Category Archives: Indian

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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Before the Rains (2007)

 “We will not cooperate with the British.”

The film Before the Rains, from director Santosh Sivan, examines colonialism through the relationships between a white British landowner and two of his Indian servants. Set in 1937 India, the film’s lush exotic locations are the perfect backdrop for this tale of adultery, betrayal, and ambition.

beforeWhen the film begins, British Henry Moores (Linus Roache) has an ambitious plan to carve a road that will expedite trade. Owner of a lucrative Tea plantation, Moores wants to move into the spice trade, but the Indian based British bank due to finance Moores’ project is nervous about the rise of the Indian nationalist movement. No one (except most of the natives) wants the good old days of colonialism to end. After all, Moores has a splendid, luxurious plantation-style house and endless servants at his beck and call. Moores basically ignores the growing unrest and doggedly pursues his plan to build the road with native workers.

With Moores’ wife Laura (Jennifer Ehle) back in England with the couple’s small son, Moores has begun a passionate affair with Sanjani (Nandita Das) the family’s married Indian maid who lives in the nearby village. A witness to the affair is TK (Rahul Bose), Moores’ right hand man. Although TK keeps silent about the affair, he is fully aware of its ominous social consequences.

Before the Rains is not an overtly political film, however, it is a tragedy with the drama played against the backdrop of the inherent evils and consequences of colonialism. While Moores’ affair has serious ramifications, he imagines that he can just step away from the relationship, thinking that his class and race will protect him. When adversity strikes, Moores’ racism rears its head, and his white man gestures of equality are shown to be absolutely meaningless.

TK, as the observer, ends up as the central figure here. A believer in anglo-indian unity, he gets a bitter taste of his true relationship with Moore, a man he admires. He comes to realize the hollowness of cooperation between two vastly difference cultures in which colonialism dictates a master-serf relationship. Some of the film’s very best scenes depict TK forced to face village elders and account for his behaviour. While Before the Rains is not nearly as powerful a film as Sivan’s The Terrorist (an examination of the use of children as suicide bombers by the Tamil Tigers), nonetheless this Merchant-Ivory production is a beautifully realized, thoughtful and thought-provoking study of the three characters who all make terrible choices.

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The Terrorist (1999)

“I must sacrifice my future for the sake of my people.”

Deep in the jungles of Sri Lanka are camps full of orphan children. Following the death of her brother, Malli (Ayesha Dharker) is raised in one of these terrorist training camps and trains with Tamil separatist forces (the Tamil Tigers) fighting against the Sri Lankan government. It is said that the Tamil Tigers were the first terrorist group to perfect the ‘suicide bomber’, and they also frequently use females as assassins. In one of the first scenes in the film, Malli is called forward to execute a traitor. She’s a devoted fighter, and she doesn’t hesitate–along with 100s of other children, she’s waiting for a mission …

19-year-old Malli is chosen from dozens of girls to assassinate an unnamed VIP. The fact that she’s chosen to become a suicide bomber–a “thinking bomb”–is regarded as an honour, and her friends are envious. After a meal and a pep talk with the faceless, nameless ‘Leader’, Malli is photographed and told that these photographs will be sent all over the world following the assassination. Then Malli is taken out of the jungle to complete her task.

A small boy, Lotus (Vishwas) acts as Malli’s guide through the jungle down to the river where she is to take a boat for the next part of her journey. They make an incongruous pair–Lotus is nimble, knows the jungle, and can identify the booby traps lining the riverbank. But in spite of his skills and independence, he’s still a frightened little boy, and his attempts to bond with Malli are poignant–especially when they encounter difficulties, violence, and death on their journey.

When Malli arrives at her destination, she’s placed in a home of farmer Vasu (Parmeshwaran) who knows nothing about her mission–he think she’s just a student. Meanwhile Malli prepares for her task by long exercise sessions, and she’s measured for a suicide vest. During moments of indoctrination, Malli is reminded that her “sacrifice will inspire future generations.” Her leaders manipulate her with patriotic speeches and a call to duty.

Based on the real life events surrounding Rajiv Gandhi, this extraordinary film uses strong contrasts to make its point. Malli, for example, is on a mission of death, and we know from the very first scene, that she’s fully capable of murdering without hesitation or remorse. Yet at the same time, Malli begins to experience the joy of life while accepting her own death. Malli is a stunningly beautiful girl–with the face of a doe-eyed angel, and yet she can chop a man to bits with a machete. In the farmer’s home, she is accepted as a surrogate child, and she’s receptive to the traditional role they offer. Malli is withdrawn–almost silent, but at the same time, she’s too complex to be a completely sympathetic character.

