Gour Hari Dastaan review: Our freedom fighters deserve better storytellers and actors to tell their stories

Deepanjana Pal

Aug 15, 2015 17:49:57 IST

Right at the end of Gour Hari Dastaan: The Freedom File, there's a sequence in black and white, in which we see the real Gour Hari Das, whose story is the basis of this Anant Mahadevan film. He's a slight man. His back is straight and he carries a walking stick. He doesn't stand out in any way. In a crowd of elderly people, he'd blend right in and yet, there's a resoluteness in his face that makes it easy to believe that this man would not give up a struggle; even if it took 32 years of his life.

Gour Hari Dastaan review: Our freedom fighters deserve better storytellers and actors to tell their stories

Vinay Pathak and Konkona Sen Sharma in Gour Hari Dastaan. Screen grab from YouTube

For more than three decades, Das campaigned for a simple certificate. All he wanted was for the government of India to duly acknowledge that he was a freedom fighter. Bureaucrats — lazy, corrupt and buried under mountains of files — gave him the runaround. People either made fun of Das or labelled him a liar for wanting glory and advantages that they thought Das didn't deserve. No one took him seriously, but Das persisted.

There's a beautiful, poignant parable in Das's story that shines a light upon the idea of heroism. It also serves to remind us that the Indian struggle for Independence, like most revolutions, was powered by the courage and passion of everyday folk who contributed in tiny, seemingly insignificant ways. There are some names that we remember because their actions and words were legendary or inspirational. However, if people like Das hadn't contributed in the small ways they did, then would we have had independence in 1947? Probably not.

But where is there the time, patience or dedication to commemorate and acknowledge all these acts of everyday heroism? How do you tell a petty criminal from one who was convicted for their political work? Considering how many cogs made up our revolutionary, pre-1947 wheel, is it really possible to acknowledge each and every freedom fighter? What does it say about post-Independent India that our society is obsessed with certificates and paperwork, rather than valuing the person who is telling you true stories? What is the point of a certificate, particularly when it's given under duress or out of exasperation? How complacent has freedom made us? How much do we value our history?

Mahadevan and his co-writer CP Surendran have no patience for such subtleties or questions in Gour Hari Dastaan. Instead, they flatten a nuanced story into a simplistic story of a good man against a bad system. Some of the dialogues are good and delivered with suitable flair, like when Ranvir Shorey argues alcohol needs to be made free because at least it'll change people's moods, which is the best one can hope for since nothing else is changing. This sets up a few good scenes, but that isn't enough to add depth to a shallow screenplay.

This film is a black and white tale to which a host of talented actors try to add nuance, but can't ultimately. The bad people, like the government officers and Das's neighbour Ahirkar, have no saving graces. The good are all flawless and misunderstood, like Das himself. There's more personality in the real-life Das's cameo appearance in the epilogue than in any character in the film, including Pathak as Das.

Not that Pathak helps either his or the film's cause. It's never easy to age convincingly on screen, but Pathak's idea of adding decades to his character's life is to move and speak in slower and slower motion. For reasons unexplained, the make-up team didn't work on Pathak's appearance. As a result, neither wrinkles nor any other sign of old age are added to his face over the course of three decades. In reel-life, Das could be a potential model for anti-ageing creams and is entirely incredible as a man in his 70s.

The damage this wreaks on the film's premise isn't to be taken lightly. Pathak as Das doesn't look old enough to be a freedom fighter and consequently, when people rubbish his claims, it doesn't really seem outlandish. However, the film doesn't use that ambivalence. We're supposed to implicitly believe Das as he shuffles around, behaving vaguely like he's imitating Yoda. Pathak's dialogue delivery is very theatrical, which makes the screenplay worse than it is. For almost two hours, we never forget Pathak is acting, and that too quite badly.

Meanwhile, his wife Lakshmi (Konkona Sen Sharma) is seen steadily gaining dark circles, discoloured skin and grey hair. Sen Sharma is, as usual, perfectly competent as Das's supportive but exhausted wife. Like most of the women in Gour Hari Dastaan, she has little to do in the film. At least the inertness of her role spares her from having to be the butt of misogynist nonsense spoken by the film's second hero, the journalist Rajiv (Ranvir Shorey).

Rajiv is a journalist who believes Das and goes far beyond the call of duty to help locate the evidence that will prove Das was indeed jailed by the British for his commitment to the freedom movement. Along the way, we learn that Rajiv is separated from his wife. The reason his marriage broke down, according to Rajiv, is that his wife is a feminist. Unless Rajiv's angry tirades — feminists should be shot, he tells his girlfriend — provided catharsis to the screenwriters, it's difficult to understand the point of the anti-feminism rants. Surely there are other ways to pad a film if its runtime isn't considered long enough?

At one point in Gour Hari Dastaan, when Das is feeling demoralised, Bapu himself appears in a dream and gives Das a pep talk. While at his spinning wheel, being bathed in golden light. Naturally.

A man conveniently finds his grandfather's diary precisely when Das and Rajiv need it. A jailor's personal notes mention Das in particular even though Das didn't stand out from the other teenaged boys who were arrested along with him for being part of the revolutionary children's brigade, Vanar Sena.

Gary Richardson appears as a British schoolteacher in a village in pre-Independence Orissa, who has a vaguely American accent. A map of India is bent out of shape in such a way that only the state of Orissa, Das's home state, can't be seen. It's difficult to decide whether that's a miracle or a joke. The chief minister of Maharashtra decides that Das's story is getting too much press and his way of dealing with that problem is to meet Das alone, without any press or staff to record or publicise the event. What better way to change the public's mind?

There's neither realistic detail nor credibility to Gour Hari Dastaan's story or storytelling. All you get is earnestness with a side plate of self-righteousness. On Independence Day, you can't help but wish our freedom fighters had better storytellers to tell their tales.

Updated Date: Aug 15, 2015 17:49:57 IST