Gumnaami explores theories about Subhas Chandra Bose's death, and the man who is said to be Netaji in disguise
Gumnaami tells the story of Subhas Chandra Bose and Gumnaami Baba, a man who may or may not have been Bose. The film, directed by Srijit Mukherji and starring Prosenjit Chatterjee, explores the mystery surrounding Bose's death through three theories and relies on the Mukherjee Commission report
Gumnaami tells the story of Subhas Chandra Bose and Gumnaami Baba, a man who may or may not have been Bose.
The film, directed by Srijit Mukherji and starring Prosenjit Chatterjee, explores the mystery surrounding Bose's death through three theories and relies on the Mukherjee Commission report.
The subject of Subhas Chandra Bose has always been a touchy one for most Bengalis and many other Indians. The man’s views of and approach towards the freedom movement, his magnetic charisma, the extent of his contribution to India’s struggle for independence and the nature of his relationships with other patriots and compatriots of his time have always been topics of intense discussion over the decades for everyone, from erudite pundits and historians to the casual observer. Even in death, the man – known to us all as Netaji – gave us many mysteries to be baffled with, so much so that till date, there is neither any clarity nor any undebated and unified agreement on the when’s, the where’s or the how’s of Bose's demise.
It is but natural, then, that the very announcement of National Award-winning filmmaker Srijit Mukherji’s intention to make a film on Bose was met with both applause and outcry. What was quite unexpected, though, was the sheer intensity of it all. Lawsuits were threatened, campaigns were set in motion both for and against the film, and murky waters were tread.
In the centre of all this hullabaloo, of course, was the film and its attempt to tell the story of another man – a man who may or may not have been Bose. A man who was – true to the moniker of ‘Gumnaami Baba’ that he was so aptly christened with – so mysterious that very few of us even know that he existed. A man who many claimed was Bose himself, hiding in disguise. Was he an impostor, falsely claiming to be Bose? Or was he indeed one of India’s most illustrious sons, brought back from the dead, hiding from the world for reasons unknown?
These are questions that are not easy to answer, and one ought not to, therefore, rush into trying to answer them. But apart from the politics of it all, it is expected that in his sheer capacity as a director, Srijit Mukherji would also tell a story in his film. Because a film it is, and in this interview with him and his lead actor Prosenjit Chatterjee, we discuss Gumnaami the film, and the film alone.
“Contrary to popular belief and the claim made by many, the word ‘gumnaami’ means ‘unknown’ – a word that applies to the various theories surrounding the disappearance and alleged death of Netaji Subas Chandra Bose, none of which are known for certain. Hence ‘unknown’ and hence Gumnaami,” says Srijit. He has thought of Bose as his hero since childhood, and it is a sentiment shared by many Bengalis; Netaji’s name and character is imprinted on their psyche.
The director planned to make a film on these lines for many years and was motivated by the wish to ensure that the leader's contributions to the country – he considers him the “true liberator of India” – are not clouded by mystery. “I think the greatest insult or disservice to the man is that 74 years after 18 August 1945, we still do not know what actually happened to him. I hope Gumnaami will raise that question, among many other questions and debates which will eventually result in perhaps more declassification, and in getting some files from Japan. I have received some conclusive and clinching evidence about what actually happened. I hope Gumnaami will open up a Pandora’s box of queries,” he says.
The film explores three theories – that of the plane crash theory, the Russian theory (alleged correspondence between the Indian and Russian governments over Bose's whereabouts in 1945, the year he died), and the third one which says Gumnaami Baba was Subhas Chandra Bose. Srijit relied on the Shah Nawaz Committee report, the Khosla Commission report and Mukherjee Commission report (on which the film is based). He also looked into texts that supported the three theories: His Majesty’s Opponent and Habibul Rahman’s testimony and his account of events (plane crash theory); Conundrum by Chandrachur Ghose and Anuj Dhar, India’s Biggest Cover Up by Dhar, What happened to Netaji, Adheer Som’s Gumnaami Baba (Gumnaami Baba theory).
“I also tried to meet people related to all the theories and cases. I have met Justice Mukherjee, a faction of the Bose Family — Jayanti Rakshit, Arya Kumar Bose, both grand-children of Sarat Bose who was Netaji’s elder brother. I have met some of the eyewitnesses who are alive even today in Lucknow and Faizabad, who have seen Gumnaami Baba,” Srijit says.
