I was watching some interviews of Gulzar recently on YouTube. One thing that he mentioned in almost all his conversations was the impact of India’s partition on his life and works. Not surprising for someone who was born on the other side of the border that wasn’t present at that point of time, Gulzar talked very fondly about the land that was once a part of his being, and that presently was alienated from him, at least in terms of physical distances. But despite this admission, we find that the man was hardly ever a part of any cinematic venture that explored the stories of that painful time. Most of his work that revolved around that motif was not done for the big screen. His poems, his stories, and anecdotes on the subject are a part of his poetry books, his memoirs, and some plays that have been adapted from the same.
However my quick research reminded me of one movie set in pre-independence India, which Gulzar contributed to immensely. Jallian Wala Bagh, a movie directed by Mr. Balraj Tah (one time director/film-maker), had its screenplay and dialogues written by the maestro of words. Chronicling the events around the horrific incident that gave a new impetus to the Indian Nationalist movement, the movie can also be termed as a sketchy biography of Shaheed Uddham Singh, the revolutionary young man who murdered the man largely responsible for the mass massacre that happened on 13th April, 1919.
Parikshit Sahni essays the role of Uddham Singh, while Vinod Khanna and Deepti Naval play major parts that bring in some star value to the otherwise non-commercial looking venture. Shabana Azmi has an insignificant cameo, but the surprise of the show is a meaty role by none other than Gulzar. As a young man contributing to the freedom struggle while living in London, Gulzar delivers a patchy performance that vindicates his decision of not going in front of the camera ever again. However the portions involving him are some of the most polished part of the otherwise amateurish attempt by the first time director.
The movie is far from being a very fine one. However, at just over 100 minutes in length, it is a reasonably good watch, at least from the point of view of being an important film based on true events. It is tough to describe it as a biopic as it fails to do justice to that genre despite having Uddham Singh as a fulcrum for the narrative. As an effort that documents a critical chapter of our freedom movement, the movie again falls short. Ultimately it ends up as a confused attempt that could have been made into a defining feature, had some more research and effort been done before making it. Some of the factors that redeem the movie are:
- Its depiction of the underling conflict between the extreme revolutionaries and the moderate (and non-violent) Gandhian reformers. The characters of Om Shivpuri and Vinod Khanna, father and son, are at constant loggerheads regarding the approach that the freedom struggle should adopt. Here Deepti Naval provides the balancing act and articulates the difficulty in making one choice out of the two. This debate later continues between Uddham Singh and Om Shivpuri’s character in London, two decades after the incident of Jallian Wala Bagh.
- The introduction of a global perspective to the proceedings in the later part of the film. When Uddham Singh reaches London, the world is in a state of conflict, with Hitler on the warpath. It is refreshing to see a movie talk about the broader canvas, while not losing the grip of the core plot. The use of an English lady’s character that supports Uddham Singh and Sunil (Gulzar) against the British is done really well, and executed sans any stereotypes.
- A major part of the second part (which is set in England) is in English. This again is quite different for a movie that largely talks to a Hindi speaking audience. In fact this leads me to believe that the second part of the movie, which has much finesse as compared to the first, must have been shot first. The first hour of the movie (the events leading to the massacre) might have been shot later with more mainstream appeal in the hope of giving the movie a commercial release.
In the hands of an expert (or rather more ambitious) director, the subject of the movie could have been exploited better. Haven’t we seen many Hollywood movies going back to the past to churn our Oscar winning films? Here it must be said that our Hindi film industry has not made use of the vast source of literature that our pre-independence days resulted it. Neither has our period of struggle been given its due importance in many of our films. We have a very few films that talk about that era, and sadly many of them are on similar subjects (with the life of Bhagat Singh seeing more than five cinematic representations over the years).
PS: This post is a part of the series of posts by me on lesser talked about Hindi cinema. The link for the archive page is as follows-