy away from hinting at Bose’s alleged encounter with the Nazis or the political divide between Nehru/Gandhi and Bose. As a British official asks Nehru, “If Bose is indeed alive and does return, who would be Prime Minister?” This is a fertile ground for further plot conspiracies. However, this is too sketchy and not enough is explored. At least, not in the first five episodes.
While the vibe of the story never deviates from its primary tone of unravelling the mystery of whether Bose is dead or alive, the series’ real strength lies in maintaining Bose’s heroic character and the undying patriotic spirit. Though it sadly lacks depth in its historical politics, the dialogues are promising enough to keep the viewer interested enough for the next season.