The Tricolour Envelopes The Big Screen

Updated: Jun 2 2002, 05:30am hrs
Patriotism is the current flavour on celluloid as is evident by the spate of films released after Lagaan and Gadar: Ek Prem Katha. The Kargil conflict set off the trend, but the present standoff with Pakistan seems to have added fuel to the fire. Recent films include Veer Savarkar, Bharat Bhagya Vidhata and 16 December and, of course, since last week, no less than five films on Shaheed Bhagat Singh are readying for release. Apparently, Mangal Pandey is another freedom fighter whom film makers are seeking to immortalise. No doubt, such films stand a better chance at success every time an upsurge of national sentiment comes about.

But five films on one historic personality, namely Bhagat Singh, is probably a world record. They wont be the first few on the subject, of course. The first movie on Bhagat Singh was made in 1951 and starred Prem Adib (Ram of Ram Rajya fame) in the title role. Another, Shaheed Bhagat Singh, was made in 1963 and Shammi Kapoor played the lead. But both films did not do well.

Then Manoj Kumar came with his famous Shaheed and changed the way in which film-makers thought of the freedom fighter. It was made in turbulent 1965, when the Indo-China conflict was fresh in memory and tension with Pakistan was high. In fact, when we started the project, people thought we were crazy. We did not find a buyer for the film. But the script and Prem Dhawans music worked so well that the film became a superhit. We won three national awards! I invited Shaheed Bhagat Singhs mother to receive them, and the crowd gave her a 15-minute standing ovation, Mr Kumar remembers.

He was, in fact, approached to write the film 23rd March 1931: Shaheed for Dharmendra and Sunny Deol (who has donned the mantle of the new Mr Bharat), but things didnt work out. They had a certain mindset, which did not fit in with my way of looking at the subject, so I humbly opted out, Mr Kumar says. It is said that producer Kewal Kashyap had thought of making a film on the martyr with Vishal Goswami, Mr Kumars son, but gave up the idea on hearing that Mr Kumar was working on the Deols project.

Despite their collaboration having failed, the film has gone through. 23rd March 1931: Shaheed is one of the many Bhagat Singh films vying for attention. It does seem like this is the time for all good actors to play real-life hero. Ajay Devgan in Tips The Legend Of Bhagat Singh, and Bobby Deol in Dharmendras film are among those trying their luck. Each of them claim to be true to history, although they have inserted glamorous elements like Bhagat Singhs little-known fiancee to bring the audiences in.

We ask writer and journalist Anupama Chopra about this trend. Unlike some others, she does not think the current wave of patriotic films is inspired by the Kargil conflict. Rather, I would say these films are inspired by the success of Gadar. Everybody is hoping to hit the bulls eye again, she says. The two big-budget movies are being talked about most. In fact, Dharmendra and Kumar Taurani are even releasing them on the same day next week (June 7). While the first film is being directed by Guddu Dhanoa, the rival camp has entrusted the task to Rajkumar Santoshi. Naturally, everybody accepts that viewership will get divided, considering the story is the same.

Ms Chopra thinks this is not a healthy trend. This is probably a first in the history of world cinema that there are five projects being made on the same personality. Of course, viewership will get divided, but eventually, the best Bhagat Singh will win, she says.

Mr Kumar agrees that the two releases should have been spaced out, but grants possibilities. One is that people will not see two films with the same theme, but on the other hand, they might want to check out how the other camp has tackled the subject, he adds.

Most observers do not see a sincerity of purpose behind these ventures. Even Mr Kumar thinks the industry is cashing in on a trend, which it hopes will work. Ms Chopra begs to differ, though. Films are very, very hard work. I cant imagine a director like Rajkumar Santoshi making a film only to cash in on a trend. I think projects like his, or even the Deols, are made with conviction and in the hope that they will work. Perhaps the smaller films on Bhagat Singh (I dont know who all are making these) are guys trying to cash in. That seems unfair, though, for it questions the patriotism and labour involved in the smaller projects. And assumes that big names have more of each.

Apart from Ajay Devgan and Bobby Deol, newcomers Sonu Sood, Deepak Datta and Tarun Khanna play the central character of Bhagat Singh in the other movies. All of them claim to be inspired by the martyr and also seek to link their film with the hero and his family.

Bobby Deol, who is acting in his home production, 23rd March 1931: Shaheed, has said that this freedom fighter was larger than life. The actor considers it a matter of pride to be doing this historic role. The character of Bhagat Singh has always been a hero to me and my family, he comments. Apparently, he was troubled when he shot the scenes in which Bhagat Singh was tortured by the British because he felt endurance of that kind required superhuman effort. I have emerged much stronger after the movie, Bobby Deol has been reported to say. He rates this role as one of his best. After all, this is also the first time I am playing a character from history. All else I have done so far has been fiction, he reasons. Not only him, Mr Deol says, his entire unit was inspired by the real-life hero. This was what rallied them together after the fire that devastated one of their sets in the final lap of shooting.

