Shyam Benegal, 86, is in Dhaka busy wrapping up his magnum opus on the life of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman — the central figure behind the Bangladesh Liberation Movement and the founder of independent Bangladesh. He has already braved the pandemic and shot a major chunk of the shoot in Mumbai’s Film City.
This is not his first stab at a biopic of a national hero. Before Bangabandhu there was Bose. In 2004, Benegal had made Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero. Apart from speaking the same language, both were controversial figures in the history of the independence movement of their respective countries, making these lavishly-mounted projects more challenging. But while Bangabandhu is a commissioned work– India’s National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) and Bangladesh Film Development had signed an MoU to jointly produce the biopic—Bose came from a more personal space. It was a film he had started researching for almost unknowingly, at a time he didn’t have any idea that he was to become one of the foremost filmmakers of the country and the poster boy of Indian New Wave cinema. In fact, he was then still a child and Bose was the hero of his bed-time stories.
Benegal’s uncle, who was a member of the Bose-led Indian National Army had come to stay with them and he had some stories to tell—these were tales of wars, fighter jets, courage, and human spirit. And like every regular kid, Benegal was not immune to the charm of a good action story!
“Uncle Ramesh (Air Commodore Ramesh Sakharam Benegal MVC AVSM, later an ex-officer of the Indian Air Force who was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra) was a pilot with the INA, trained in flying those famous Japanese Zero fighter planes. He had grown up in Rangoon and when he was still in school, he had gone to a meeting Bose was attending. He was so moved by Bose’s speech that he went right up to him and volunteered to join the INA.”
Indian National Army (INA), a military outfit originally formed by Rash Behari Bose in and was later revived by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose in 1942 to secure Indian independence. The INA had hoisted the tricolour flag of Independent India for the first time on 30 December 1943 at the Gymkhana Club, Port Blair.
“Uncle Ramesh was just about 16 and deemed too young to be recruited. However he persisted and he was eventually among the boys chosen to go to the Imperial Japanese Army Air Force Academy in Tokyo to train as fighter pilots in 1944. He witnessed all the carpet bombings; he was there when the Americans walked in and Japan surrendered. In fact, he became a prisoner of war (POW) and was sent to Hong Kong. He was just about 18 then.
“Eventually he landed in the POW camp near Elephanta in Bombay and when he was released, my father sent for him and he stayed with us in Hyderabad. I was very young then. I would listen to these stories, fascinated.”
So it was Benegal’s long-cherished dream to tell those stories on celluloid. “Their journey, the stories are fascinating to say the least,” says Benegal.
However, Bose was not the film he had started out to make. He wanted to make a film on INA. “But, although Bose is a genuine hero, one of the foremost freedom fighters of India, the soldiers of the army he created to get to his dream of a free India are tagged as traitors in army history. So making a film on Bose was fine, but not on the INA. The Defence Ministry had no problem with a film on the INA, but the army headquarters wasn’t hot on the idea,” explains Benegal.
It’s odd, but the colonial narrative spread by the British that the INA was a rag-tag bunch of guerrilla rebels of no consequence, remains with the army of free India as well. “The army was so steeped in British traditions that these soldiers didn’t get recognition as freedom fighters even 45 years after Independence,” he rues.
However, two of the commanders of the INA, Gurubaksh Singh Dhillon and Lakshmi Sahgal (the commander of the all-women Rani Jhansi regiment) were later awarded the Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan respectively by the Indian government and Sahgal was nominated for the Indian presidential election in 2002 as the sole opponent of A P J. Abdul Kalam.
What is also interesting that although Benegal started his careers as a filmmaker with the documentary format–Benegal’s first directorial was Gher Betha Ganga (Ganges at the Doorstep) in 1962 and he has over 70-odd documentaries in his oeuvre, including the widely acclaimed A Child of the Streets—he had envisioned the Bose-INA story as a movie.
“I always wanted to make it a movie. There is no audience for documentaries, only your friends. Where will you show it? What is the point? If you want to create an audience for documentaries, then you are stuck with the job of pioneering instead of making films,” says Benegal.