After reading my review of The Baader Meinhof Complex, a friend of mine recommended that I watch the 2002 Indian film, The Legend of Bhagat Singh, which also touches upon the question of what tactics should be used in the struggle against injustice. Although Bhagat Singh (1907-1931) is little known in the U.S., he is famous in India for his role in the Indian independence movement. He rejected Gandhi’s notion of non-violent resistance. He was a founding member of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association, which sought to organize a mass uprising against the British. When the Indian writer, Lala Lajpat Rai, died after being beaten by the police, Singh and his comrades killed a British police officer in revenge. Later, they threw bombs in the Indian National Assembly, with the intent of getting themselves arrested. Singh hoped that his speeches at the trial would inspire the Indian people to rise up against their colonizers. His trial received considerable attention, and for a time he became as popular as Gandhi. However, this did not stop the British from executing him.
This film shows Gandhi in an unflattering light. It accuses him of dropping his demand that the Viceroy commute Singh’s death sentence so that he could get a political pact with the British granting limited rights to Indians. Given all the adulation given to Gandhi in both India and the West, it’s interesting to see a film that portrays him in a negative manner. In effect, it accuses him of being willing to sacrifice principle in order to get an agreement with the British.
The director, Rajkumar Santoshi, paints the story of Singh’s life in broad strokes. He doesn’t spend much time on character development. Singh (Ajay Devgan) appears fearless and wise almost from the time of his birth. And in true Bollywood fashion, there are musical numbers. Singh sings. He sings (twice) while he is on a hunger strike, and he sings while he is going to his execution. The Legend of Bhagat Singh emphasizes Singh’s advocacy of Hindu-Muslim reconciliation. (Singh came from a Sikh family, but he became an atheist at an early age.) Santoshi clearly wanted to remind his fellow Indians of Singh’s politics, which are more relevant than ever with the sectarian violence that has sometimes taken place in that country in recent years. No doubt Santoshi thought that following the conventions of Bollywood would give the film more appeal, although I’m told that it actually did not do well at the box office. In all honesty, I could have done without the singing, but I found this a compelling film nonetheless.