If most of us sleepwalked through History class, Hindi films can and do, to some extent, fill in the gaps. History has it that Mangal Pandey (19 July 1827 – 8 April 1857) a sepoy (sipahi) in the 34th Bengal Native Infantry (BNI) of the British East India Company played a catalytic part in the events immediately preceding the outbreak of the Indian rebellion of 1857.
His story inspired The Rising, also known as The Rising: Ballad of Mangal Pandey (2005) based on the life of the Indian soldier known for helping to spark the First War of Indian Independence. It was Ketan Mehta’s most ambitious big-budget effort to capture the fragmented history of a nascent struggle. The film, with Aamir Khan in the lead role, unfortunately turned out to be as fragmented as the era it depicted, and fared miserably at the box office.
Rani Lakshmibai (19 November 1828 – 18 June 1858) queen of the princely state of Jhansi in North India was one of the leading figures of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and became a symbol of resistance to the British Raj for Indian nationalists.
Jhansi Ki Rani (1953) the first ever Technicolor film made in India, produced and directed by Sohrab Modi starred Modi’s wife, Mehtab in the title role, with Modi in the important role of her mentor, Rajguru. The film was dubbed in English as The Tiger and the Flame. The film, adapted from the novel Jhansi Ki Rani (1946) by Vrindavan Lal Verma, had Modi employing Hollywood heavyweights including Oscar winning cinematographer Oscar Haller (Gone with the Wind) and editor Russell Lloyd to ensure an authentic and aesthetically engaging cinema. It is the only film that presents the Queen in truth and glory.
Decades later, many leading actresses (notably Sushmita Sen and Aishwarya Rai) attempted to produce and direct a film based on her life but eventually only Kangana Ranaut managed to complete that herculean dream. Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi (2019) directed by Radha Krishna Jagarlamudi and Kangana Ranaut from a screenplay by K. V. Vijayendra Prasad with dialogues by Prasoon Joshi, was a pop-cultural version of her iconic contribution and though entertaining, failed to rouse-up enough sentiment to make it memorable. The film did fairly well at the box-office and might have just broken even.
Bhagat Singh (1907– 23 March 1931), the heroic Indian revolutionary whose two acts of dramatic violence against the British in India (In December 1928, Bhagat Singh and an associate, Shivaram Rajguru, fatally shot a 21-year-old British police officer, John Saunders, in Lahore and later in April 1929, he and another associate, Batukeshwar Dutt exploded two improvised bombs inside the Central Legislative Assembly in Delhi) set him up for an execution at age 23, is probably the most loved historical figure from the Indian freedom struggle. He has as many as four films serenading his valour.
The Legend of Bhagat Singh (2002) directed by Rajkumar Santoshi, starring Ajay Devgn is by far the most accurate account of events. The film with a wonderful script and superb performances from Devgn, Sushant Singh as Sukhdev and D Santosh as Rajguru, managed to stay authentic and fired up the imagination with its unadulterated version of ‘revolutionary’ zeal. The music composed by A.R. Rahman raised the tempo and pitch to ‘unforgettable.’
23rd March 1931: Shaheed (2002) directed by Guddu Dhanoa appeared to be more an attempt to resurrect leading man’s Bobby Deol career, and so authenticity and grit lost out. The songs did manage to tap into the patriotic fervour though.
Shaahed-E-Azam (also 2002) directed by Sukumar Nair had Sonu Sood playing Bhagat Singh and Raj Zutshi as Chandrashekar Azad so you can well imagine its reception at the box office. Plagued by controversy, it vanished from the screens without much fanfare.
Shaheed (1965) directed by S Ram Sharma with Manoj Kumar, Kamini Kaushal, Iftekhar, Nirupa Roy, Prem Chopra, Madan Puri and Anwar Hussain was the most memorable of Manoj Kumar’s patriotic series (that includes Upkar, Purab Aur Paschim and Kranti). A powerful script by B. K. Dutt and Din Dayal Sharma, pathos ridden performances and unforgettable music made the film, a much loved one for the masses. The songs (especially written by freedom fighter Ram Prasad Bismil) and composed brilliantly by Prem Dhawan, captured the sentiment evocatively and continue to be top-of-the-mind for any patriotic celebration.
The Chittagong Uprising, a little-known saga in 1930s British colonial India’s East Bengal (now Bangladesh) where a group of schoolboys and young women, led by a schoolteacher Masterda Surya Sen dared to take on the Empire has a couple of Bollywood films (Chittagong, Khele Hum Jee Jaan Se) attempting to immortalise that event on screen.
Chittagong (2012) directed by Bedabrata Pain starring Manoj Bajpayee and Nawazuddin Siddiqui in lead roles was a fairly engrossing version of those turbulent times with some alluring music by trio Shankar Ehsaan Loy and sound by Resul Pookutty. The film, while not a money spinner, managed to do decent business at the box office.
Khele Hum Jee Jaan Se (2010) Ashutosh Gowariker’s directorial starring Abhishek Bachchan, Deepika Padukone and Sikandar Kher, based on Manini Chatterjee’s Do and Die, an account of the 1930 Chittagong armoury raid, was even more of a lame-duck version — with little to elevate from the monotony of uninspired, laid-back story telling, staccato performances and uneventful runtime.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (October 1869 – 30 January 1948) the inspirational world leader who employed non violent resistance to lead the successful campaign for India’s Independence, better known as the Father of our Nation, has had a few Bollywood attempts made on his life story. Even so, none of them matched up to the majesty and momentous impact of Richard Attenborough’s epic British-Indian co-production Gandhi (1982) which won a slew of Oscars and other world awards and continues to influence the young and old, across the globe.
Shyam Benegal had Rajit Kapoor play the Mahatma in The Making of the Mahatma/ Gandhi Se Mahatma Tak (1996), a bilingual biography in English and Hindi. While the film is an authentic take on the progression of Gandhi from a barrister in South Africa to becoming the Mahatma and had a much lauded performance from Rajit Kapoor, it failed to make an impact on the box office.
Gandhi, My Father: This Feroz Abbas Khan directorial was based on the biography of Harilal Gandhi. The film paints an intricate picture of Gandhi (Darshan Jariwala)’s complex and strained relationship with his son Harilal Gandhi (Akshaye Khanna) amidst the backdrop of the freedom struggle. The film, though well made, was soon forgotten.
Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero (2004) depicts the life of the Indian independence leader and traces the events leading to the formation of Azad Hind Fauj. Written and directed by Shyam Benegal the film brings to life his unforgettable contribution to our freedom struggle. Benegal’s film had Sachin Khedekar doing a fantastic job as the eponymous hero and the film is one of the most informative documents of that period. A. R. Rahman put music to Javed Akhtar’s lyrics and the songs were some of the best heard in a film based on the Indian Freedom Struggle.
Sardar (1993), as the title suggests, is a biopic on Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel (played by Paresh Rawal)’s great contribution to our freedom struggle. Directed by Ketan Mehta and written by noted playwright Vijay Tendulkar, the film encapsulates the entire gamut of his contribution to the formation of India and is fairly authentic and gripping.