Raag Desh movie review: Tigmanshu Dhulia revisits an overlooked chapter of Indian history
Raag Desh excels at brushing the dust off a forgotten chapter of the history textbooks in a way that Indians can revisit it, with equal amounts of pride and gratitude.
Recently, we have witnessed a host of similar-themed stories in Hindi cinema. Whether it was Dangal/Sultan or MOM/Maatr or Phullu/Padman, stories with the same premise have coincidentally released in the same year, only a few months apart.
Another such common subject that is filmmakers' new favourite is that of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and the Indian National Army (INA). The Forgotten Army is finally being remembered and its struggles documented. Kabir Khan and Hansal Mehta are both currently working on web series based on Bose and the INA.
But Tigmanshu Dhulia, with his latest offering Raag Desh, has gained the advantage of releasing first. This is why this film must be credited for bringing to the fore, a significant part of India's freedom struggle that had been sidelined for decades, unless the successors manage to do the same in a more engaging way. (Case in point, Dangal and Sultan.)
This writer must say that Dhulia manages to do justice to this sensitive yet significant part of history. He presents the story of three INA soldiers — Shah Nawaz Khan (played by a convincing Kunal Kapoor), Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon (a charged Amit Sadh) and Prem Sahgal (Mohit Marwah, charming) — and their Red Fort trials, that made for a rare display of retreat by the British Raj.
Unlike its posters suggest, Raag Desh is not a war film. Though the film boats of well directed scenes from the war, the narrative extends to courtroom drama as well as historical fiction. Also, the three soldiers are the focal point of the film but the narrative has been carefully designed so as to feature an ensemble cast of supporting actors. This shows the filmmaker's attempt to highlight that India's independence was a product of the collective efforts of a wide range of stakeholders.
Besides the three chief actors, Kenny Desai proves his mettle as a nuanced actor. After tickling our funny bone as Humpty's friendly father in Shashank Khaitan's 2014 romantic comedy Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania, Desai shines in the grave role of Bhulabhai Desi, the legal representative of the three INA soldiers. All his scenes, particularly the concluding monologue, are impressive.
His namesake, Assamese actor Kenny Basumatary, aces the role of Bose. He adds the perfect amount of vigour, humour, compassion and vulnerability to the role though Bose's screen time is only about one-tenth of the entire film.
Tamil and Malayalam actor Mrudula Murali comes across a revelation in her debut Hindi film. Despite the language barrier, she manages to evoke the required feelings in the viewers, in the warm romantic scenes with Marwah's character. Also, it is a pleasure to watch a woman not just meant as eye candy, but actually having a meaty part to play in the proceedings, in a film dominated by men.
Kanwaljit Singh and Zakir Hussain deserve special mentions too. Hussain, having watched him in multiple films before, would have seemed caricaturish as a Bengali soldier in the INA. But his fluent and un-forced accent are spot on.
Dhulia holds the film, with myriad characters and historical events, together. His most remarkable achievement, besides the choice of subject, is maintaining the consistency of pace. There is not even one dull moment in the film. The background music, particularly the evergreen soul-stirring 'Kadam Kadam Badhaye Ja' help the narrative significantly.
The cinematography, costumes and production design are commendable as well, given the attention to detail. Historic moments such as Bose shouting, 'Tum mujhe khoon do, main tumhe aazadi dunga' have been crystallised with the aid of well chosen props and camera angles.
However, the deliberate focus on a jury member's mouth when he says 'murder' during the Red Fort Trials just seems bizarre and unnecessary. Similarly, the editing might seem out of place since there is no clear transition between flashback and current time. Also, the length of scenes does not remain consistent which makes it difficult for the viewers to keep pace with the story.
A special mention must be made of the scene where Mahatma Gandhi's letter arrives during Bose's funeral. It is an intelligently written scene that hints at the mysterious disappearance of Bose. There are many similar undercurrents such as the tension between Jawaharlal Nehru and Bose as well as the seed of religious fundamentalism in India.
Overall, Raag Desh is not a superlative film, particularly because of its treatment, editing and lack of a novel story. But what it excels at is brushing the dust off a forgotten chapter of the history textbooks in a way that we can revisit it, with equal amounts of pride and gratitude.
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