Gumnaami movie review: An admirable second half can't right the information overload of a monotonous beginning

As claimed by the makers, Gumnaami does present and examine a number of theories surrounding Netaji’s death — or, shall we say, his disappearance

Bhaskar Chattopadhyay October 08, 2019 08:57:50 IST


In a recent interview with Firstpost, filmmaker Srijit Mukherji asserted that he wanted his new film Gumnaami to raise questions that have not been raised with the fervour that a subject as important as the death of one of India’s foremost freedom fighters — Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose — deserves. Having watched his film, I am convinced that Gumnaami does manage to do what it set out to do. In fact, that is all that the film is about — question after question, facts and figures, arguments and counter arguments. But perhaps because of all the controversies surrounding it, or perhaps due to some other reason or reasons as unknown as its protagonist’s demise, the film barely manages to come across as a wholesome and beautiful work of cinema.

On Firstpost: Gumnaami explores theories about Subhas Chandra Bose's death, and the man who is said to be Netaji in disguise

As claimed by the makers, the film does present and examine a number of theories surrounding Netaji’s death — or, shall we say, his disappearance. Its principal focus, of course, is on the hearings of the Mukherjee Commission, and on one independent researcher’s obsession with finding out what really happened to the great man. In doing so, the film does take a stance – and there is nothing wrong with that. After all, it is virtually impossible to remain one hundred percent objective in art, nor is it a prerequisite in the first place. Which is why, the film (through said researcher Chandrachur Dhar, played with admirable energy, style and enthusiasm by Anirban Bhattacharya) seems to present a strong case for the ascetic known as Gumnaami Baba — who many believed was Netaji hiding in disguise. On several occasions, Gumnaami Baba — played by Prosenjit Chatterjee, who also plays Netaji in the film — is shown to claim that he is not the revolutionary freedom fighter that people believed he was, adding wistfully: ‘That man is long dead’. Through his film, Mukherji presents several pieces of evidence that strongly point towards Gumnaami Baba being Netaji himself.

But in my capacity as a film critic, my job is not restricted to wondering if indeed the myth of Gumnaami Baba was true or not. It is also my duty to study and report what I thought of Gumnaami — the film. And in doing so, I recall that Srijit Mukherji has himself been a student of Economics. Who better than he would then know the distinction between data and information? What Mukherji’s film tends to do is to throw at us a barrage of data — data as cold and hard as the altar it is laid upon. This is an exercise that is of undebatable significance in a legal hearing. Which the Mukherjee Commission is. But in a film, this has to be accompanied with a certain amount of artistic creativity. This task, I must hasten to add, is not easy. In fact, it is exceedingly difficult to accomplish, and requires a tremendous amount of creative freedom, writing skill and a smooth execution. Gumnaami does its best under the circumstances, but although the film’s second half has some admirable glimpses of unquestionable talent — more often than not by its lead actor — the first half becomes somewhat monotonous, with fact after fact being thrown at us before we can or care to absorb them.

Gumnaami movie review An admirable second half cant right the information overload of a monotonous beginning

Prosenjit Chatterjee as Subhas Chandra Bose. All images are Youtube screenshots

This point — the first half, that is — deserves a special mention. In David Fincher’s near-documentary style police procedural Zodiac, this is exactly what is done. Fincher and his creative team do it again more recently in Mindhunter. What we see are just facts. But holding it all together like an artistic cement is the brilliant writing and the execution — the very manner in which it is done. Which is why, it never becomes an information overload, and both the film and the show sort of takes the audience together. Mukherji’s film commits the cardinal sin of giving too much of data to its audience, at least in the first half of the film, without anything to hold them together. The result is sad but inevitable — the film tends to dissociate itself from its audience. But in an astonishing recovery, it does manage to get back in the game post-interval. It almost feels as though Mukherji said, ‘Oh, dash it all, I am just going to tell the story that I want to’. And it shows. The second half has life in it, it is vibrant. It chooses a track and decides to tell a beautiful tale — whose veracity is neither moot nor of anyone’s business. I only wish that Mukherji would have done this in the first half too. Because he could.

What really works for Gumnaami then is this myth of the monk.

Was he Netaji himself? Or an imposter? Who knows? The film vehemently denies that he ever claimed to be Netaji, and therefore the question of being an imposter does not arise. As a member of the audience, though, I felt that the film got too caught up in presenting the facts of the matter. So much so that it ignored the one solemn truth that neither party to the debate can possibly refute — that these facts ought to be presented beautifully, gracefully, elegantly. As for myself, I drew from this myth, and found a remarkable story in it. And what aided my fondness for this story is the sheer brilliance of actor Prosenjit Chatterjee. For most part of the film, he becomes a completely different man, and it is a treat to watch him do so. Calm and confident in the beginning, ruing the futility of the fruits of his labour in the end, Chatterjee’s performance as two different men (or as two different aspects of the same man) won me over. At the end of the film, I do not know if Gumnaami Baba was Netaji or not. What I do know, however, and what I am happy to know, is that Prosenjit Chatterjee was both Gumnaami Baba and Netaji — in the very spirit of a cinematic performance.

Anirban Bhattacharya performs his task well and shows his skills with great finesse. However, his performance falters on several occasions, and not all of such instances can be attributed to the writing. Having been an admirer of his work over the years, I wish Bhattacharya would have put in a little more work and thought into this role, especially to smoothen out the jagged edges. That is not to say that the writing does not let him down, though. One of the biggest problems of the film is how quickly and how starkly Bhattacharyas’s character goes from being someone who could not care less about Netaji to someone who lived and breathed the great man at all times, so much so that his own personal life is affected as a result. Tanushree Chakraborty is strictly okay, and while she does remarkably well in a scene during the happier times of her marriage, her performance does come across as rather ordinary in the climax of the film.

Gumnaami movie review An admirable second half cant right the information overload of a monotonous beginning

The most enjoyable parts of the film, however, are the ones in which the true identity of the mysterious monk is slowly revealed. They are competently written and beautifully executed. The cinematography suddenly seems to improve in these segments, as opposed to the unimpressive flashbacks from the pre-independence years. The music is an apt companion to the story throughout the film though, the songs coming at just the right times and leaving us mellow. A particularly famous song by DL Roy is beautifully used, and is bound to leave you hiding a teardrop or two. The scene in which the song is used is perhaps the most beautiful scene of the film and is worth the price of admission by itself.

There are several things I wish Srijit Mukherji would have done. For instance — and there are precious few times that I have said this for a film — this is a film that deserves more than its current running time. The first half of the film feels too rushed, and should have been handled with more sensitivity. It would have been love and care for the plane crash theory that would have sailed the film through, not statistics, even if those data are used to refute the theory. I also wish Mukherji would have shot the scenes of the Commission a bit more effectively. The cinematography used in these scenes, in particular, is quite distracting. I would have loved to see the individual characters of the research team fleshed out too.

Gumnaami is a bold film. There is no doubt about that. It is not a film that is easy to make under the circumstances. And does it manage to raise questions about Netaji’s death? It certainly does. Did it leave me with a fond feeling of gratitude for a brave soldier of my motherland, to whom I owe every free breath of air that sustains me? Yes, it did. Could it have been made better? Yes, it could have been. I am going with two stars for Srijit Mukherji’s Gumnaami, and an additional half a star for the performance of Prosenit Chatterjee. In the end, what I took away from the film has very little to do with whether the monk was the man we all love and admire so much. What it made me wonder about was the sacrifice that these soldiers made to give us our freedom, and how complacent we are in enjoying it.

Watch the Gumnaami trailer here —

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