Once upon a time in British-occupied India.
It is March 23, 1931. Bhagat Singh and two of his associates are already dead. Their bodies are being smuggled out of a prison as their supporters are protesting outside. Someone finds their corpses by the river and the protesters storm the prison. The next day, those protesters heckle Mahatma Gandhi as he comes to visit, accusing him of not making an effort to stop the executions of Singh and the others.
So…who was Bhagat Singh?
Flashback to April of 1919 and Bhagat Singh is an 11-year-old boy wandering around the city. He sees a British officer and his Indian Sepoy lackeys whipping a group of stripped Indians for being in groups of more than four. He visits the site of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre where, a few days before, fifty riflemen fired upon a crowd of at least 15,000 people for ten minutes. Official British Indian sources said that 379 Indians died, but others say that it could be around 1,000 dead. By the time Bhagat is there, it is all cleaned up, but he can imagine what happened.
Flash forward to November of 1920 and Gandhi announces the Non-Cooperation Movement, telling government workers to resign, factory workers to walk out, children to stop attending government schools, everyone to stop paying taxes, and all imported textiles to be burned. Young Bhagat Singh throws himself into the movement, which becomes very successful. The timeline for the movie gets a little fuzzy here (probably due to not having a teen actor to play the protagonist in one scene), but it is February when a family friend tells Bhagat’s parents that a police attack on Non-Cooperators leads to the burning down of a police station, which results in Gandhi cancelling the movement. Bhagat hears about this and is extremely upset, feeling betrayed by his hero.
Flash forward to…sometime in the mid-1920s and Bhagat Singh is a student in the National College in Lahore, an alternative college to the British owned universities founded during the Non-Cooperation Movement inside Bradlaugh Hall, which was…errr…and I am straying from the movie. Anyways, Bhagat is a good student and takes part in the dramatics society, where he puts on a play that gains the attention of some of the more nationalistic students. They get into a few confrontations with a group of British (I guess that they are supposed to be, but one has a distinctly non-British accent) Cricket boys which results in Bhagat and a friend assaulting them on the street and running off. A professor scolds them for their petty thuggery, but directs them to join the Hindustan Republican Association, a leftist revolutionary group, to put their aggression to good use.
Bhagat takes some of his friends to visit home, where it turns out that his parents planned to marry him off to a young woman without telling him.
Instead of staying to help on the farm and get married, he runs off to join the HRA. Some of the group is wary of this rich kid student who read a few books and came looking for adventure, but Bhagat convinces them of his sincerity by clutching a spearhead for over thirty seconds. OUCH! So, they take him in.
An HRA robbery of a train, which Bhagat did not participate in, leads to the arrest of all but one robber. Many of the few remaining members are discouraged, but Bhagat convinces them to continue, and so they do. They stage revolutionary plays, throw out pamphlets, ambush police, organize protests, and get arrested. Bhagat, while not necessarily the leader, has become the mouthpiece of the organization. Their activities eventually annoy the British authorities enough that they frame the group for a bombing. Bhagat’s family eventually bails him out. They make him promise to stay to work on the dairy and stop his revolutionary activities. Still, he manages to sneak away again.
Oh, hello time-stamps. I missed you. It is September of 1928 and Bhagat tells the members of the HRA that merely achieving freedom from British rule will transfer the power to the Indian elites and change little for everyone else. He advocates embracing socialism and eradicating discrimination based on class, caste, language, and religion. Born a Sikh, Bhagat himself had become an atheist after the breakdown of the non-cooperation movement. The Hindustan Republican Association is now the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association. Flash forward two months and he attends the funeral for National College founder Lala Lajpat Rai, who was badly beaten during a protest in October and died three weeks later. In retribution, the HSRA decides to assassinate the superintendent who ordered the attack and personally assaulted Rai. The attempt takes place in December, but they end up killing the Assistant Superintendent instead. Regardless of the mistake, they claim victory.
Branded as terrorists and still playing second-fiddle to Gandhi’s non-violent movement, the HSRA struggle to connect with the common people, which was one of their main objectives. They decide that Bhagat and another member toss bombs in the Central Legislative Assembly (not to kill anyone, they insist) and use their subsequent arrest and national trial to disseminate their message. They carry out the bombing in April of 1929 and get arrested as planned. While the HSRA members are able to make their voices heard during the trial (and make an amusing mockery of the whole process), the judge determines that the plan was to kill people.
Meanwhile, the bomb factory is found and many more HSRA members are arrested. A few turn informants, and implicate Bhagat and two others in the murder of the Assistant Superintendent. Betrayed, angry, and indignant at the better treatment that White prisoners receive in the jail, Bhagat goes on a hunger strike. Others join him, but one eventually dies (two, apparently, gave up in real life, but I don’t think that that is included in the movie). Eventually, the government agrees to his demands and he stops the strike.
By this time, his popularity rivals Gandhi, and the more mainstream nationalist groups adopt some of the more radical tones and demands of the HRSA. Unfortunately, an incident involving a shoe thrown at a prosecution witness leads to the expulsion of the defendants from the court, meaning that the HSRA cannot use the trial for propaganda purposes or slow down the proceedings anymore. Of course, the court finds the three main defendants guilty and sentences them to death.