Indian director Santosh Sivan completed the film in 17 days on a shoestring budget. Sivan’s cinematography is exquisite–vibrant colours fill the screen while the camera concentrates on a leaf sinking in water, or the steady fall of rain. Sivan’s spectacular cinematography reminds me strongly of Vertical Ray of the Sun–another astonishingly beautiful film. The Terrorist is an amazing film–one that will not easily be forgotten by its fortunate viewers. In Tamil with English subtitles.

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Asoka (2001)

“What lies in my destiny?”

Fans of Indian film should be thrilled by this exciting epic story based on the life of the Emperor Asoka who ruled India in the 3rd century B.C. When he became emperor, Asoka rejected violence, embraced Buddhism, and wrote a sound set of Edicts that survive to this day. The film Asoka is concerned with Asoka’s rise to the throne of India. Asoka (Shah Rukh Khan) is one of several royal brothers–all sons of the ruler of the kingdom of Magadha in India. Asoka, however, is the son of a less-favoured wife, and Prince Susima will inherit the throne. Assassination attempts and fighting amongst the royal princes causes Asoka’s mother to beg him to leave Magadha. Prince Asoka leaves, and he also promises his mother that he will keep his identity a secret. On his travels, he meets Princess Kaurwaki (Kareena Kapoor) and her brother Prince Arya (Suraj Balaje)–both of the neighbouring kingdom of Kalinga. Following the assassination of their royal parents, Kaurwaki and Arya are on the run in the company of the loyal general, Bheema (Rahul Dev).

Asoka directed by Santosh Sivan is everything that’s best in great Indian cinema. There’s drama, adventure, excitement, battles and romance all wrapped up in this colourful, exotic product, and there’s even some comic relief to be found in domestic tiffs. The film’s themes, however, also raise many thought provoking questions about duty, violence and revenge, and since this is the story of how Asoka became a great emperor, the film charts his maturity through piviotal events which occur in his life. The scene when Asoka first meets the Princess Kaurwaki is the epitome of the Indian presentation of romance, and in true Indian fashion, many of the love scenes are erotic but involve very little touching. One amazing fantasy sequence allows Kaurwaki to swim all over Asoka, and this scene is extremely sensual. There are also several lively, dance routines throughout the film, and an absolutely thrilling soundtrack complements the action.

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Bandit Queen (1994)

“I don’t trust any man.”

The film Bandit Queen examines the life of Phoolan Devi against the backdrop of the injustice of India’s caste system. When the film begins, it’s 1968, and Phoolan Devi is just 11 years old. Phoolan and her family are Shudras–the lowest caste in Indian society, and she’s the object of an arranged marriage with a man who’s paid a cow and a bicycle for her. Even though she’s “not ripe” Phoolan is dragged off by her husband–ostensibly to do the work his mother can no longer perform due to her age.

A victim of beatings and rapes at the hands of her new husband, Phoolan runs back to her family. As she grows up, the fact that she’s a woman who’s run away from her husband leaves her vulnerable, and after being charged with enticing a headman’s son–a Thakur–a member of the upper class, Phoolan, is ordered to leave the village. She does leave, but then she returns, is jailed, raped repeatedly and then bailed out by Thakurs. But the bailout isn’t an act of kindness. Kidnapped by bandits, Phoolan eventually throws in her lot with bandit Vikram (Nirmal Pandey). And this presents a problem as “women are forbidden in gangs.” The Thakurs do not view Vikram and Phoolan’s relationship with tolerance–no doubt they reason that Vikram’s relationship with Phoolan is in defiance of the recognized hierarchy–which they, naturally, control.

Bandit Queen isn’t a particularly easy to film to watch–there are several rape scenes, and the sequence of the Behmai Massacre is not a pretty one. Based on Phoolan Devi’s prison diaries, the story follows her victim hood, and as always violence begets violence. The film depicts Phoolan’s character development through the major violent events in her life. In a great deal of scenes she is seen as a quivering victim in a merciless system, and then she returns breathing hell-fire and demanding revenge. Eventually forming her own gang, she became a notorious, legendary bandit with a formidable popular following. Seema Biswas as Phoolan Devi delivers an incredible performance, and the film’s cinematography is exquisite. Directed by Shekhar Kapur, the film Bandit Queen has a stirring soundtrack and is in Hindi with English subtitles.

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