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Randeep Hooda in ‘Swatantrya Veer Savarkar’

One of the most polarising figures in modern Indian history, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar gets a new lease of life in the election season as Randeep Hooda mounts a sharply-slanted biopic on the Hindutva ideologue. Plotted and performed with conviction, the film allows Hooda to lend a supple ideological spine to the complex figure who is loved and loathed in equal measure.

Drawing from half-truths, perceptions, and opinions that the right-wing ecosystem has been peddling for almost a century, the 178-minute reductive exercise unravels like a series of conspiracy theories to present Savarkar as the father figure for the freedom fighters who believed an armed rebellion would usher in Indian independence sooner than following the non-violent path. And, it paints the Congress as the scheming villain of the piece that kept Savarkar from deserving glory.

The film is silent on the monthly allowance that he received from the British government after his release from prison and there is no mention of who gave him the title of Veer (courageous). For a man who indulged in self-glorification, Hooda has planted a carefully crafted puff piece that has something for the critics and the disciples to chew on.

While evaluating the divisive figure, the film rightly presents the young Savarkar as a rationalist who loved his seafood and documented the mutiny of 1857 which he termed as the First War of Indian Independence. The devotion of the Savarkar brothers to the nationalist cause and his work to provide an ideological base for Free India Society is depicted in detail.

However, it plays down his communal turn by either obfuscating or omitting historical facts and creating new ones like imagining a meeting between Savarkar and Bhagat Singh. His childhood story of ransacking a mosque is missing for it would have cleared the air on his reading of the First War of Independence as a communal alignment of Hindus and Muslims against Christians. His cosying up to the colonial masters to outwit the Muslim leadership in the power game again had a communal colour, but it has been presented in the film as some grand strategic move rooted in pragmatism as a counter to Gandhi’s support of the Khilafat Movement.

Swatantrya Veer Savarkar (Hindi)

Director: Randeep Hooda

Cast: Randeep Hooda, Ankita Lokhande, Amit Sial, Rajesh Khera

Run-time: 176 minutes

Storyline: The life story of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the Hindutva ideologue and reformer who inspired young revolutionaries into an armed rebellion against the British

In his idea of India, there is no space for communities who don’t consider India as their holy land and it continues to echo the present day India where political representation for Muslims is shrinking. The film shows him being subjugated to relentless torture in Kala Pani (Cellular Jail) but doesn’t care to explain how the nature of his mercy petitions kept changing according to the reforms on the mainland.

With a compelling interplay of light and shadows, the film portrays Savarkar as someone who was close to the hardliners in the Congress and inspired young minds from Madanlal Dhingra and Bhagat Singh to Subhas Chandra Bose to nurture an alternate view to free India from the cudgels of colonial rule. The painful ordeal that he goes through in the Cellular Jail evokes an emotional swell. Along the way, the film, with the benefit of hindsight, questions what could have been achieved had the country not followed the non-violent path shown by the Mahatma.

From the similarity in the shape of their glasses and education to the stark difference in their food choices to the irony in how they meet their end, the film constantly juxtaposes the two personalities and nudges the audience to pick the better visionary. The film has been made to exalt Savarkar; the Gandhian view has been slighted both in terms of gaze and grammar. However, in some of its honest moments, it does provide an insight into the frustration of the man who held a grudge against Gandhi for appeasing Muslims, supporting the caste system, and being soft on the British but goes on to make the counterpoint, the point. Strangely, after taking on Gandhi, towards the end, the film meekly separates Savarkar from his assassination.

Hooda who multitasks as lead, director, and co-producer does some serious heavy lifting to keep the narrative in the cinematic domain. Known for physically transforming into the characters he essays, Hooda brings out the steely resolve of Savarkar. He finds good support from Ankita Lokhande who plays Savarkar’s strong wife Yamuna Bai and Amit Sial who essays his elder brother Ganesh. Rajesh Khera as Gandhi has been tasked to present him as a conniving figure. He keeps the artfulness on the surface.

Breaking away from the episodic nature of a biopic, together with cinematographer Arvind Krishna, Hooda lets the character and the scenery breathe as he captures moments in the life of a freedom fighter when the sacrifice seems pointless.

The depiction of savage cruelty inflicted upon him against the scenic beauty of Port Blair threatens to convert even his bitter critics. Similarly, the scene where after years of imprisonment he comes out of the Ratnagiri jail, expecting that he would get the hero’s welcome but finds only his elder brother Ganesh waiting for him, provides an understanding of the churn in his politics. The disappointment and desperation in his reaction when he comes to know that in the interim Gandhi has written to the masters on his behalf denotes what made him envious of Gandhi and Nehru and put him on the same plane as Jinnah. The two had joined hands when the Hindu Mahasabha and Muslim League ran coalition governments together after the Quit India Movement. The film is, expectedly, silent on it.

Swatantrya Veer Savarkar is currently running in theatres

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