The three defendants greet the news with pride and refuse talk about a prison escape. The few remaining members on the outside make plans to break out the prisoners anyways, but the authorities start hunting them down before anything can happen. Meanwhile, Gandhi had been meeting with Viceroy Lord Irwin to come up with some sort of political agreement and there had been talk that Gandhi could pressure Lord Irwin to cancel the executions. Gandhi brings it up, but Irwin refuses, and Gandhi signs the pact anyways.
So Bhagat and the two other men are hanged. The end.
This movie has a few problems. Setting aside whatever politics the film itself may have and the standard historical inaccuracies of most biopics, the lead actor is around ten years too old to play the role. He plays the role fine, but it is pretty obvious that he is in his early thirties when he should be in his early twenties. This is hardly the only movie to do this, but the issue is most glaring when he is in scenes with his betrothed, who is probably eighteen at most.
Speaking of her, her character makes the least sense in the film. I suppose that there had to be a way for the film to graft a romance angle onto the film, but it doesn’t happen and doesn’t work anyways. She meets him once and then pines over him, even though he explicitly says that his revolutionary activity prevents him from marrying her. Of course, one of the members of the HSRA is the wife of another member, but never mind that. It would have been okay if he had done anything to provoke her feelings for him, but he does nothing. It would have been okay if he felt something for her too, but there is no real sign of that. It would have been okay if she had been as ambivalent about the marriage as he was and stuck with his family out of a sense of duty, but she does so because she is in love.
The third problem is…the English acting. It is almost universally bad. I am not saying that Indian acting is particularly wonderful, but the English acting in this is bad. I have said elsewhere that acting from White actors in Asian movies is often bad, and this is no exception. Unlike a lot of Asian movies that I see, though, this one has a lot of English actors…plus at least one who is supposed to be English and it is painfully obvious that English is not his native language.
The fourth problem is the language barrier or lack thereof. This is not like the Bollywood movies set in modern times when so many characters switch between Hindi and English as if it is perfectly natural. All of the White characters speak English only. The Indian characters speak Hindi for the most part, with some sprinkling of English. There is maybe only one scene where an Indian character says an entire English sentence to a White character, and what he says makes no sense in English. For the rest of the time, the conversations are English for the White characters and Hindi for the Indian characters. And it is difficult to determine whether the characters understand each other and are simply more comfortable speaking in their native tongue or if they require an interpreter. And when an interpreter is required, he is never used with any consistency.
A fifth problem is the issue of the Sepoy antagonists. A lot of the time, the Indian officers are at the frontline of attacking the protesters and abusing the prisoners. We get little insight into their reasons for helping the British government and the members of the HSRA rarely if ever try to get them to defect. Yeah, sure, caste, class, and ethnicity may have played a role in them siding with the powerful against people whom they do not consider their people, but the movie touches on none of that. It is as if they are a lost cause. One of the main Sepoy characters is eventually allowed some humanity, which becomes more apparent towards the end, but we know little about why he took the job in the first place or what he thinks of either the HSRA or of Gandhi.
Okay…so, with all of that, why do I like it so much? Well, one reason that I could give is simply the novelty (for me) of a movie that had the gall to insult Gandhi. Now, the movie itself may not be completely anti-Gandhi, as it shows him as a principled man doing what he honestly feels is the right thing to do. And the part at the end where he fails to pressure the government to stop the execution could have been handled a lot worse, given some conspiracy theories that he wanted Bhagat Singh and the HSRA out of the picture. That said, the main characters all scoff at Gandhi, seeing him as utterly ineffective and out of touch. They believe that legitimacy afforded to him by the government is only due to his being totally unthreatening and all too willing to compromise the rights of the people. They think that he is a pushover and that he allows the British to exploit his commitment to non-violence in order to undermine every effort that he makes. Granted, the movie concedes that the HSRA was unable to free India from the British before it fell apart, but what happened when independence finally occurred under Gandhi? Violent civil war and partition, political corruption, and oppression continued. And then he was shot by Hindu nationalists.
Now, lest anyone think that I am posting this in response to current events, I had scheduled to post this almost two months ago and typed up an only slightly different version of this nearly six years ago. So…while I was tempted to come up with parallels with things going on right now, I will hold off on that.
I could say that the Gandhi stuff is the “very bad reason” that I alluded to before, but that would be obscure the real reason, which I suppose one could call a dark sense of gleeful hatred. Yes, I admit to liking this movie for the wrong reasons, but I don’t particularly care. There are few movies that I have seen that give me this sense of grim catharsis. Aggressively taking on the White establishment and seriously fucking their shit up in the process.
While I would never consider The Legend of Bhagat Singh to hold a candle to The Battle of Algiers in terms of anything else, I would put them pretty much together in the “Just fuck off, Whitey” department. Like The Battle of Algiers, this movie shows a group of people willing to strike at the very heart of an oppressive system ruled by a White establishment, at best, apathetic towards the people over which it rules. They may not actually attack the true leaders of British India, but their goal is clear and there is no metaphorical character stand-in for “the man” as there may be in other movies.
So…I am not sure if I would actually recommend this movie to anyone, as the reasons why I liked it are not really reasons that I am proud of. It was one of three Bhagat Singh films released in 2002 and none of them did well at the Indian box office, so I guess that the Indian public did not share my attitudes towards it. But, this series is not really about movies that I would recommend, but movies that I enjoy. And I highly enjoy this movie. So there. You know, what, screw that. Watch this movie.
WTF ASIA 114: Twenty-four Eyes (Japan: 1954, approx. 156 minutes)
WTF ASIA 115: Happy Together (Hong Kong: 1997, approx. 96 minutes)