One thing that has long puzzled me is Bollywood’s reluctance to do real life stories. Where Hollywood has created films on the lives of people ranging from Napoleon’s one-time fiancée to an obscure British missionary in China, we have, to show for years of fascinating history… Shahjehan and Changez Khan, both so badly warped that they bear little resemblance to fact. Dr Kotnis ki Amar Kahani is a refreshingly unusual film in being relatively accurate, as well as entertaining—but a flash in the pan.
Our generally avid enthusiasm for the freedom movement and its exponents gave me hope that Shaheed, the story of Bhagat Singh, might be worth a watch. This, after all, was the young man who inspired an entire slew of films, beginning with (or so Wikipedia would have us believe) a film in 1954, followed by a 1963 film starring Shammi Kapoor, and this one: the first of Manoj Kumar’s many patriotic films. There have been later films—2002, for instance, saw two films, one a superb one starring Ajay Devgan and the other with Bobby Deol as Bhagat Singh—but Shaheed was the first major Bhagat Singh story.
The film begins on a lohri in the early 1900’s. At the house of the wealthy and powerful numbardar or village bigwig, a bonfire’s been lit to celebrate the festival, and among others, Kishan Singh (D K Sapru), his wife (Kamini Kaushal) and their son Bhagat (Raja) are present.
The festivities are disrupted by a distraught peasant who comes to plead with the numbardar against the atrocities he perpetrates in the name of the British administration.
Standing up in support of the peasant is Kishan Singh’s younger brother Ajit Singh (Krishan Dhawan). Much turmoil ensues, and ultimately, Ajit Singh is compelled, for his own safety, to leave India and go abroad. Little Bhagat Singh is puzzled by this—why did chachaji leave his wife and his friends and relatives and go away? Why do the British rule India? Why did we let them in, anyway?
Years pass, and we’re at another lohri. Again, a beleaguered peasant raises an outcry against an evil numbardar, and once again, a member of Kishan Singh’s family speaks up: this time, it’s Bhagat Singh (now Manoj Kumar).
And from here onwards, we see Bhagat Singh evolving into a revolutionary. We see him as part of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association, joining hands with other revolutionary leaders such as Sukhdev (Prem Chopra), Rajguru (Anand Kumar), Chandrashekhar Azad (Manmohan), Durga bhabhi (Nirupa Roy) and Bhagat Singh’s so-called ‘sister’ (Indrani Mukherjee).
Exactly how he meets up with each of these people isn’t explained; what we do see next is how Bhagat Singh plunges into a life of anti-British revolt—the ‘inquilab’ he so vociferously expounds.
The first landmark event that occurs is the non-violent protest led in Lahore by Lala Lajpat Rai against the Simon Commission. When Lala Lajpat Rai refuses to back down in the face of the police, he is beaten down and later dies, an incident which inflames Bhagat Singh and his associates, who vow to avenge Rai’s death.
Their vengeance takes the form of assassination—that of Scott, the police chief of Lahore. Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, Rajguru and Jai Gopal concoct a plan to ambush Scott, but things go haywire and they end up killing Scott’s deputy, Saunders, instead.
The police are now on Bhagat Singh’s trail, so, to escape, he resorts to disguise: he shaves off his beard and cuts his hair. Even Durga bhabhi, confronted by Sukhdev’s new friend, is unable to recognise him until Bhagat Singh reveals himself to her.
Meanwhile, in Delhi, things are hotting up at the Central Legislative Assembly. The British are trying to push through the creation of the Defence of India Act, which will curb the activities of revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh. To show their ire, Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt (?) fling a bomb in the assembly (this particular scene was actually filmed at the National Parliament, which was the site of Bhagat Singh’s derring-do. It’s been credited in Shaheed as the first instance of a scene being allowed to be filmed in Parliament).
Nobody is killed, since Bhagat Singh & Co.’s mandate was to raise a hue and cry rather than injure or kill people. But there’s a lot of confusion, which Singh and Dutt add to by showering the assembly with posters, and by yelling “Inquilab zindabad!” (“Long live the revolution!”)
