The first film that was made on Shaheed Bhagat Singh was Shaheed-E-Azad Bhagat Singh (1954) starring Prem Adib as the martyr and Jairaj and directed by Jagdish Gautam. The film has long faded into oblivion. In 1963, the Kedarnath Bansal-directed Shaheed Bhagat Singh (1963) starred Shammi Kapoor in the title-role. Then came Shaheed (1965), still the finest and most successful film on the freedom fighter that won a President’s Silver Medal in the pre-National Film Award days.
In the millennium, there was a sudden resurgence of celluloid interest in Bhagat Singh. In 1999, Rajkumar Santoshi claims to have first planned a film on the hero. The film went on floors after extensive research under the Tips banner. The Deols, also toying with the idea mooted by director Guddu Dhanoa, went on the floors soon after. Two small producers also launched films on the patriotic icon and the net result was a Bhagat Singh epidemic in 2002. And so while the small film Shaheed-E-Azam Bhagat Singh released on May 30, Rajkumar Santoshi’s The Legend Of Bhagat Singh and Sunny Deol’s 23 March 1931 - Shaheed both hit the screens in an egoistic tussle on June 7. The small film Shahid Bhagat Singh, whose music album was the first to hit the music shops and was by leagues the best of the four scores, could not hit the screen at all because of internal issues between the producers.
All three releases took a box-office tumble, and so the fifth film, made by the Ramanand Sagar banner and slated to be released only on television, never saw the light of day either. However, in all the released films, Bhagat Singh devotees did find disturbing deficiencies and deviations from documented facts.
Of course, the spirit of Bhagat Singh has always influenced cinema. Rang De Basanti (2006) took both inspiration and title from the famous song associated with the martyr, Mera rang de basanti chola, even if it offended sensibilities by showing the visionary freedom fighter as one of the idols of the film’s protagonists when they executed a subversive act in the climax.
The classic depiction: Shaheed (1965)
Says Manoj Kumar, who portrayed Bhagat Singh in Shaheed, “Bhagat Singh has fascinated me since childhood. A play staged in my neighbourhood in Delhi was to have me do his part, but at the time of the performance, I ran away, frightened by the fact that my grandparents were to be in the audience!” But after this faux pas, things changed. Young Hari Krishen Goswami (Manoj’s real name) was fascinated by the patriot’s photograph and by stories of Bhagat Singh’s valour, as narrated by his father. “I devoured books on him. Later, as a struggling actor in Mumbai I would write scripts and I wrote a script on him as well.”
The “non-commercial” story, relates Manoj, inspired Kewal P. Kashyap, then a top PRO, to produce the film. This decision spurred further research. Archives from The Hindu were made available by a close friend called Ramachandran and Manoj spent nights there, taking in historical details as well as legal aspects of Bhagat Singh’s trial. “I had my own perspective,” says Manoj. “I approached two of Bhagat Singh’s advocates, classmate Pranlal Mehta and Aruna Asaf Ali Baig, wife of Asaf Ali. They curtly told me not to mess with the lives of freedom heroes. But when I was escorting the then-Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri out from a special screening of Shaheed, Pranlal came and hugged me from behind and wanted to touch my feet!”
Kamini Kaushal played Manoj’s mother and returned to movies after a break to do her first-ever maternal turn. Struggling actor Prem Chopra (as Sukhdev) had the confidence to quit his job with a top daily only after this film, while Pran’s cameo as Kehar Singh, a hardened murderer who worshipped Bhagat Singh and went to meet him in jail, is considered by the legend among his own best. Says Manoj, “Kehar finds a small reference in one of the books on the patriotic hero.”
Prem Chopra reveals, “Shaheed was Manoj’s baby all the way. He directed the film though he did not take credit for that and gave it to S.Ram Sharma.” But the shooting was not smooth sailing. Cash was short, and actor Manmohan (father of producer Nitin Manmohan and a noted villain then) contributed Rs 10,000, while F.C.Mehra later came in to streamline funds. But the filmmakers never compromised on authenticity - they shot in the real Ludhiana jail and the hanging sequence was also shot in the actual gallows. The music and lyrics were written by freedom fighter-turned-lyricist Prem Dhawan who was persuaded to compose what eventually became the timeless music score of the film.
And for Manoj, it was not only the beginning of his patriotic screen image but also of greater glories. Bhagat Singh’s aged mother, known as Maa-ji, brother Kultar and associate Batukeshwar Dutt watched the film and his mother told Manoj, “Today I have got my son back!”. So impressed was Shastri that he asked Manoj to write a film on his Jai Jawan Jai Kisan slogan and in the 24-hour train journey back to Mumbai, Manoj Kumar penned the story of another classic, Upkar.
