Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Legend of Bhagat Singh... starring Ajay Devgn

After the positive response to my review of Asoka, I thought I would continue looking at ambitious films that underperformed at the box office. This week it’s The Legend of Bhagat Singh, directed by Rajkumar Santoshi and starring Ajay Devgn. It was one of two underperforming films on revolutionary figure Bhagat Singh that released in the summer of 2002 - the other being the Deol home production 23rd March 1931: Shaheed starring brothers Bobby and Sunny Deol. While 23rd March has mostly disappeared from public consciousness, The Legend of Bhagat Singh earned Ajay Devgn the National Award and is still discussed as a highlight of his career.

Bhagat Singh (1907-1931) was a Punjabi revolutionary cum martyr whose execution by the British is now remembered as a flashpoint in the Indian Independence movement. He fought for prisoner rights, for social equality, and for freedom from religion... and the British. Like any martyr, the heroic facts of his final days have come to define his life and Bhagat Singh’s story is told with a heavy dose of fatalism across India
and Pakistan. All these years later, Bhagat Singh is still a controversial figure among the elites and is sometimes referred to as a terrorist but he is a man whose message of social justice and freedom continues to resonate among diverse groups from students in Pakistan to Dalits in India.

The accident of fate that led to two films on Bhagat Singh being produced at the same time probably had its roots in the powerful success of patriotic period film
Lagaan with a healthy dose of Partition-set Gadar, which had been an overwhelming success for Sunny Deol. Whatever the cause, both teams wanted to be first to the box office and rushed through production at record speeds. 23rd March roped in Aishwarya Rai at last minute for glamour, while Legend shoehorned in a romantic song with newcomer Amrita Rao. Despite the best efforts of both teams, both Legend and 23rd March tanked at the box office. Was it the concurrent release dates? Was the public tired of historical epics? What went wrong?

I haven’t seen
23rd March (and don’t plan on it – I’ll let a Bobby Deol fan handle that) but I can speak on Legend.

Directed by Rajkumar Santoshi and beautifully shot by Anand K.V. (director of recent Tamil hit
KO), The Legend of Bhagat Singh is a jumble of a film, at times frustrating, exciting, uplifting, pedantic, confused, dull, filmi, nationalist, and anti-nationalist. Despite the fanciful use of the word "legend" in the title, the film takes a literal approach to history and dutifully runs through the facts of Bhagat Singh’s (played by Ajay Devgn) life and death, jumping from important incident to important incident with little time spent on character development or motivation or even explaining the importance of the important incident that occurred. The film reads like a checklist: Young Bhagat Singh is disillusioned by Gandhi? Check. College-aged Bhagat Singh joins the Hindustan Republican Association? Check. Kakori train robbery, arrest, murder of J.P. Saunders, prison, trial, execution? Check, check, check. And in almost every scene, we hear Bhagat Singh spout patriotic and uplifting dialogues on a variety of topics.

When I spoke with Alexx O’Nell, who has played more than a few British soldiers in his career, he explained that when depicting revolutionaries, filmmakers aim towards sainthood. The trouble with this tendency is that it erases a lot of the potential drama from a narrative. If a character is perfect, then conflict must come from outside and it
must be strictly delineated between good and evil – in the case of Legend, the conflict is between saintly Bhagat Singh and both the cartoonishly evil and interchangeable Britishers and the (as depicted) cowardly, incompetent Gandhi. Other much more interesting conflicts are ignored - Bhagat Singh is never torn between duty to his family and his country; he is never swayed by romance; he is never allowed to show regret for anything that might have occurred on his march towards martyrdom; and he is never shown without an uplifting dialogue on his lips.

Bhagat Singh is transformed from a youthful atheist, Marxist (and perhaps selfish) idealist whose ideas still have power among the disenfranchised to a dry historical figure tied to a specific point of time. Perhaps because of this devotion to a literal truth and comfortable patriotism,
Legend received almost unanimously glowing reviews from patriotic reviewers when it was released. Much like the (also flop) Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey, the power of the film appears to be rooted in a feeling that I can’t share in due to my outsider status. Without being able to draw me in with that already existing patriotic context, the film seemed empty. I went in knowing nothing about Bhagat Singh, I finished my viewing experience still knowing nothing about him other than that he was an Indian hero. (And, yes, I mean Indian, since despite the fact that portions of the film are set in Lahore, the idea of Pakistan and Muslims are barely mentioned. Very interestingly, a Pakistani film on Bhagat Singh was in production around the same time as Legend and 23rd March.)

Stripped of politics, stripped of relevance to events of today, and stripped of any emotional context,
The Legend of Bhagat Singh is a very dry affair – random romantic song with Amrita Rao aside.