They are arrested, and a trial follows, with Asaf Ali (Jagdev) representing the defence. But the entire lot of them—Bhagat Singh, Batukeshwar Dutt, Sukhdev, Rajguru, etc—are jailed. The British try to pressurise Bhagat Singh and Sukhdev in particular and convince both that the other has turned informer for the British. Eventually, when Bhagat Singh does not yield even after much torture (he’s stripped and pinned down onto slabs of ice, in the dead of winter and whipped till his skin’s in tatters), they let him go back to his cell.
In the jail, Bhagat Singh and his friends also come in contact with other prisoners. There is, for instance, the condemned bandit Kehar Singh (Pran), a hardened cynic who thinks all this revolution business is bunkum. (Dutt draws a picture of Mother India on the wall and tries to explain to Kehar Singh why all Indians must unite to free Mother India of her chains, but the man refuses to listen).
There is Dhani Ram (Asit Sen), who is in charge of distributing the dirt-ridden food doled out to the prisoners, and to whom Bhagat Singh first expresses his refusal to eat this inedible food. He is the man who looks on, initially amused, when Bhagat Singh goes on a hunger strike, protesting against the conditions that exist in the prison. But, as the days go by and Bhagat Singh and his associates weaken from hunger, Dhani Ram’s amusement changes to worry…
There is Chhattar Singh (Anwar Hussain), who understands and tries to help, but can do very little except sympathise. And there is the jailor (Madan Puri), who is the face of the administration: inhuman, brutal, seemingly without a shred of sensitivity.
To know what happens next, have a look at the Wikipedia page on Bhagat Singh.
What I liked about this film:
The accuracy. Okay, I have to admit that I’ve not done a vast amount of research to check the verity of Shaheed, but from what little I’ve read about the life of Bhagat Singh and about incidents in the Indian freedom movement around that time, Shaheed seems to have remained fairly true to fact. Interestingly, among the people consulted to create the script of the film was Bhagat Singh’s mother. That probably accounts for the fact that in the film Bhagat Singh’s relationship with his mother is emphasised. She is the one he turns to for advice; she is the one who, by her wisdom and her patience, upholds her son through his days of torture and deprivation.
The songs. Sarfaroshi ki tamanna ab hamaare dil mein hai was written by the revolutionary and poet Bismil Azimabadi; Prem Dhawan wrote the lyrics for the other songs, which include some of Hindi cinema’s best-known patriotic songs: Ae watan ae watan humko teri kasam and Mera rang de basanti chola among them. Prem Dhawan was also the music director for Shaheed.
What I didn’t like:
The heart is missing. The story is there, with the incidents and the facts all in place. The dialogues are there, the high-flown patriotic rhetoric and the vows to lay down one’s life for one’s country. None of that compensates, however, for the somewhat boringly one-dimensional nature of each of the characters. Even the main character, Bhagat Singh, is merely—what? Devoted to mother, whether that mother is Mother India or Kamini Kaushal. True, he’s a patriot, brave and headstrong and also pretty reckless, but what else? Why does he feel the way he does? What pushes him? What pulls him? Reading about Bhagat Singh, I couldn’t help but wish the film had gone a little deeper into how this firebrand of a young revolutionary thought. What it becomes, unfortunately, is a fairly superficial story of a young man who died for his country. There was so much potential here.
I’m not a fan of Manoj Kumar’s patriotic films—I invariably find them almost jingoistic in their attempt to glorify all that’s Indian while denigrating anything that isn’t Indian. Shaheed is, I think, better than Upkaar or Purab aur Pacchhim in that respect: more balanced and less ‘The West is bad and India is great’. As a real life story, it’s interesting in parts, even if it lacks depth.
And I guess one should be grateful that the writer didn’t drag in a romance for Bhagat Singh. An item number, yes; but an overt love interest, no.