Raag Desh: A Stirring Historical Epic

A still from Rajya Sabha TV's movie Raag Desh.

A still from Rajya Sabha TV’s movie Raag Desh.

If you have not watched Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Raag Desh yet, you are missing a masterly film that pays tribute to the greatest generation of Indians who fought for freedom. Set in the backdrop of the fading years of World War II, this epic movie produced by Rajya Sabha TV (RSTV) takes audiences through the extraordinary lives of three lesser-known heroes of India’s liberation struggle against British rule— Colonel Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon, Major General Shahnawaz Khan and Colonel Prem Kumar Sahgal.

These figures became legendary for being put on military trial in the Red Fort on charges of treason against the British Empire, murder and abetment to murder. Raag Desh deftly weaves their personal backgrounds, the legal battle which saw no less that Jawaharlal Nehru don the lawyer’s robes in the defence team, the strategems and intrigue of the British Empire to keep Indian nationalism under check, and stunning visuals of battle sequences involving Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s rebel Azad Hind Fauj or Indian National Army (INA).

Rarely in the history of Indian cinema have nationalistic themes been portrayed with subtlety and realistic accuracy.

Raag Desh exceeds expectations by showing how Indians were sharply divided among themselves during the fag end of colonial rule. The identity-based politics of the Muslim League and the Akalis, plus the divides within the mainstream Congress, are well captured in sequences where each of them wants to represent Shahnawaz, Dhillon and Sahgal for their own partisan purposes.

The fact that Shahnawaz was Muslim, Dhillon was Sikh and Sahgal was Hindu, and all three served with distinction in Netaji’s INA, made their cause at once a striking symbol of India’s national unity. Yet, as Raag Desh shows, the INA’s act of disobedience and abandonment of the British Indian Army as well as the various strands of nationalism simmering around 1945 in undivided India made it a polarising force. There are fantastic scenes in the film showing all these complexities in a fair and educative manner.

A poster of Rajya Sabha Television produced movie Raag Desh.

A poster of Rajya Sabha Television produced movie Raag Desh.

The other amazing aspect about Raag Desh is the manner in which it has resurrected forgotten figures of India’s freedom struggle such as the maverick lawyer Bhulabhai Desai. His skill and knowledge in defending Dhillon, Shahnawaz and Sahgal were remarkable and the movie delves into his argumentation using international law, understanding of world history and his perception about how what was happening in a military tribunal inside the Red Fort in Delhi was shaping and simultaneously being shaped by public opinion across the subcontinent.

As to characterization, Raag Desh scores with appropriately chosen actors who bear close physical resemblance to the real-life historical personalities. Netaji’s role is brief but electrifying. Rare episodes of his speeches in Singapore, him being weighed in gold in Burma, and the way he visited the grave of the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar to vow to bring him back to Delhi are most memorable. The famous sequence where the INA finally crosses from Burma on to India’s soil and plants the national flag in Moirang, Manipur, in April 1944 is so stunning that every Indian watching it on silver screen will be transported to that most heroic age.

Raag Desh is also praiseworthy for the way the rivalries among Japan and Britain, their waning and waxing fortunes on the battlefield over a 3-year period in the context of World War II are shown with superb clarity and intelligence.

The uneasy yet respectful ties between the INA and their Japanese allies, as well as the mixed emotions among many INA soldiers who turned against their own comrades who remained in the British Indian Army, are depicted with such care and delicacy that the viewer must revisit and watch the movie multiple times to grasp all the nuances.

The biggest contribution of Raag Desh is to revisit the core debate of what is loyalty, patriotism and moral conduct in the middle of a world war where tens of thousands of Indians were slaughtered in the cause of their colonial master, Britain.

There is a magical back-and-forth dialogue in the film where a British interrogator tells one of the three INA officers in captivity that he spent three years being loyal (1939 to 1942) and three years as a traitor (1942 to 1945). The nonchalant Indian soldier responds- “three years as a slave and three years as a free man.”

Raag Desh is one of the finest films ever made in India to highlight honour, dignity and respect of not just the three INA officers but of the whole nation when it broke free of British hegemony. The film ultimately reminds us that India won freedom only when we as a people snapped out of subservience to our colonial lords and began to think for ourselves as Indians. For contemporary Indians, this movie is a must-see not only to recall the sacrifices and valour of the INA but also to keep remembering that we must rise above partisan internal differences to remain independent and powerful.

RSTV produced Raag Desh is an unforgettable film with a haunting background music score and breathtaking shots and props. Making such a movie is an act of national service.

For history and political buffs, as well as lay Indians and non-Indians who have an interest in knowing more about the armed uprisings that shook the British Raj and forced it to reckon with decolonisation, Raag Desh is a true gem. The echo of ‘Sahgal, Dhillon, Shahnawaz!!’ taken up by masses on the streets of India in late 1945 will remain with you forever after you finish watching this classic.