The Legend of Bhagat Singh (2002)

“To the British: Your time is over.”

bhagat-singhRajkumar Santoshi’s colourful film The Legend Of Bhagat Singh explores the life of the formidable Indian revolutionary. Born in 1908, Bhagat Singh (Ajay Devgan) came to manhood during the crucial years of India’s history under Imperialistic British rule. The film shows how, as a child Bhagat was influenced by Gandhi, and participated in Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement. Later after souring on Gandhi’s message of non-violence, Bhagat Singh turned to revolutionary groups, and Direct Action in his determination to fight for an independent India. Bhagat Singh is depicted as a strong-willed man whose clear vision never faltered in his dream of an independent India, a secular state in which Muslims and Hindus cohabited peacefully.

The film succeeds admirably in telling Bhagat Singh’s story and the reasons behind his actions. However, while the story very clearly, methodically, and chronologically maps out (with dates and incidents) the atrocities responsible for Bhagat Singh’s shift in political beliefs, the plot doesn’t explore the fact that Bhagat Singh was an atheist. This oversight trips up the film in a couple of spots when Bhagat makes speeches that hint at atheism but have no prior context in the plot. Further, while the film clearly designates communism as a major influence on Bhagat Singh, the film ignores his leanings towards anarchism. The film does an excellent job of showing how Bhagat shamed his Indian jailers by his bravery and determination, and how Bhagat understood that his actions and his subsequent trial could be used as propaganda devices in order to spread the word to the masses.

The Legend of Bhagat Singh has many of the devices of conventional Indian cinema–and while this really works well with romance and courtship (and there’s a bit thrown in here for good measure), in other spots some of the singing, while stirring, appears at unlikely moments–during a hunger strike, for example. The depiction of the British is a bit awkward with its dubbed speeches, but apart from that, there are many scenes of the British whooping it up in their stolen palaces, beating Indians, torturing Indians, and generally making themselves unwelcome. The caste system comes into play as scenes depict the upper class Indians mingling happily with the British while the masses suffer. As the violence against Indians increases, Bhagat Singh and his followers respond–finally turning to bomb making to protest the Trade Dispute Bill and the Public Safety Bill that made strikes illegal with all protestors subject to imprisonment. Well so much for peaceful protest.

The film does not depict Gandhi in a flattering light, and no doubt some viewers will see this as controversial. Gandhi remains a monumental icon while interestingly Bhagat Singh, seen here as Gandhi’s political rival, is absent from Western culture. Gandhi is depicted as the leader of the masses who leads the people down the garden path of passivity. At one point, a British man chortles with glee that Gandhi with his message of non-violence is his “kind of enemy” and indeed the film depicts Gandhi as doing more harm than good by being the only option for resistance. The film shows Gandhi signing the Irwin pact in which he agreed to suspend the non-cooperation agreement in exchange for the release of political prisoners. Bhagat Singh and his followers were not included in this agreement, and the implication is that Gandhi should not have signed unless these men too were included.

The film explores some serious questions: the use of Direct Action and revolutionary violence, the designation of the terms freedom fighters vs. terrorists, and the various tools for spreading propaganda. Significant incidents include: the murder of Lala Lajpat Rai, the murder of police officer J.P Saunders, the formation of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association, and Bhagat Singh’s trial. If you like Indian cinema, or if you just would like to find out more about Bhagat Singh–considered to be one of the most influential revolutionaries of the Indian Independence Movement, then you should enjoy this film.

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Filed under Indian, Political/social films

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