Raag Desh review: A non-jingoistic, engaging history lesson

Release Date: 28 Jul 2017

Cinestaan Rating

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Suparna Thombare

Director Tigmanshu Dhulia stays away from jingoism and dialogue-baazi to deliver a good historical drama.

Tigmanshu Dhulia revisits a chapter in history that paved way for the demise of British rule in India, owing mainly to the increased rage and unity of the Indian people in 1945-46. Three soldiers of the Indian National Army (INA) or Azad Hind Fauj, belonging to three different religions — Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon (Amit Sadh), Shah Nawaz Khan (Kunal Kapoor) and Prem Kumar Sehgal (Mohit Marwah) — were facing trial, famously called the Red Fort trials. 

The narrative moves among the court, war sequences, and the role of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose (Kenny Basumatary) in India's freedom struggle. The director does not go into details of Bose's life or the INA's connection with Japan and Nazi Germany, earlier explored by Shyam Benegal's Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero (2005). Dhulia instead weaves the story of the INA through personal stories of the three soldiers who are being tried for the murder of their own colleagues and treason against George VI, king emperor. 

Though Dhulia's screenplay for Raag Desh falls short when compared to his masterful work in Haasil (2003), Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster (2011), and Paan Singh Tomar (2012), he still manages to set the political context in place, subtly commenting on how both the Congress and the Muslim League were actually preparing for the moment when India would get independence. And that context of the agendas of political parties is relevant even today.

It was a time when the cause was bigger than the person. Mumbai lawyer Bhulabhai Desai (Kenny Desai) takes up the job of defending the trio despite his falling out with the Congress leadership. It was also a time when unity in diversity actually meant something. Shah Nawaz Khan decides to stick by his comrades even though the Muslim League tries to woo him over.

People with differences of political opinion and ideology could co-exist as Shah Nawaz Khan and his brother, who worked in the British Indian Army (as did 80 other members of his family) could still sit across the table and discuss issues. 

The film's casting (by Mukesh Chhabra) — from Kenny Desai and Kanwaljeet Singh (Sehgal's father) to Mrudula Murali (as Captain Laxmi Sehgal) to Kenny Basumatary, is bang on. The entire supporting cast does a very good job.

Kapoor and Marwah portray their parts with utmost sincerity. But Sadh is the one who makes a mark in every scene. He is perhaps one of the most underrated and underused talents in Hindi cinema today. The actor is brilliantly transformed into a passionate soldier, bringing his rage and straightforwardness to life. You don't see Sadh at all. Only Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon.

The production quality is low for a historical film, as Rajya Sabha TV (the producer) kept the budget in check, and the editing makes the proceedings a little confusing. The music is decent and uses 'Kadam Kadam Badhaye Ja', the regimental quick march of the Azad Hind Fauj, in the song titled 'Hawaon Mein Woh Aag Hai' quite effectively. 

Dhulia doesn't delve into too many details or back stories, choosing to focus only on the trial and the facts. Neither does he view the happenings from an idealistic prism. There is no chest-thumping jingoism, no dialogue-baazi. It does not stir your patriotic emotions the way that Indian freedom struggle films like The Legend Of Bhagat Singh (2002) did. Just a story of how despite the swift defeat of the INA in the battlefield and the court, the entire chapter created the hope for freedom in the hearts of millions. 

Raag Desh is a lot like Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk (though not quite there in terms of the quality of writing) for those who have no clue about this chapter in history, as it calls for undivided attention as the story unfolds quickly and in a non-linear fashion.

Raag Desh is not like a mainstream Indian historical film. It is more of a swift history lesson into the formation and motivation of the INA through the story of its soldiers and the INA's role in the freedom struggle and through the Red Fort trials. It is also a lesson in what we need to learn from history. For some, that may be its strength, for others its weakness. One thing cannot be denied though — it is also why the film stands out. The only reason it falls short of brilliant is because it needed a lot more heart.