Cast: Kunal Kapoor, Amit Sadh, Mohit Marwah, Vijay Verma, Mrudula Murali, Kenny Basumatary
Director: Tigmanshu Dhulia
Rating: 3 Stars (out of 5)
A well-known but rarely highlighted chapter of the Indian freedom struggle - the Indian National Army (INA) trials of 1945 - gets the full-length treatment in Tigmanshu Dhulia's Raag Desh, produced by Rajya Sabha Television. The result is a riveting, if not exactly exhilarating, epic tale that presents a prudent blend of war, patriotic fervour, expert legal sleights and good old human drama.
A solidly crafted, well-acted and ever-relevant saga, Raag Desh chronicles the creation of the Azad Hind Fauj by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and, after his army's defeat, the court-martial of three of his best men, Shah Nawaz Khan, Prem Sehgal and Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon. The case came to be known as the Red Fort trials, which became a rallying point for a nation that had had enough of the British and was intensifying its fight for independence.
The film fills the audience in with clinical details and information about the three men and the battles they fought and, therefore, isn't always as emotionally stirring as it could have been had Dhulia adopted a less academic approach to the subject. That doesn't, however, rob Raag Desh of its relevance - it is a tale that turns to the past to explore the various dimensions of nationalistic passion at a time when the country is going through a phase where the very idea of India is being virulently called into question and threatened.
Raag Desh emphasizes the active role that members of every religious denomination that calls India home played in the making of a free nation. "Hamare sar pe hamara mazhab nahin likha hona chahiye, warna Hindustan banne se pehle hi toot jayega (Our religious identity shouldn't be written on our foreheads, or else India will break up even before it is born)," Subhash Chandra Bose (played very ably by Kenny Basumatary) tells his men. That declaration of intent - the foundation of the Azad Hind Fauj - is a thread that runs through the film.
The courtroom proceedings are interspersed with violent battle scenes as witnesses are questioned about the motives of the three patriots who, at Netaji's call, broke away from the British Indian Army imprisoned by the Japanese during World War II. The flashbacks reveal the parts that Khan, Dhillon and Sehgal played in getting the INA Army soldiers within striking distance of Indian territory from the Burma side of the border. They fell at the very last hurdle, and the three men were charged with waging war against the King, murder and abetment to murder.
Raag Desh places freedom fighter and famed lawyer Bhulabhai Desai (played brilliantly by Kenneth Desai) at the centre of the defence, underplaying somewhat the role of the team of lawyers (including Jawaharlal Nehru, Tej Bahadur Sapru and Asaf Ali) set up by the Indian National Congress to defend the INA men. In fact, it is a part of history that Nehru donned a lawyer's robes after many decades to argue on behalf of the INA officers on trial. This aspect of the story is touched upon but not fully fleshed out, with Rajesh Khera playing Nehru with conviction even though he does not bear a physical resemblance to India's first Prime Minister.
With Kenneth Desai being scintillating as the ailing Bhulabhai Desai who takes up cudgels for the three soldiers at the behest of Prem Sehgal's father (Kanwaljit Singh), the trial scenes are lent a lively, edge quality, which is sharpened further by the steady performances delivered by the three principal actors - Kunal Kapoor as Shah Nawaz Khan, Amit Sadh as Gurbaksh Dhillon and Mohit Marwah as Prem Sehgal - whose battlefield and personal back stories are revealed bit by bit as the trial proceeds.
Raag Desh is part war film, part legal procedural. But above all, it is a drama designed as a reminder of the sacrifices of brave men and women - the INA had a full-fledged Rani Jhansi regiment commanded by Lakshmi Swaminathan (Mrudula Murali), who was to later marry Prem Sehgal - presented in the larger context of the struggle for independence. The film constantly harps on the fact that of the three under-trials are Hindu, Muslim and Sikh respectively - representatives of a diverse nation in the making. It was only natural that their fate fired up people across India in the years leading up to Independence.
Amit Sadh makes the strongest impression as the excitable Dhillon. Kunal Kapoor and Mohit Marwah are just as steady and in sync with the spirit of the two distinct men that they flesh out. The sweeping arc of the period drama may not be conducive to bringing out the purely human aspects of the three men standing tall in support of their beliefs, but thanks to the efforts of the actors, Khan. Dhillon and Sehgal are far more than just larger-than-life heroes. One can feel their pounding hearts and steady nerves as they battle the might of an empire.
Raag Desh blends details drawn from extensive research and some amount of fiction to rustle up a narrative that has enough drama to keep the audience engaged through its run time of two and a quarter hours. It isn't quite your average edge-of-the-seat thriller, but it abounds in scenes that hit home with their inherent intensity and emotional resonance. Given the increasingly fractious times that we live in and the cynical political manipulations that are currently afoot, one has no reservations in recommending Raag Desh as the film to watch ahead of all the other Bollywood releases of the week.