INTERVIEW

‘Find the human element and the rest will follow’: Tigmanshu Dhulia on ‘Raag Desh’

The 49-year-old director’s film on the 1945 Indian National Army trials will be released on July 28.

When Rajya Sabha TV offered Tigmanshu Dhulia the choice to direct a film on either the historic Indian National Army trials or Vallabhbhai Patel, the answer was a no-brainer.

Dhulia had previously worked on Ketan Mehta’s Sardar, and didn’t want to redo the same material. At the same time, he also discovered something about the 1945 trials that he had been unaware of despite studying history in college.

Dhulia had always felt that India had won her independence without much effort. While he knew that freedom fighters, including his grandfather, had struggled to break free from the British – by staging protests, going to jail, chanting slogans – he felt that the events lacked a cinematic quality. That perspective quickly changed after his research into the events surrounding the trials, which were conducted after WWII and during which soldiers were tried for treason, among numerous other charges.

“I kind of felt like this was the final nail in the coffin,” Dhulia said. “When this INA thing happened, Britishers must have thought that it was difficult to stay on, and it gave the final and most deadliest push to their rule.”

Another factor that appealed to the 49-year-old director was the period during which the trials took place. It reminded him of an India that does not exist anymore, when disparate groups in society came together to make common cause and even real-life villains seemed to have redeemable qualities.

The first of the trials, which were conducted in Delhi’s Red Fort, had a Hindu, a Sikh and a Muslim as the defendants. “What happened was completely unprecedented,” Dhulia said. “For the first time, the Hindu Mahasabha, the Muslim League and the Indian National Congress united and came together to protest against their sentencing.” A fact that is particularly heartening considering the fractured state of today’s India, said the director of Haasil, Paan Singh Tomar and Saheb, Biwi aur Gangster.

Raag Desh, the resulting film, will be released on July 28.

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Raag Desh (2017).

Shot with anamorphic lenses to create the look and feel of 1940s India, the period film stars Kunal Kapoor, Amit Sadh and Mohit Marwah. Featuring a mix of sets and real-life locations such as Red Fort and Rashtrapati Bhavan (where Dhulia points out that even the makers of Gandhi were not given permission to shoot), Raag Desh has elements of a war film as well as a courtroom drama.

The movie will focus not only on the landmark trial of Colonel Prem Sahgal, Colonel Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon and Major General Shah Nawaz Khan, but also the events leading up to the trial, including the activities of INA founder Subhash Chandra Bose. Dhulia will be expanding on the subject for a six-part television series for Rajya Sabha TV.

Since books, documentaries and photographs were easily available, and family members and descendants of the key figures were still alive, research wasn’t the problem. The challenge was in assembling a team to help Dhulia sift through the voluminous material.

“These kinds of films don’t have a background in our cinema history, so that kind of research is absent,” Dhulia said. He was eventually able to find a team of four “like-minded” people who were able to work on a single “dry subject” for a long period of time.

Trying to create drama and conflict from real-life events came naturally to Dhulia, following his period film Paan Singh Tomar (2013) , about the Chambal Valley dacoit and athlete. The experience of working on Paan Singh Tomar also helped the director during the editing of Raag Desh.

Dhulia discovered that the INA trials were highly complex, and there were too many intricacies involved that needed explaining. What was India’s role in WWII? Who was the British Indian Army and how was it different from the Indian National Army? Dhulia returned to a lesson he had learned while making Paan Singh Tomar: “Amidst the personal achievements, you have to find the human element and the rest will follow.”

Kunal Kapoor in Raag Desh.
Kunal Kapoor in Raag Desh.

As a result, Dhulia became fascinated by the counter-narrative of the INA. Radio and newspapers of the time labelled its members as traitors, and this dichotomy formed the spine of the film. There was drama inherent in deciding whether the members of the INA were heroes or villains, and the film came together around that central idea.

A large part of the narrative will also be a courtroom drama, which has often tended towards the cartoonish in Hindi cinema. Dhule wanted to move away from the trope by focusing on the arguments, which he describes as endlessly interesting, while also remaining committed to the real procedures, especially since he came from a family of judges and advocates.

One of the models for these scenes was Judgement at Nuremberg (1962), which Dhulia called his favourite film. The director also looked towards Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) for the war scenes. In the World War II drama, Spielberg placed the camera in the centre of the battle to create the feel of a documentary, a technique that Dhulia has attempted to replicate for Raag Desh.

Choosing to focus on the complexities of a historic event could easily lead to controversies, both in the form of public outcry and censorship, something that Dhulia is well aware of. “Who will not be afraid of censorship in the present climate,” he said, but added that since the film does not feature the most controversial aspect of Bose’s life – his death – he has little to worry about. “What people could have a problem with is the way I have shown Netaji’s philosophy, but that can only be judged once the film releases,” he said.

Amit Sadh, Mohit Marwah and Kunal Kapoor in Raag Desh.
Amit Sadh, Mohit Marwah and Kunal Kapoor in Raag Desh.

Raag Desh marks Dhulia’s return after Bullet Raja (2013). The intervening years have seen several starts and stops. He has numerous projects in the pipeline: the WWII-set drama Kesar, a biopic of Dalit left-arm spinner Palwankar Baloo, the third Saheb, Biwi aur Gangster film, and a project close to his heart, Milan Talkies, which has been constantly struggling to see the light of day.

The director takes a pragmatic approach to the situation. “I’d be lying if I say it isn’t disheartening, but every film has its own destiny,” he said. “So many films struggle to get made.”

Dhulia points to 2012 at the pinnacle of a movement of a certain kind of cinema pioneered by him and his like-minded peers, including Anurag Kashyap and Dibakar Bannerjee. That year saw the release of films such as Paan Singh Tomar, Vicky Donor and Kahaani. The problems began soon after. The small-budgeted offbeat films had relative success at the box office and this attracted the big sharks, he said. “Just like it happens in film industries around the world, everything went wrong after that.”

Tigmanshu Dhulia.
Tigmanshu Dhulia.

The main problem with Hindi cinema currently is that the “stories are not rooted”, according to Dhulia. By that, he does not mean a village setting. Films like Dil Chahta Hai (2001) and Kapoor and Sons (2016) understand the milieu in which they take place.

According to Dhulia, a certain knowledge of history and culture is missing from Indian society, which was previously accessible to all but can now only be gained through education. Citing the example of K Asif, who studied till the fifth standard and was a tailor before he made Mughal-e-Azam (1960), Dhulia said that a similar kind of autodidactism would not be possible today. In Raag Desh, Dhulia is trying to avoid the generalised nature of mainstream films by having characters speak in language they normally would: Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali.

The filmmaker who made his debut with Haasil (2003) isn’t particularly optimistic about the future of Hindi cinema. “No one treats cinema as an art form anymore,” he said. “Films no longer have the life they used to have. Not enough people are watching movies. It’s all become about spectacle, about selling popcorn, not tickets.”

The shift from a good mix of commerce and art to its current state is propelled in part by the fact that none of the “corporate head honchos” who greenlight projects has a creative bent of mind. “Hollywood will kill us,” Dhulia said. But that doesn’t mean he will stop doing what he is doing. “Making films is the only thing I can do and I need to make them to survive.”

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Paan Singh Tomar (2012).
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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.