India 1965
Directed by S. Ram Sharma.

The film begins with a small disclaimer: "Every care has been taken in this film to present the heroic struggle and personality of the famous revolutionary Shaheed Bhagat Singh and other leaders of the moment associated with him like Chandra Shekhar Azad. But it is possible that the depiction of certain incidents, costumes, procedures, etc. might have involved some inadventent deviation from actuality for the purpose of cinematic presentation." Right. So for example, presumably the filmmakers don't know for sure whether Bhagat Singh broke out into song on a regular basis, but if he didn't, well, this "deviation from actuality" was totally an accident.

SHAHEED is a movie that glorifies the exploits of Bhagat Singh, but tells us little or nothing about the man or his motivation. The movie simply presents episodes from his life, bringing them to life in the same way one might make a movie about Jesus by taking his "key moments", throwing the moneylenders out of the temple one day, turning water into wine the next, without ever getting into Jesus' motivation. And why should they? After all, the audience for such a picture know the protagonist intimately. The purpose is simply to celebrate a hero, not explain one.

[IMAGE: Bhagat Singh (Manoj Kumar), in his iconic disguise.]

So for viewers not seeped in the mythology of Bhagat Singh, SHAHEED is a somewhat difficult picture to appreciate. Everyone in the movie loves him beyond reason and admires him above all else, but we don't particularly see much of what, exactly, everyone loves and admires about him. The adulation is simply assumed, not earned, with one exception at the end of the movie, which I will come to again later. As a result, the movie is less emotionally engaging than it might have otherwise been.

The short version is this: Bhagat Singh was a martyr who gave his life for a free, independent India. Gandhi, the hero the west traditionally associates with the struggle for independence, is seen as weak by maany, then and today, guilty of appeasing the British when they should have been thrown out through force of arms. Unfortunately, there is something in a non-violent transfer of authority that fails to excite the imagination of the ultra patriot, who prefers to celebrate a person like Bhagat Singh instead, who grabbed headlines by shooting a cop and throwing a bomb in the parliament building. Revolution! And indeed, actions like this may have helped bring about an independent India, as the British could see that the alternative to dealing with Gandhi was going to be much worse.

Bhagat Singh grew up in a revolutionary household, his father and uncle both active and occasionally jailed for anti-British activity. He went to National College, and wrote essay after essay in illegal underground revolutionary newspapers and pamphlets. He later joined Chandra Shekhar Azad and the Hindustan Republican Association and reformed it, adding the word "Socialist" to the name (HRSA), and continued to write.

Then, in October 1928, came the "Simon Commission", which was to look into the possibility of granting India self rule, though no Indian representative was placed on it. This became a focus of popular resentment, and a large demonstration calling for the Commission to go back to Britian was dispersed by the police, who ended up beating to death the elder politician and orator Lala Lajpat Rai.

[IMAGE: From the movie, the protest led by Lala Lajpat Rai.]

Angry and seeing the government do nothing after Lajpat Rai's death, a group of revolutionaries, including Bhagat Singh, decided they would kill the police chief, Scott, who ordered the attack. They waited for him in ambush, but the Assistant Superintendent of Police, J.P. Saunders, emerged instead. I guess this was close enough, as they quickly assassinated the man and went into hiding, while public notices were quickly written and posted explaining their revolutionary actions ("We regret having killed a human being, but..."). Bhagat Singh shaved off his beard, sacriligious for a Sikh but not a problem for Singh, who declared himself an athiest in a later essay.

Bhagat Singh's last "great" act was chucking a bomb into the Indian parliament, especially designed not to be too powerful so that it wouldn't kill anybody, to protest the passing of a "Public Safety Bill" in the Indian legislature. They threw the bomb, then flyers describing their position, then waited in the visitor's gallery to be arrested. Bhagat Singh believed the bomb was necessary to wake up his enemies and to "make the deaf hear." He and his friends were caught, tried, and condemned to death, not for the bombing but for the murder of Saunders. Bhagat Singh used his court appearances to continue delivering his revolutionary message to the masses, who would read about the trial and so hear what he had to say. Before long, he had a huge following. He staged a hunger strike while in prison to improve conditions there, and finally was hung by the neck until dead on March 23, 1923.

And so the movie SHAHEED follows the outline of Bhagat's life, as played by Manoj Kumar, showing us the key events. SHAHEED does not spend much time explaining the politics, nor does it spend much time explaining history. The political situation is described immediately, in the opening image, like this:

The British, hanging people, stealing grain. Any questions? The narrator explains, "The Indians worked hard but it all went to the British. And the Government wanted them to suffer." Objectivity, then, will not be a strong suit of this production.

The events of Bhagat Singh's life outside of prison make up the first half of the film. By intermission, he has already grown up, joined the HRSA, killed Sanders, bombed parliament, and sentenced to life imprisonment. The standout performance in this first half is not Manoj Kumar's Bhagat Singh, who is a bit of a stiff, but Man Mohan as Chandra Shekhar Azad.

[IMAGE: Parliament goes boom, flyers are distributed.]