“The final verdict of the Mukherjee Commission was that the plane crash never occurred… There is not enough evidence to support the death in Russia theory, and in the Gumnaami Baba theory the evidence is inconclusive, both the DNA and handwriting. And I quote, ‘The question that whether Gumnaami Baba was Netaji or not need not be answered,’” the director adds.
Srijit was able to shoot the hearings of the Mukherjee Commission at the same place where they were held in 1999-2005. He recreated the scene with the help of attendants who are still at Mahajati Sadan, who were present during the hearings.
In the film’s trailer, actor Anirban Bhattacharya plays a character named Chandrachur. From the Wikipedia page of the film, we further learn that the full name of this character is Chandrachur Dhar. In the early stages of the film, Srijit thought that he would base the film on Conundrum by Chandrachur Ghose and Anuj Dhar and named one of the characters after the authors. “But the moment I started writing the screenplay, I realised it is impossible to deal with a mystery of this sort by just looking at one perspective or one interpretation. So, I immediately looked for a neutral and a fair platform on which I could base a debate being conducted on the various theories, and that platform was the Mukherjee Commission hearings,” he explains. The source material and structure of the script changed as the film assumed a more all-round view, but the name of the character stuck, he adds.
Prosenjit plays both Bose and Gumnaami Baba in the film, but he says he never had any apprehensions about the roles or subject matter. “Any actor, Indian or otherwise, would not think twice if they were offered Netaji’s role. It is akin to playing Gandhi or Nehru. I still remember playing ‘Lalan Fakir’ in Moner Maanush, a film which landed in controversy in Bangladesh. We knew controversy would follow Gumnaami, but I was never afraid of it because I viewed it as a huge challenge,” the actor says.
A recently released video depicts how Prosenjit physically transforms into Gumnaami Baba. The makeup was crucial to stepping into the shoes of Bose and Gumnaami Baba, the actor says. “When we were shooting the film in April/May, it was quite hot, especially when we were in Ayodhya and Lucknow — the mercury hovered around 47 to 48 degrees, and I had to wear the prosthetics make-up for around eight to nine hours a day. New elements were incorporated in this prosthetics make-up to get the look right, things that have never been done before. It was all sort of an experiment,” he says. But it wasn’t just prosthetics; Prosenjit had to put on a great deal of weight too. To understand the character’s body language and mannerisms, he studied whatever footage was available on YouTube for close to nine months.
Of the two roles, Prosenjit says he was more confident about playing Gumnaami Baba because there’s no reference point for the audience. “Nobody has seen the man, only some of the local people had seen him or maybe spoken to him. The biggest challenge was that I had to be different from Netaji but give glimpses of him. I had to establish this through dialogue delivery, body language, and gestures, so viewers would get confused. This was the brief from Srijit,” the actor says. He had to portray Gumnaami Baba at three stages of his life: when he was 55-60, then 70, then 85-90.
Srijit made Ek Je Chhilo Raja in 2018, for which he won a National Film Award. The film is based on the infamous Bhawal Sanyasi case, in which a man – who many termed an impostor – claimed to be the long-dead prince of the Bhawal Estate in undivided Bengal. Questions have been raised about the identity of the protagonist in Gumnaami too. Many believe he was an impostor, while others believe he was Bose himself. The film’s take on this remains to be seen, but from a cinematic and storytelling point of view, the similarities in theme are undeniably obvious. I ask Srijit what his views are on doing something that he has already done – not merely in terms of genre, but also theme.
“Genre- and theme-wise it is on the lines of Ek Je Chhilo Raja, but the dynamics, equations, significance, the amount of research available, the number of possibilities, and the historical sequence of events that unfolded are vastly different in the two cases,” Srijit clarifies. He says what motivates him to tell a story is the challenge it presents in terms of logic, facts and mystery, which he then seeks to chart out through his research and probe. The two films differ in terms of their impact, style and also treatment of subject, he says. “Although the Mukherjee Commission hearings and the Bhawal Sanyasi court case both served as the central spine of the stories in Gumnaami and EJCR, the way the arguments unfold, the non-linearity in treatment – all of it may be reminiscent – but they are quite different when you lay them threadbare,” he explains.
Srijit says the Central Board of Film Cetification (CBFC) has termed Gumnaami “an objective, balanced, non-distortive and a non-judgemental film”. When he pointedly asked if he should change the film’s name, they said they would have advised it if he titled it Gumnaami Baba. The current title conveys the essence of the film and the three theories it explores, they concluded.
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