The writer’s perspective
While none of the 2002 films did well, The Legend Of Bhagat Singh, was the most critically-appreciated. It’s principal scriptwriter, Anjum Rajabali, opines that his script lost out on the vital emotional quotient that abounded in Manoj’s film. “Rajkumar Santoshi did complete justice to my script. Ajay Devgn was brilliant, but my script’s lack of emotions, more than the clutter of Bhagat Singh films, made my movie suffer.”
But Anjum stresses that his film was more authentic in terms of research and ideology. “We looked at his journey. In my research, I found that after Bhagat escaped from Lahore to Kolkata, he changed as a person. In those years, he formulated his thoughts and emerged with a very radical vision. He never ever shed blood after that, thus becoming in sync with Mahatma Gandhi to that extent, yet he realised that freedom from the British would never be enough if the social structure was not overhauled. He became a socialist, and his whole idea was to court arrest and certain execution so that he could use the media during his trial to convey his message to the nation and to his free associates to carry on his mission. But while he largely succeeded, one traitor in the ranks ensured that all his associates were also arrested!”
Portraying a hero
Says Ajay Devgn, who won the National Best Actor award for The Legend..., “Rajkumar Santoshi and the writers did all the research. My contribution came from the guidelines they gave and the time I spent with Bhagat Singh’s brother who was in his nineties and told me so many stories about him. It was a learning experience for me, to know that aise bhi log hote hain jo itni chhoti umar mein aise kaam karte hain. But somewhere I always feel that he never got his due.”
Adding that there were extensive discussions on the character, Ajay says at that time the team aimed at recreating even a small percentage of Bhagat Singh’s greatness for the audience. “But we were happy with the film. It’s not common to find the audience crying in the very first scene, so I do not agree with Anjumsaab. He wrote a great script but the clutter of films led to none of them working, even if they collectively helped increase awareness.”
Sonu Sood, who made his acting debut in Shaheed-E-Azam Bhagat Singh, says that his grandfather studied at the National College, Lahore and that during the course of the research he also met the late martyr’s nephew. Says Sonu, “They all told me a lot about him. My mother is a History professor and she helped me too. I was cast by the director because I was from Punjab and an actor without a fixed image was ideal. I was doing films down South then.”
The casting of such an illustrious real-life figure was thus crucial and that’s where Bobby Deol came into 23 March 1931 - Shaheed, says director Guddu Dhanoa. “This was a film I wanted to make with Sunny Deol, over two years before we made it. Sunny finally offered to produce the film, but since the age factor was crucial, we decided to have Bobby in the role.”
The fourth film, Shahid Bhagat Singh, had Harbhajan Mann, the popular Punjabi singer, cast as the hero.
It is said that Bhagat Singh devoured poetry and Ram Prasad Bismil’s Sarfaroshi ki tamanna was an evergreen favourite. The screen association of this song with the character began with the 1954 (with music by Lacchiram) and 1963 (Husnlal-Bhagatram) films and extended to all later films except Shaheed-E-Azam Bhagat Singh, attaining classic status with the 1965 film. Such was the impact of Prem Dhawan’s music (the all-hit score also had the timeless Jogi hum to loot gaye by Lata Mangeshkar and the cult hit Ae watan ae watan) that every subsequent film had two of its songs, Mera rang de basanti chola (first heard in the 1963 film) and Pagdi sambhaal jatta, as permanent musical motifs of the freedom fighter. In every 2002 film (again with the exception of Shaheed-E-Azam...), therefore, these songs were freshly penned and tuned by the respective lyricists and composers.
The standout 2002 score, however, was neither the A.R.Rahman-Sameer combo of The Legend... nor the Anand Raaj Anand-Dev Kohli collaboration of 23 March..., but the Jaidev Kumar-Naqsh Lyallpuri effort in the unreleased Shahid Bhagat Singh.
Says Jaidev Kumar, “Even in 2002, a respected music critic in New Delhi stated that our score was the best of the four! Our producers gave me full freedom to record live with A-list musicians, but had internal problems later and the film never made it. Even today, I get royalties for my song Aao ni behenon from London, where it is played on shows and in marriages. The song is known in Punjab as a ghodi, or a wedding song, and we used it when Bhagat Singh was on the way to the gallows, because he often said that his execution was like marriage for him! It was a brilliant touch!”
But while this was a traditional melody, the remaining songs, were all original creations. “This was my first solo break in Hindi films, and I did my best to give songs that were rooted in Punjab, including Sadhu sant faqeeron ki,” says Jaidev. “As for the three songs associated with Bhagat Singh, we were very conscious about the iconic level of the music of Manoj Kumar’s film and did our best to reach near their level. We also tried to maintain dignity - in the other two films, Pagdi sambhal jatta was used as a dancing number, whereas it is a song of suffering!” Interestingly, this film’s lyricist, veteran Naqsh Lyallpuri, hailed from Bhagat Singh’s birthplace - Lyallpur in Punjab.