Sunday, August 14, 2011

Shaheed (1965)

On India's 64th Independence Day, recalling an old classic biopic on Bhagat Singh, in an humble effort to give tribute to one of the greatest revolutionaries to have taken birth on our soil.

23rd March, 1931- Never before had a scheduled execution been advanced by a day- never before had an execution taken place at dusk- 23rd March, 1931- the mightiest empire in the world had to twist the rules written by itself- Such was the power and threat of Bhagat Singh and his friends, that the empire could not afford their survival for another single day- even when they were safely behind bars.

‘Shaheed’, a 1965 Manoj Kumar film directed by S Ram Sharma, is a story of martyrdom- it is the story of the greatest set of revolutionaries to have taken birth on the Indian soil. One of the few biopic features made in our cinema, it is certainly one of the finest too- if not the finest. It narrates the life and times of Bhagat Singh, a name that resonates every now and then in each and every home of our country- and understandably so. At the start of the new millennium, our film-makers decided to relive his story on celluloid and thus we were confronted with as many as four features on the same man, and the same story. Although Raj Kumar Santoshi’s effort was indeed a fine one, it certainly had a great reference point in the form of this movie that is an extremely rich feature despite being made in an era characterized by minimalistic use of technology and lack of resources and high budgets. This movie has a soul as bright and as warm as the great soul it talks about.

Unlike its remake (I would be addressing Raj Kumar Santoshi’s ‘The Legend of Bhagat Singh’ as its remake for it was the movie that came closest to replicating its spirit and intentions); Shaheed focuses more on the times spent by Bhagat Singh and his mates behind bars. It also keeps its scope pretty much restricted to these characters and does not include the other noted personalities of that time in its narrative. Thus it refrains from showing the interactions and exchanges between the Viceroy and the congressmen, and also does not lay much focus on showing the external dynamics of the situation. In effect, the greatest strength of this movie is that it does not pitch the ideology of Bhagat Singh and his mates against the one MK Gandhi had and abstains from making this contrast-which could have been used to escalate the spirit of revolution and sacrifice (a tool used to a good effect in its remake).

The story has been collated from authentic sources like Bhagat Singh’s mother herself and Batukeshwar Dutt, who was an important part of Bhagat Singh’s party and in fact accompanied Bhagat Singh while they exploded a bomb in the Central Legislative Assembly as a mark of protest against the introduction of the Public Safety Bill and the Trade Dispute Bill (which were touted to make the lives of the common men more miserable). He was also involved in a historic hunger strike by Bhagat Singh and his mates against the dreadful treatment given to the inmates in Indian jails. This hunger strike gets prominent focus in the movie, and is portrayed in a much more restrained and less horrific manner than in its remake. Here a character played by Pran (that of a dacoit inmate along with Bhagat Singh and his group) has been used very well to depict the scale of the sacrifice and level of courage shown by the men for the betterment of their race and their country. 

Despite tackling a vast subject matter, the movie has its focus pretty clear and sharp editing helps the cause.The sets and shooting locations are pretty authentic- the only grouse is that the lighting is poor at some places. The soul of this movie, however, lies in its performances and its music. Manoj Kumar lives the character of Bhagat Singh and comes up with a truly memorable act that I believe remains unmatched (even in the modern day remakes). Prem Chopra plays Sukhdev, and though he lacks the finesse displayed by his more important colleague, he still manages to do a good job backed by the subject matter and the other supporting cast. The character of Bhagat Singh’s mother (played by Kamini Kaushal) is a very well etched one and has been performed remarkably by the lady (one of the best on screen mother acts). Other notable performances are by the jail staff and the Jailor (Madan Puri). Pran’s cameo too is very impactful and one wonders why this character was done away with in the remake. Chandrasekhar Azad, as a character, is not given much prominence in the film.

There are no words apt enough to describe what the music of this film brings to it. The songs are heartwarming and evergreen and take the narrative forward in a splendid manner. In fact, songs come at the highpoint of all the dramatic bits of the story. The songs are based on the poems by Ram Prasad Bismil, another notable revolutionary of that time who was involved in the Kakori incident (which gets a fleeting mention in this film unlike its remake). “Sarfaroshi Ki Tamanna”, “Aye Watan”, “Mera Rang De Basanti Chola”, “Pagdi Sambhal”- it is hard to recall any other movie having so many memorable gems- and all having tremendous bearing on the film’s unfolding.

Parting Note- The movie is memorable for more reasons than one. It is one of those patriotic movies that won’t let you remain just a passive viewer watching a movie. It will involve you, it will evoke sentiments, but above all it will make you reflect and think about the meaning of sacrifice, love, and freedom.

Bhagat Singh is relevant today, more so than ever before, for his efforts were not only directed at achieving freedom, but also towards betterment of the posterity and most importantly spreading the feeling of love and pride for our nation and our people- which sadly today comes up only during cricket matches or when our media channels decide to take it up during festivals such as today. It is only when we, as individuals, start feeling responsible for our country and start caring for it as much as we care for ourselves, will issues like corruption cease to infest our society. We don't need an Anna Hazare for that- we have enough examples in our history to take inspiration from- or better still setting an example ourselves by being honest, diligent and fair at whatever we do or at the methods we adopt. Jai Hind.


  1. I see what you meant when you said that your take on Shaheed was very different from my own! Ah, well - let's agree to disagree. ;-) Though, on one point I completely agree: the songs are superb. And yes, I find Manoj Kumar's acting good in this. Even though I usually don't like him in his patriotic persona, I thought he was fine here.

  2. Of course, that's the best thing about movies- they evoke diverse reactions:) Thanks for your views- respect them...