Why no one is garlanding Randeep Hooda for his take on Savarkar (My Article in Hindustan Times)


Randeep Hooda's directorial debut has failed to captivate audiences, possibly due to its layered portrayal of the controversial Hindutva icon

Dhiraj Singh

We were watching the film Swatantrya Veer Savarkar at a theatre in Pune. It was in preparation for hosting Randeep Hooda at our campus. A special screening of the film had been organised for students and faculty members to delve into Hooda’s latest project, which like all his other projects displayed a certain obsessional transformation into a character. It is a trait Hooda is widely known for and also much loved for. This film also marked his transition from actor to director.

It was the last week of the film running in the city’s theatres. Knowing how meagre its collection had been since its release on March 22, we were actually worried about the turnout during the special screening, which was surprising.

Remember, Pune is the city where Vinayak Damodar Savarkar began his academic career, at the famous Fergusson College. I had expected a warmer reception of the film here, considering it is a city that has many places named after him and there is a general sense of admiration for him all around, which is largely different from most of north India.

But after seeing the film, in a theatre that was only half-full, with a crowd that seemed exceptionally quiet and reserved, I understand why it has not been able to whip up right-wing frenzy as it was expected to. Here are my five reasons why this Savarkar film failed to capture the public’s imagination like many other agenda-driven films such as The Kashmir Files and The Kerala Story have been able to.

Where is Savarkar's halo?

One of the film’s main undoing is that it presents Savarkar with failings and warts. He is not the Hindutva icon who is expected to be consistently heroic in every waking moment and every decision. Hooda’s Savarkar is flawed, trying to lead an armed insurrection against one of the most powerful colonial powers of the time. The clemency petitions — all five of them — aren’t brushed under the carpet. There’s also no glossing over his delusions about being mobbed by supporters on coming out of prison but finding absolutely no one there. Nor is there any attempt to hide his surprise over Gandhi’s growing influence in the freedom movement. “Gandhi itna bada ho gaya?” (Gandhi has grown so big?) he asks in the film, surprised when he learns that Gandhi’s newspaper article has led to his and his brother’s release from prison.

To give an example of the dissonance between Savarkar’s character in the film and present-day right-wing politics, let’s look at Gandhi and Savarkar’s first meeting as shown in Hooda’s biopic. The meeting takes place when Savarkar is busy fixing a meal for the others at London’s India House. He’s in the kitchen de-veining prawns and we see an extreme close-up of his hands as they go about cleaning them.

Then imagine this film fitting into the ongoing discourse at the height of an election season where eating mutton and fish are political taboos. In the same scene, Savarkar asks Gandhi to stay for dinner, but Gandhi refuses saying that he is a pure vegetarian.

Differing stances on violent resistance fail to resonate

Savarkar’s support of Nazism and the Italian fascists was well-known. Hooda’s film isn’t coy about showing his wholehearted embrace of the violence at the core of these ideologies. At London’s India House, Savarkar mentored revolutionaries like Madan Lal Dhingra, who went on to assassinate Curzon Wyllie, a British India officer. On the Wyllie killing, Mahatma Gandhi wrote: “In my view, Mr. Dhingra himself is innocent. The murder was committed in a state of intoxication. It is not merely wine or bhang that makes one drunk; a mad idea also can do so.”

Most of us living today abhor such random acts of violence whether it is a terror attack like 26/11, gun violence in American schools or even the assassinations of the three Gandhis: the Mahatma, Indira and Rajiv. Thus, Savarkar’s brand of finding answers through armed violence has little traction among today’s viewers.

What’s also made visible and manifest through the course of the film is that Gandhi and Savarkar never saw eye to eye. The film makes no effort to iron out those differences to fit into the present-day narrative where Gandhi and Savarkar are both politely ensconced in the same nationalistic pantheon.

The duology of Savarkar and Gandhi lacks impact

Hooda’s filmmaking is powerful, especially the partial close-ups that expose expressions on faces and the play of light that diminishes certain characters and exalts others. In the medium of film, it is enough to convey the unsaid that has consumed nearly four generations of Indian thinking, such as the assassination of the Father of the Nation and how Savarkar’s own acolyte commits the crime in broad daylight and the many investigations and commissions that have deliberated on the matter.

The film makes it amply clear that there were grey areas in Savarkar’s character. This is apparent in the film’s sequence of events in the Cellular jail in Andaman, where it is largely believed that Savarkar concatenated Hindutva as an ideological force. At Cellular jail, Hooda’s Savarkar is shown being regularly abused at the hands of a Muslim jailor, which seemingly brings a transformation in him. Savarkar, until then, had believed in Hindu and Muslim coexistence as he held that they had fought shoulder-to-shoulder in the 1857 revolt against the British, a conflict which he termed the “First War of Independence”.

Secret societies

The film makes a case for secret societies working to overthrow the British in the late 1800s. Savarkar founded Mitra Mela while he was still a teenager and it later went on to become the Abhinav Bharat Society, responsible for the assassinations of British civil servants. Savarkar’s fascination with secret societies was influenced by European writings such as Thomas Frost’s The Secret Societies of European Revolution — a compendium of secret movements across 19th-century Europe. Later, he would be deeply infatuated with Giuseppe Mazzini’s La Giovani Italia (Young Italy), which provided a rough model for Abhinav Bharat.

However, the idea of working in secret to overthrow the ruling dispensation or an ideology is severely alien to our times where woke culture and social media activism mean maximum visibility and publicly vocal advocacy.

To sum up, from Georgia’s Rose Revolution and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution to the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, the movements and revolutions in this century have been hugely vocal, enabled by the Internet. There is seemingly no space now for cloak-and-dagger secrecy in the kits of GenZ revolutionaries.

Commentary on political prisoners falls by the wayside

The Emergency in the 1970s was the grim personification of the idea that a government can and will put its main or most vocal opponents behind bars on the slightest pretext. The fact that today we may be witnessing a repetition of these unfortunate times, when political opponents were thrown in jail on trumped-up charges seemingly has no traction among cinema-goers.

There is no denying that Savarkar’s incarceration in the Andaman Islands was extreme, but there is also a sense that the state — the British then or the Indian now— has never had any taste for protest movements. For reference, we have protests in Shaheen Bagh, JNU and FTII and the incarceration of people who have merely expressed sympathy for the people affected by the Naxalite movement.

Today, we also have examples of activists such as the late Stan Swami, Umar Khalid, Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal whose imprisonment compromised free speech protections in India. Compared to that, Savarkar’s crimes were far more grievous, including abetment to murder, smuggling of guns and waging war against the state.

A day after the screening I had the opportunity to interview Randeep Hooda at our campus. I asked him if he felt the time was right to make a film such as this. He agreed wholeheartedly saying he was angry at how little was known about Savarkar. It was a sentiment echoed by Vikram Sampath in the prologue to his two-volume Savarkar biography. An artist or a writer can explore and enlarge our understanding of historical icons. But the proof of the pudding remains in how many people are willing to come to the table.

Dhiraj Singh is the author of the novel ‘Master O. He is Associate Dean & Director of Dadasaheb Phalke International Film School & Department of Media & Communication at MIT World Peace University. He was formerly Executive Director, Lok Sabha Television. The views expressed are personal

Original link HERE


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