The second half of SHAHEED slows down considerably, and covers the events that transpire when Bhagat Singh is in jail, including his second trial (for the murder of Sanders) and death sentence, his hunger strike for better conditions in the jail, and his final hanging. It is in this second half that the movie finally comes to life. Whereas the first half seemed a rushed checklist of events, depicted without much explanation, the second half provides much more character. Manoj Kumar stops acting like an icon and starts behaving, a little bit, like a real human being.

The success of the second half of the film can also be attributed to stronger supporting characters. We are introduced to Dhaniram (Asit Sen), the jovial convict who serves the others their daily meal. The warden (Madan Puri), who tries to set brother against brother, who orders Bhagat to be tortured, who refuses to bow to Bhagat Singh's hunger strike, but who, at last, feels shame for his actions. And Kahar Singh (Pran), the vicious murderer, who comes to recognize what a good man is before he is executed.

[IMAGE: A memorable performance in a small role, Pran as Kahar Singh, the condemned killer.]

And in many ways, the prison hunger strike is Bhagat Singh's most appealing attack against the government. He always fought for the betterment of society. When his society was reduced to a single prison, he fought for the betterment of the conditions there. It demonstrated a consistant care and concern for people, for improving the lives of the people, over the political statements he was famous for. And, this battle is waged with non-violence, borrowing a page from Gandhi's playbook. It is perhaps worth noting that Bhagat Singh's violence got him nothing more than an early death, but his non-violent fast did result in a promise of better living conditions for prisoners.

There have been many bio-pics about Bhagat Singh. "Hagiographies" they could rightly be called. But of the ones I've seen, they all play up his nationalism, his patriotism, while downplaying or ignoring sides of his tale that might not receive a standing ovation. For example, he was a dedicated Marxist. Communism was not as widely discredited then as it is now, but armed with today's knowledge of the crimes against humanity that have been conducted in the name of Communism wherever it has taken root, we can perhaps be glad that Bhagat Singh did not have a chance to make his political ideals a reality. Additionally, he was an Athiest, another fact conveniently glossed over in the narrative.

But above all, he is not a historic figure I have any desire to celebrate because he was essentially a terrorist. Singh had some writings about this, clearly defining himself as NOT a terrorist, because whereas he used bombs to make a statement, they used bombs to create terror. But of course, all so-called terrorist groups have more on their minds than random terror. And when I read Bhagat Singh's own writing, about his desire to make a bomb, an explosion that will "make the deaf hear", it is hard not to immediately bring to mind the worldwide forum that Osama Bin Laden got after making sufficient noise on 9/11. It is a difference in scale, and surely Bhagat Singh would have nothing to do with something so terrible, but yet Singh's justifications for his actions work just as well for bin Laden as they did for Bhagat Singh. They did not kill anyone with their bombs thrown in the parliament building, but the wording of the flyer they threw suggest that they thought they might:

"We are sorry to admit that we who attach so great a sanctity to human life, who dream of a glorious future, when man will be enjoying perfect peace and full liberty, have been forced to shed human blood. But the sacrifice of individuals at the altar of the 'Great Revolution' that will bring freedom to all, rendering the exploitation of man by man impossible, is inevitable."

But still, this was a different time, a different place, and Bhagat Singh cannot be judged only in hindsight. He was no Osama bin Laden. And despite his Marxist ideology, he was no Mao or Stalin. He was simply a man driven to free his country from its oppressors. He believed, right or wrong, that the end justified the means. His contributions to the dialogue leading to an independent India were real. His blood stained the hands of many, perhaps even Gandhi, who might have intervened to change his sentence from death to life imprisonment, but did not. His writings live on, and interested readers should visit and make up their own minds.

[IMAGE: "Shaheed-E-Azam", which means, "King of the Martyrs."]

SHAHEED gives us the story purely from the heroic point of view. The opening credits thank his mother for her contributions to the film, so we can hardly be surprised. But the film is also an artistic achievement filled with strong performances. Manoj Kumar became associated with the role and went on to do a string of popular patriotic films. He became the symbol of patriotism in Bollywood cinema. His was another life touched by the patriotic spirit of Bhagat Singh.

Rating: Recommended (Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on November 27, 2005.


Shame on you........
Calling a martyr and a revolutionary a terrorist...
First have some knowledge about India, then Indians and u dare to post comments on us.....

Posted by: Hindustani at July 19, 2008 04:19 AM

To "Hindustani": Perhaps I should not have equated his actions with those of AlQaeda. A better comparison would be to draw a link between Baghat Singh's killing of a cop in retaliation for a murder done by a different cop -- as if to bring justice, murdering any cop would do -- to the events in Gujarat in 2002 in which thousands of Muslims were murdered by right-wing Hindus in retaliation for the supposed firebombing of a train by other, unrelated Muslims. This kind of idea is poison. I admire his patriotism, but condemn his methods.

Posted by: PTN at July 22, 2008 10:25 PM

The reviewer does not know the difference between terrorists and freedom fighters. There is no point in getting stuck into technicalities. Bhagat Singh was a great freedom fighter. We call our fellow Americans in Iraq and elsewhere freedom fighters since they are fighting for a just cause. I wonder if this idiot reviewer dares to call American Soldiers across the world Terrorists instead of fighters for freedom and Democracy!!!

Posted by: san at December 23, 2008 08:20 PM
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