Interview Hindi

I started discovering new things about my grandfathers: Mohit Marwah on research for Raag Desh


Marwah plays Captain Prem Sahgal, who has never before been portrayed on the big screen, in Tigmanshu Dhulia's upcoming period film, Raag Desh. Speaking to Cinestaan.com, the actor talks about the research, complexity, and process of discovering the character.

Shriram Iyengar

Mohit Marwah's appearance as captain Prem Kumar Sahgal in Tigmanshu Dhulia's upcoming Raag Desh is quite a surprising one. The film is a far cry from Marwah's debut, Fugly (2014), where he played a boisterous young man on a journey of self discovery. The Raag Desh trailer shows the actor playing one of the three officers from the Indian National Army (INA) put on trial by the British Raj on the grounds of murder and treason.

Speaking in an exclusive interview with Cinestaan.com, the actor outlined the difficulty of portraying a historical character, and the challenges of understanding his mental makeup and ideologies.

Excerpts from the interview:

Raag Desh is a very interesting concept and film, and is a piece of history that hasn't been covered before. How did you come about it?

As you said, it is a piece of history that has not been covered before. The backdrop is World War, the situation is that India is trying to fight the British and get them to leave India. Within all this hustle bustle, there is World War II going on, where India is fighting for the British against the Japanese. Several Indians are caught as prisoners of war after they lose the battle. That's when the Japanese sort of tell the Indian prisoners 'Why don't you set up an army, the Indian National Army, which will fight the British back, rather than fighting for them?'

With the help of the Japanese (the INA is formed), eventually Subhash Chandra Bose comes and takes over this army. This army comes through Burma, and enters India and fights the British army, which at that time had several Indians fighting for the British. Things go in a way that they (INA) surrender and reach a trial. The film is about the trial, and how this trial gets the whole country together.

From L to R: Kunal Kapoor, Amit Sadh and Mohit Marwah

Among people who were on trial, one was a Hindu (Prem Sahgal played by Mohit Marwah), one was a Muslim (Shahnawaz Khan played by Kunal Kapoor) and one was a Sikh (Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon played by Amit Sadh). It was sort of like the whole country is standing in that courtroom, with three religions coming together. They fight the case, and eventually the case and this whole episode forces the British to leave India. While I talk about it, I feel excited.

Prem Sahgal is a character who, from the trailer, appears to be slightly leaning towards the British. Is it the break of trust during the war that turns him against the Raj? How would you define the character?

Prem Sahgal came from an influential family. His father was a judge in the High Court. He was fluent in Hindi, Punjabi, and English for that matter. Then, because he came from such a background, he straightaway joined the high ranks of the British Army. He didn't have to slog through the (lower) ranks. He was serving the Baloch regiment at that time, till the end of World War II in Malaysia, fighting for the British.

It is there that they realised how the British didn't stick up for them. It is when they were caught as prisoners of war that they realised how the government disavowed them. Mohan Singh, who was the first head of the INA, made them realise what they were doing wrong. Obviously, then they were still a part of the British Indian army. They realised that they were serving their motherland, but were still being ruled by the British. It's like the dialogue you hear in the trailer 'Angrez aur Hindustan ke beech jo dhaaga tha, woh tut gaya' (the thread which connected India and British is now broken).

That's when the turnaround happened, and they decide to create this army and fight the English. There's a lot of fingers pointed at them because when they returned to fight the British, the British Indian army faced them. They had to turn back because they were actually fighting their own brothers, the people they are with. That's why we are telling the world "You tell us whether they were traitors or not?" That's the question we want to ask the audience.

They lost the war, but they won the country back, which is what they were fighting for.

Kunal Kapoor and Amit Sadh in a still from Raag Desh

Considering it is such an important part of Indian history, what was the research behind it like?

By the time I signed the film, the research was already done for the film. Whatever was available was given to me, and then after that, we started digging deep into things I could find on my own. I watched documentaries on the INA, revisiting friends of my own grandfather, who were part of the same era as Prem Sahgal. I started discovering new things about my paternal and maternal grandfathers. They come from Peshawar, and Lahore, where he (Prem Sahgal) was also from.

Of course, since it is a real life story, we have to follow the available material to the T. The material which is not available, you try and recreate with the help of memory. It was a combination of both, and was a very interesting phase.

But I digged into my own family, my grandfathers, to borrow the style and personalities of the people then. The way they would sit, the way they would stand, and rest on a wall, how their posture would be. These are the things I sort of tried to find on my own.

When it comes to historical biopics, despite the documents and research, there is an element of dramatising involved. How do you as an actor see it?

First of all, considering the subject we have, there is so much drama happening in it that we didn't have to create any from the outside. We tried to sort of put that into the film. As for the characters, there are a lot of times I had questions if I could do it this way? or that way? But he (Dhulia) would tell me 'You do it the way you are doing. I've cast you as my Prem Sahgal, and what you do is what I have to see.' So he had a very different take to it.

He believes that if he has cast the right guy, then more than half the job is done. It becomes my duty to take it forward from there on.

How does the relationship between Prem Sahgal and Captain Lakshmi Sahgal pan out in the film?

We've explored it to a certain extent. We have some realy nice scenes. She was such a big part of captain Prem Sahgal's life that she had to be there in the film. She is a star in her own right as well. In fact, if you go online and search for the both of them, there is more on Lakshmi Sahgal than Prem Sahgal. She was alive till the last decade, and her life has been well covered.

Mrudula Murali as Captain Lakshmi Sahgal

We had to explore the character, and had a lovely actress, Mrudula Murali, playing her in the film. She (Lakshmi Sahgal) was Lakshmi Swaminathan, as she had played in the film. Casting director Mukesh Chhabra and Tigmanshu Dhulia made it a point to cast somebody who was really from the South, and not someone who was acting like somebody from the South of India, or trying to get that accent. So, I am sure its a part of the story that people will like.

Your choice of projects has been quite different. From short films with the Yash Raj Films to Raag Desh, are you consciously choosing these projects because they are different from the regular, commercial ones?

I feel there is something ingrained in me that forces me to try and do something different. The reason I didn't sign the film immediately after my first film (Fugly, 2014), I took two years to sign (Badrinath Ki Dulhania, 2017), in between I did short films, and campaigns, because the roles which were coming to me were more or less the same kind of roles. Three boys coming out of college, etc. Yeah, the stories were different but it was more or less in the same zone.

It tends to happen. People see you in a part and then they typecast you. You have to consciously go out there and tell people you can do other stuff as well. With this trailer, a lot of people have sent me some great responses that they didn't expect me to do a part like this. That's what makes me happy.

So are you ready with another project thats radically different?

Right now, its just three weeks of Raag Desh. I am putting all my energy in this. I am only going to start going into anything after the 28 July (release date of Raag Desh). It is not fair to this project, and to the work everyone has put in. Not diverting or distracting myself, I am putting myself into Raag Desh.

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