The battle for oneupmanship began long before the release date drew near. Kumar Taurani of Tips, who is producing the opposing The Legend Of Bhagat Singh, says they have documented proof about being the first to come up with the idea of making a film on Shaheed Bhagat Singh. In fact, we are even airing promotionals on television to that effect, he says. Rajkumar Santoshi, who is directing our movie, read up on this subject and was very excited at the prospect of making a film on it. He went to screenplay writer Anjum Rajabali, who said he would require at least a year to research the character exhaustively. Also, Santoshi was busy with Lajja, so we took some time to start the project.

Ajay Devgan, who stars in The Legend Of Bhagat Singh, got lucky to meet up with Kultar Singh, the brother of Bhagat Singh. This was part of the voluminous research that went into its making. In fact, Mr Devgan attributes his understanding of the character to the material director Rajkumar Santoshi provided him. I learnt a lot of things we are not taught about Bhagat Singh at school. For instance, he had said that once India was free, the brown sahibs would do the very things the whites were doing then, he says.

While Mr Devgan met with the freedom fighters brother, newcomer Sonu Sood, who does the role in Shaheed-E-Azam, has reportedly got some firsthand information from his grandfather who had studied with the legend. He says, My grandfather attended Lahore College with Bhagat Singh and told me how Bhagat Singh came to college after he killed Saunders and then escaped on his bike. For his part, the actor also met a nephew of the Shaheed, apart from reading his history books again. What he discovered was that Bhagat Singh was an atheist, and also that he had predicted the partition of India.

At any rate, Shaheed-E-Azam has beaten the others to the goalpost. It is the first of the Bhagat Singh films to be released, having hit the theatres last Friday. This film is produced by Iqbal Dhillon, who earlier made Shaheed-E-Mohabbat Boota Singh, and is directed by Sukumar Nair. It has been shot inside the cell at Ferozepur Central Jail, where Bhagat Singh was incarcerated. Apparently, producer Dhillon got Bhagat Singhs family to approve his choice of actor. He did not want an established star to play the role because he felt it would overshadow the personality of the martyr.

Then there is the fourth film, the one that has bagged the easiest title, Shaheed Bhagat Singh. Here, the lead role is being essayed by Tarun Khanna, who was second choice for the role after famous Punjabi pop singer Harbhajan Mann. The arrangement with Mr Mann did not work out.

Like Bobby Deol, Mr Khanna says he has idolised Bhagat Singh since he was a childand he isnt saying that just to promote the film. He credits the freedom fighter for putting the country first at an age when most youths are preoccupied with other things. Bhagat Singh was martyred at 23. I felt he had been really brave by sticking his neck out in the manner he did, the actor says. In all the commotion that ensued as he threw the bomb into the assembly, he could have easily made his escape. Instead, he chose to surrender in order to make a point.

As far as the research for this film goes, Mr Khanna read through history books and also gained access to Bhagat Singhs letters from the family. He also feels the film has made him a stronger person. Directed by Tarun Wadhwa, Shaheed Bhagat Singh is produced by Poonam Jaju and Ved R Gandhi.

In yet another significant venture on the same subject, Sagar Entertainment has jumped on the bandwagon, too. They have chosen Deepak Datta to play Bhagat Singh in their production of the same name. Noted director Ramanand Sagar is at work on the script, and this films claim to fame is the directors personal association with the freedom fighter.

But present film makers have it easier than Mr Kumar did way back in the early 1960s. At the time I was making my film, there wasnt half as much research available on Shaheed Bhagat Singh as you have now. I have personally met people from his family to ascertain basic facts. I have met Manwantnath Gupt who had participated in the Kakori conspiracy. I have studied Bhagat Singh so closely that I have entire files on any aspect of his life. In fact, a very important part of my research is still with Dharmendra, despite the fact that Im not working on that film, he says ruefully.

The original Bharat has the last word. The success of any film depends on how the subject is tackled. I would not like to underestimate anybody, Mr Kumar says. But I did not make a film on Bhagat Singh because I thought he was a saleable commodity. It wasnt a business venture for me. I only remember that Bhagat Singhs mother was proud of the film I made. I cannot forget the standing ovation she received when she came up on stage to receive the award on our behalf. That is my golden moment. Our former prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, so loved Shaheed that he especially asked me to make a movie that essayed his principle of Jai Jawan Jai Kisaan. And I made Upkaar. My humble work gave me such respect and honour.