Swatantrya Veer Savarkar Review: Lost In Politics

With the kind of money and talent that has gone into making this movie, a really good biopic of a personality like Savarkar could be made.

But this film is lost in polemics, as is the case with almost every biopic and period drama today, observes Utkarsh Mishra.

I have often wondered why India’s movie industry, that makes about 2,000 films every year, could never make one good movie about our glorious freedom struggle in all these years.

After sitting through Randeep Hooda’s Swatantrya Veer Savarkar for three terribly long hours, I think I have my answer.

It seems until the Indian National Congress will remain a relevant force in contemporary politics, our history will never be free of the shadow of the present.

We are told today that we have been taught incorrect history.

That earlier, only the Congress got undue credit for Independence.

Let’s accept that it was correct. But today, with the shift of power, are we trying to balance our ‘lopsided knowledge of history’? Or do we want to swing it completely into the other direction?

Maybe Gandhi, Nehru and the Congress got more credit for Independence than they deserved.

But what are we doing today?

Saying that not only they deserve no credit, but they were, in fact, working against those who wanted to bring ‘true Independence’?

It is this relentless effort to subvert history that results in an actress calling our freedom as ‘bheekh‘, that is something received as alms.

And I have my reservations with the other side too.

Every time they talk about Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, they would lampoon him for writing mercy petitions, for allegedly giving himself the title of ‘Veer’, for talking about the two-nation theory before Jinnah did. Well, keep focusing on these trivialities and ignore the issue at hand.

What you get in return is a movie like this.

With the kind of money and talent that has gone into making this movie, a really good biopic of a personality like Savarkar could be made.

But this film is lost in polemics, as is the case with almost every biopic and period drama today.

The writers and directors focus so much on either justifying or invalidating the politics they agree or disagree with today that they end up putting words in the mouths of historical figures that they never said or showing them do something they never did.

Before going to watch this movie, given the kind of promotion it was getting and the kind of statements Actor-Director Randeep Hooda was giving, I had an idea about what it will show. But I expected an actor of Hooda’s caliber to put sincere efforts into acting, direction, and screenplay.

I was disappointed on all three accounts.

Hooda has tried to look like Savarkar and his physical transformation is commendable. But in the attempt to imitate Savarkar’s style, especially in his later years, he fails miserably.

Other historical figures, especially Gandhi, played by Rajesh Khera, are simply caricatures.

Gandhi’s character would comically chant ‘Ahimsa Paramo Dharmah‘ each time he would appear on screen, and Savarkar would ridicule him by his words or gestures. And the audience would get ample hints about whom to admire and whom to mock.

I don’t want to make this review a fact-checking exercise because a lot of statements about the film showing Savarkar as inspiration to leaders like Subhas Chandra Bose and Bhagat Singh have already been made.

But I would certainly like to mention one or two sequences that left me pulling my hair.

One is the portrayal of Bhagat Singh.

I am sorry, but I have strong objections to the image of Bhagat Singh that most of my fellow countrymen have formed in their minds.

I don’t blame them because they have been fed the same image over for years. And they neither had access nor had the time or inclination to read the revolutionary literature Bhagat Singh and his comrades have left for us.

Bhagat Singh was not a wayward rebel who enjoyed wielding guns and killing the Whites.

In fact, revolutionary leaders senior to him credit him for giving an ideological framework to the revolutionary movement.

He has a clear idea of revolution in his mind and he turned the movement towards socialism.

As much as I have read him, I never found him claiming any serious impression or inspiration he got from Savarkar.

He would certainly have respected him as a freedom fighter, but his ideological bent of mind was very different from Savarkar’s.

He was a Marxist, who, according to his comrades, encouraged them to read Marx, Bakunin and others.

To quote his comrade Bhagwan Das Mahaur, ‘Revolutionaries who were hitherto reading the Bhagwad Gita, were seen mugging up Marx’s Kapital‘.

This was Bhagat Singh’s influence on the movement way before the killing of J P Saunders in 1928.

Even with my limited reading of Bhagat Singh’s writings and the reminiscences of comrades, I can say that I cannot digest the claim that he was inspired by Savarkar and his book The Indian War of Independence.

He might have read it and maybe admired it, but it was not something he wrote about or gave others to read.

Why I felt the need to discuss this in detail is because the movie shows Bhagat Singh meeting Savarkar in Ratnagiri after killing Saunders, and expressing the desire to publish his book in English.

Although historian Vinayak Chaturvedi, in his book Hindutva and Violence: V D Savarkar and the Politics of History, claims that the book was already published in English in 1909 because Savarkar could not get a publisher in London to publish the Marathi version.

In 1909, Bhagat Singh was two years old.

Moreover, if the English version of the book was not available till 1928, how did Bhagat Singh read it in the first place?

He was fluent in Hindi, Urdu, English and Sanskrit, this much we know. But did he know Marathi so well as to read a book in that language, that too written by a prolific author like Savarkar, and understand it and be inspired by it? I doubt it.

Coming back to the scene, when Bhagat Singh meets Savarkar, the latter tells him he knows what Chandrashekhar Azad is doing for independence, ‘but what have you done?’

To which Bhagat Singh replies with pride, ‘I have killed Saunders at point blank, just like Madanlal Dhingra (killed Curzon Wyllie)’. And Savarkar gets up and hugs him.

Now, Mr Hooda, I beg you pardon, but Bhagat Singh was not like that, a trigger-happy insurgent.

You should read how sad they were after killing Saunders.

Even if one reads the pamphlet that was distributed the next day after Saunders’ killing, one would get an idea that these boys were not some goons or terrorists.

They explain their action and say that we value human life but we had no other choice but to perform this act.

This portrayal of Bhagat Singh was deeply hurtful.

Secondly, in no account of Bhagat Singh’s life have I read that he went to Maharashtra after killing Saunders.

Saunders was killed on December 17, 1928 and Bhagat Singh was arrested after throwing bombs in the assembly on April 8, 1929.

In the four intervening months, he went to Calcutta, learned to make bombs, came back to Agra, and established a bomb factory there.

It was in Agra that the plan to throw bombs in the assembly was made. So when did he get time to travel to Maharashtra and meet Savarkar?

Not to mention that Gandhi and the Congress were vilified throughout.

All the conjecture you read about Jawaharlal Nehru today in WhatsApp forwards have found a place in the screenplay.

And for God’s sake, Jinnah never addressed Gandhi as ‘Bapu’ even in his early days. I don’t think Dr Ambedkar spent as much time with Gandhi advising him as shown in the movie.

Lastly, I must make it clear that I don’t have a problem with someone being critical of Gandhi, Nehru or the Congress of that time.

The man I admire the most (Bhagat Singh, if you couldn’t get it so far) was a harsh critic of theirs.

But that criticism should not be dishonest, or, if could use a word I have recently learned, expedient.

But this movie is just that, expedient.

Hopefully, some day, someone will make an honest effort to tell the story of our freedom struggle with the dignity and solemnity that it deserves.

Swatantrya Veer Savarkar Review Rediff Rating: