Ae Watan Mere Watan Review: Radio Ga Ga!

Ae Watan Mere Watan tries to get a grasp on the mind of youngsters, shaped by the words of inspiring leaders, committed to the cause of independent India.
It’s significant because their support isn’t based on ‘andh bhakti‘, but leadership that encourages questions, observes Sukanya Verma.

‘My finest moment was when I was arrested broadcasting on the Congress radio,’ Usha Mehta told Rediff.com‘s Archana Masih in an exclusive interview a few years before her death in 2000.

Only 22 years old when put behind bars for her role as a proud Gandhian, freedom fighter and founder of Congress Radio, the Padma Vibhushan recipient earned her place in history early on in life.

At an age when people are falling in love and figuring themselves out, Kannan Iyer’s zealous biopic marvels at the spirit of a generation, of which a brave lot like Mehta believed, ‘Kuch ke liye inquilab hi pyaar hai, aur kuch ka pyar hi inquilab hai.’

Ae Watan Mere Watan tries to get a grasp on the mind of youngsters, shaped by the words of inspiring leaders, committed to the cause of independent India.

It’s significant because their support isn’t based on ‘andh bhakti‘, but leadership that encourages questions and critique like an opportune discussion between Usha (Sara Ali Khan) and fellow students Fahaad (Sparsh Shrivastav) and Kaushik (Abhay Verma) in a library corridor accomplishes.

Much of their on-the-ground passion and purpose describes the zeal of a past, when the whole country worked together to push out foreign rulers, to a present consumed by greed, exploitation and apathy.

From the start, stories of Mahatma Gandhi’s salt satyagraha inspired an impressionable Usha to follow suit, much to the displeasure of her lawyer father (Sachin Khedekar). Despite his objections, he is the one to introduce Usha to the world of radio.

Comfortable in the cushy lifestyle that comes from adhering to his British bosses or chanting ‘Churchill Chalisa‘ over Winston’s famous ‘Fight them on the beaches’ speech, Usha’s father isn’t as obsequious as he is pragmatic. Sachin Khedekar seamlessly encapsulates his character’s stubborn pattern and self-satisfaction in picking convenience over principles.

Conflict arises when his college-going daughter wants to exercise her privileges by joining India’s final fight for independence, which kickstarts in Bombay after Gandhi’s call for ‘Do or Die’ in 1942 led the way for the Quit India Movement.

Often, Bombay’s money and movies image overshadows its place in history. Ae Watan Mere Watan quietly acknowledges this (um, except Kamala Nehru Park wasn’t built until 1952) while noting how the city has always given wings to independent young women in pursuit of their dreams.

Modern-day resonance aside, the khaki-toned period drama plays out like a product of its time, unsuspecting of the magnitude and momentum the rebellion will take or the value of Usha’s own participation.

Experiencing the dilemmas of a girl at odds with her father’s sell-out ideology when forced to choose between parent and patriotism or her disappointment when her companion doesn’t share her promise of celibacy, Usha’s concerns are there and then.

Her unwavering idealism and intrinsic feminism may make Usha difficult in the eyes of the men in her life but azadi ki ladai precedes everything else.

Against the backdrop of World War II, gagged media and foremost freedom fighters thrown in prison, Congress Radio is born.

Communicating over a covert radio operation from top-secret hideouts of South Bombay, Usha and company relay emotionally-charged speeches by Gandhi (a lacklustre Uday Chandra) to Ram Manohar Lohia (Emraan Hashmi) calling for nationwide dissent.

It’s not a big part, but the virtually unrecognisable Hashmi’s charisma provides believable comfort to his 20-something followers in the movie.

Untouched by the conceit of facing the camera too many times, the boys fawning at him and flanking Sara are heartfelt in their predicament.

Abhay Verma’s (of The Family Man Season 2 fame) lovelorn condition and the fire in spunky Sparsh Shrivastav’s (of Laapataa Ladies fame) belly often outshine Sara’s earnest demeanour.

Evoking mom Amrita Singh’s bindi and braids look in Sunny (where she sings for the radio), the articulate actor is disposed to old school theatrics. Reining in her melodramatic impulses for most part, she cannot resist the opportunity to go extra every single time she cries ‘Karo Ya Maro‘.

Given this revolt’s mostly passive nature, tension arises in lugging cumbersome technology from place to place when chased by an equally cumbersome technology employed by the Britishers to trace the rebels.

Ae Watan Mere Watan‘s retro imagery isn’t limited to antiquated machinery, erstwhile trams and vintage cars; it also falls back on old fashioned plot trops like the classic burkha disguise to escape the cops.

Bollywood biopics have a tendency to shuffle chronologies, romanticise or overstate the truth.

Ae Watan Mere Watan isn’t above fictionalising Usha Mehta’s story or depicting the Brits like one-note grimacing geezers (Alexx O’Nell). Yet, before it slumps into a needless overdrive of dramatic excesses and stagy hysterics, there’s a sincere desire to capture the early 1940s.

For a movie where radio acts as a powerful tool, Ae Watan Mere Watan exemplifies the importance of having a voice in Darab Farooqui’s eloquent expressions.

Director Kannan Iyer’s world building relies on the everyday challenges faced by its young protestors upholding Gandhian values and rejecting capitalism yet bending over backwards to raise funds for their mission — ‘Bina paison ke inquilab tak laana namumkin hai batao‘, one of them shakes his head in amusement.

Mostly though, it’s Usha’s defiant ‘ukhaad phenkenge un sabko jinko lagta hai ke woh Bharat chala rahe hain‘ sentiment fuelling the resistance.

In 1942, it amounted to a radio revolution. In 2024, it’s radio silence.

Ae Watan Mere Watan streams on Amazon Prime Video.

Ae Watan Mere Watan Review Rediff Rating: