Bhagat Singh, the Indian Malcolm X to Mahatma Gandhi’s Martin Luther King, was born in 1907 to a well-off, and politically active, Sikh family in the Punjab region of British-occupied India. An early admirer of Gandhi, he became disillusioned with pacifism when Gandhi arbitrarily shut down the “non-cooperation movement” in 1922. A mob had burned down a police station in retaliation for the Chauri Chaura Massacre, and Gandhi had decided the Indian people “weren’t ready” for independence. Singh, who had already visited the site of General Dyer’s massacre of thousands of protesters at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, drew the opposite conclusion. Armed resistance against a foreign occupier was a legitimate act of self-defense.
Thereafter, Singh, who was only 23 when he was hanged at the Lahore Central Jail, turned to Marxist Leninism, taking as his inspiration, not Gandhi’s pacifism, but the Russian Revolution. In only a few years, he managed to become a major figure in the Indian independence, so threatening to British rule that Lord Irwin, the British Viceroy, declared a state of emergency in order to bypass normal judicial procedure, and speed up the execution. For the rest of his life Gandhi, who made only a half-hearted attempt to save Singh’s life, would be resented by people on the Indian left, almost as if he had been a collaborator with the British Raj.
The Legend of Bhagat Singh, an unabashedly romanticized biography of Bhagat Singh, is the first “Bollywood” film that I’ve ever seen. If it’s any indication of what the Indian cinema is like, I plan to see many more. This is a great film, so clearly written, and so briskly paced that I wasn’t bored for a second of its 155 minutes. It’s so much better than Richard Attenborough’s ponderous 1982 film about Gandhi that I’m a little surprised it took me this long to find out about it. Nothing about the “Bollywood” aesthetic was off-putting, even to my occasionally middlebrow “western” imagination. Quite the contrary, if you like West Side Story or 1776, you will love The Legend of Bhagat Singh.
The Legend of Bhagat Singh begins in 1922. A 15-year-old Sing is already a political activist, participating in, and even leading marches against the British occupation of India. It’s one thing to read about how Singh became disillusioned with Gandhi, quite another to see the disappointment in 15-year-old boy’s face when he realizes that the movement he believes in so fervently has been shut down by the man at the top. We next see Singh as a young adult, a student at the National College in Lahore. The 33-year-old Ajay Devgan is probably a bit too old to play a 20-year-old. Then again, Singh died so young, and rose so far so fast in the Indian independence movement that he must have been an extraordinarily mature young man at the time. Devgan has the right combination of authority and charisma to portray the kind of leader who could inspire other men, not only to risk their lives, but to go to their deaths fighting for their country.
No longer a supporter of Gandhi, Singh joins the HRA, the Hindustan Republican Association, which, under his leadership, eventually becomes the HSRA, the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association. Singh is not a mindless proponent of violence. He first comes to the attention of the British authorities precisely because he supports peaceful relations between Muslims and Hindus. The British realize how much their rule over India depends on “divide and conquer.” Nevertheless, when Lala Lajpat Rai, a renowned independence movement leader, is killed by the police while leading a protest, Singh helps organize an armed retaliation, personally shooting John P. Saunders, an Assistant Superintendent of Police, as he was leaving the District Police Headquarters in Lahore on 17 December 1928.
Bhagat Singh escapes the British police after Saunders’ death. The assassination had been so well-organized that the British initially don’t even know who killed Saunders. But Singh is not the type of man to go underground for very long. When the Central Legislative Assembly votes on a new security measure, the Public Safety Bill and the Trade Dispute Act, Singh and two companions throw a bomb into the empty part of the assembly building, an act intended, not to kill anybody, but to call attention to how the act is being passed over the objections of the majority of people in India. Singh and his companions are arrested and sent to the Lahore Central Jail, where they are eventually joined by the majority of the HSRA, who the British pick off one by one, largely by torturing their friends and fellow political activists into talking.
It’s when Singh and the HSRA are in prison that the “Bollywood” aesthetic is used to its greatest effect. After Bhagat Singh is arrested, tortured, put on trial, he responds by going on a hunger strike. He becomes a national celebrity. It’s only a matter of time before the British kill him. With every step he takes closer to the grave, however, Singh becomes even stronger. The Legend of Bhagat Singh is not a realistic film. Try to imagine Jesus and the 12 apostles going to face Pontius Pilate and the Roman authorities, only singing and dancing as they’re led away to be crucified. But if it sounds silly, it isn’t. It is a celebration of the ability of men willing to go to their deaths to resist unjust power, and to do it with a smile. The final request that Singh and his two comrades make just before they’re all hanged had me in tears.