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The propaganda pic conundrum

Updated on: 27 March,2024 06:52 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Mayank Shekhar |

Is the truth of a story always as essential in a film, where form = content, or style = substance?

The propaganda pic conundrum

A still from Swatantrya Veer Savarkar starring Randeep Hooda.

Mayank ShekharNo knock on a movie-jock teaching history, of course. But it feels weird, when an announcement flashes on the screen, in Randeep Hooda’s Swatantrya Veer Savarkar (SVS): “Omitted from History.”

What plays is the Royal Indian Navy Mutiny, or the 1946 Naval Uprising, against the British, shortly before independence. Hooda and I went to the same Delhi Public School (RK Puram). I gave my Std XII Boards in history.

If there was a 20-mark question to list immediate causes for India’s independence—including WWII, that crippled Britain’s economy; or the 1942 Quit India movement, that further struck at the root of the Raj—you would easily lose a couple of marks, if you failed to mention the Naval revolt. Unsure about omission from history then!

SVS is biopic of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883-1966). Speaking of whom, for instance, the airport in the Andamans—where a good portion of SVS is set, at Kala Pani (Cellular Jail)—and the sea-link that will connect Bandra and Versova—where this film must’ve been written—are both named after Savarkar.  

The movie makes him seem a severely underrated figure. So much for that! Has Savarkar remained a controversial figure still? Yes. And this is because, as historians with sufficient citation/evidence will tell you—there were, in fact, two Savarkars. 

The first Savarkar is a young, romantic revolutionary—willing to give his all to the cause of Indian independence. That’s what the film is chiefly centred on. An exhilarating sequence concerns brave Savarkar escaping from a steamship, while getting extradited from England. 

He squeezes out of a hole for the ship’s window; wading through choppy waters, towards French soil, as soldiers chase him down with guns. 

Don’t know if this is exactly how this occurred. It makes for fine cinema. Savarkar was arrested on charges of hatching plots for political assassinations.

Until this point, his story resembles several great revolutionaries’. I think too much gets made of how Savarkar wrote multiple mercy petitions, while at Kala Pani, professing his complete allegiance to the Raj. 

I don’t know what you or I would do, if sent off for a term of 50 years, straight, with your back against the wall, of the world’s deadliest jail. What good is a soldier, if dead, anyway!

The Savarkar 2.0, after getting released from prison, who was part of Hindu Mahasabha (HM) is, however, shown in the film, seated opposite Bhagat Singh (of which there is no evidence). He inspires Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, in person. 

Bose had publicly opposed HM, in the mirror image of Jinnah’s Muslim League (then). Both parties had collaborated with the British in government, once the Indian National Congress had boycotted it, during Quit India Movement, where 10,000 freedom fighters lost their lives.

Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse, was part of the Savarkar-ite faction of HM. Savarkar denied knowing him at all in court. Savarkar also saw Hindus and Muslims as two nations, as per his 
1937 speech. 

In 1938, upon Muslim League’s demand for Pakistan, he said we are one nation. But the nation comprises Hindus—and Muslims are a community. In the same way, he argued, that Germany was a nation of Germans, and the Jews were a community. Savarkar also received monthly pension from the Raj.

There is mention of none of the above in SVS. This selective truth-telling is what constitutes a propaganda pic. Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982) can, at worst, be deemed a hagiography. As some, like writer Salman Rushdie, did. 

There is sufficient lampooning of both Gandhi and Congress as cowards and traitors in SVS. Protagonist Savarkar says, “I don’t hate Gandhi. I hate non-violence!”

Need one observably dismiss a set of heroes, to unreservedly love another? Shoojit Sircar’s recent Sardar Udham (2021), biopic of the revolutionary Udham Singh, also associated with London’s India House (hideout), falls into no such polemical trap. 

What kinda nationalism worships the nation, but takes the mickey out of martyrs and fellow nationals! Are any of these thoughts, over similar other insinuations, going through the larger audience’s mind, while watching SVS? 

I suspect not. So enthralled as they’d be, with the storytelling—between close-ups, lights, and shadows, before electricity; insanely long passages in English, for authenticity; crackerjack make-up design, by Renuka Pillai—with writer-producer-director-actor Hooda, blowing your heads off as the stunningly believable Savarkar.

Exuding supreme swag, Hooda runs deep—down to his bare, skeletal bones! Although, according to a BBC Hindi documentary, 5’ 2’’ Savarkar had actually put on weight after three years within Kala Pani. 

For better or worse, do you fall for the film, for its form, first? That it’s a medium, where style, so hard to accomplish, can replace the substance itself? Can you engage then, even when you don’t agree with the content? Because it’s not a debate—and that must happen later? 

By the movie’s finale, I’m thinking—should award shows not institute the category, Best Propaganda Film, given so many such, lately? (Most, if not all, don’t measure up!). 

I’m also thinking this, right after SVS, watching Blackberry (2023), on Prime Video. That’s great history, of how iPhones replaced Blackberry, overnight. But such a badly made/enacted film. 

Pushed myself through two hours of Blackberry. Felt no such boredom over three hours of SVS. Hmmm… 

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14
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