So, now we come to Ajay Devgn’s storied performance as Bhagat Singh. One of the unusual quirks of Ajay’s career is his constant striving to play virtuous characters despite his massive success with brooding and villainous roles. His epitaph may well be taken from
Jessica Rabbit: “I’m not bad; I’m just drawn that way.” You can draw a direct line between Legend and the also Rajkumar Santoshi directed (and virtuous) Halla Bol. Ajay’s performance is charismatic but provides no depth to a blandly written character. It’s a shame because some of the deservedly well-loved Ajay-style brooding would have added a nice layer of pathos to scenes of Bhagat with his family and friends. Whether it was Rajkumar Santoshi or Ajay himself who decided on the one-note performance, the result is the same – a character who doesn’t grow or change from the first frame to last, despite the events happening around him. (The use of brooding and character growth is one thing Halla Bol got right.)

I certainly don’t begrudge Ajay Devgn the National Award but it’s safe to say that he earned it for turning a controversial figure into a safe and virtuous one.

There are many interesting angles a story on Bhagat Singh could take – the selfishness of the revolutionary, the definition of terrorism, the failure of society to live up to socialist ideals, the power of the media, or the folly of youth –
The Legend of Bhagat Singh decided to focus on Ajay Devgn’s Christ-like martyrdom. If I had to guess why audiences stayed away, I would guess that the number of people who would part with money to see a film that only offers Ajay’s martyrdom as entertainment to be fairly small.

Still, there is no reason not to enjoy some screen captures, so here you go!

The film opens with this incredible sequence of the young Bhagat Singh vividly imagining what occurred during the Jallanwala Bagh massacre. Would that the rest of the film carried through on this promise...

The massacre swirls around the young boy - he is engulfed by violence.

This sequence of him walking past the firing soldiers was really chilling.

A woman's scarf hangs in the breeze - the only evidence of the lives mown down.

Our first introduction to Ajay Devgn as Bhagat Singh comes in the song Pagdi Sambhal. (This is also the reason I was excited to see Ganesh Acharya's name mentioned in the credits.)

Bhagat pointedly sings to the British governor of keeping one's turban on as a symbol of one's pride while the whirl of dancers frantically churns behind him. It's an effective picturization, managing to be both entertaining and poignant all at the same time.

The film goes downhill from this point on.

These white guys were so comically awful that it gave the heroes no points with the audience to beat them up. Beating up a worthless enemy just makes the hero look like a jerk.

Amrita Rao has maybe 3 minutes of screentime, in which we are supposed to feel some tragedy at the fact that Bhagat doesn't want to marry anybody.

Her romantic song is teleported in from another film where her character has... a character and plot.

Perhaps the sequence that perfectly captures the tone of the film best is this one:

Bhagat has just been released from jail and he assures everybody that he's just fine but what is this?!

An underused Farida Jalal: Was I transported into LONDON DREAMS?!


He concludes that families are too much trouble and runs away to play freedom fighter with his friends.

(As an aside, Ajay looked really yummy in this hat.)

The bombing was a nice break from the speechifiying but it went by too fast.

Lest I make the film seem like campy fun, most of what you are subjected to are dialogues like this:

"But will that blood arouse future generations," said while gripping a spear tip until his hand bleeds.

"Leave my land or get thrown out," said to an Evil British Person while chained in shackles and getting whipped.

"Blah blah religious harmony," said while gazing beatifically off into the future.

The film all but photoshops a halo on Ajay Devgn's head - he is the PERFECT revolutionary, who fears nothing and nobody.

On being told that he's going to be hanged, he sarcastically says thank you to his captors and then shouts revolutionary slogans.


When called to the gallows, he cheerfully shuts his book without a bookmark - something I would have found poignant in a different film. Here, it just annoyed me.

And then the hero who has been drained of all human emotion skips off to the gallows arm and arm with his buddies that I can't remember their names because they received no character development whatsoever, grateful that they get the chance to die for India (but not Pakistan).



S said...

FG The Legend is a film I would hesitate to see because of a very different reason - as an Indian I am afraid it would affect me too much. I think producers know that patriotic films will emotionally affect Indians deeply and bank on that. Gah I found even the last few screencaps you posted very poignant. :( But I agree that this film would have precious few points to draw an outsider in. And btw the reason Bhagat Singh is happy to fight only for India is because Pakistan did not exist at that time. There was ONLY Bharat/Hindustaan/India.

Filmi Girl said...

@S Exactly! I certainly understand how a film can make one feel patriotic and emotional. :)

It's a shame that Legend offers very little for an outsider, or for somebody looking for a good story, because there is a powerful narrative buried in there somewhere. Rajkumar Santoshi was unable to bring it out, though.

And, yes, I know Pakistan didn't exist yet but I guess my point was that the greater Hindustan wasn't really brought up - and if the filmmakers were trying to keep the spirit of the real Bhagat Singh they would have added some lines on it.

I would only recommend this one if you are in a patriotic mood. :)

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl
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