‘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.

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.”

Paan Singh Tomar (2012).
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Ten awesome TV shows to get over your post-GoT blues

With those withdrawal symptoms kicking in, all you need is a good rebound show.

Hangovers tend to have a debilitating effect on various human faculties, but a timely cure can ease that hollow feeling generally felt in the pit of the stomach. The Game of Thrones Season 7 finale has left us with that similar empty feeling, worsened by an official statement on the 16-month-long wait to witness The Great War. That indeed is a long time away from our friends Dany, Jon, Queen C and even sweet, sweet Podrick. While nothing can quite replace the frosty thrill of Game of Thrones, here’s a list of awesome shows, several having won multiple Emmy awards, that are sure to vanquish those nasty withdrawal symptoms:

1. Billions

There is no better setting for high stakes white collar crime than the Big Apple. And featuring a suited-up Paul Giamatti going head-to-head with the rich and ruthless Damien Lewis in New York, what’s not to like? Only two seasons young, this ShowTime original series promises a wolf-of-wall-street style showcase of power, corruption and untold riches. Billions is a great high-octane drama option if you want to keep the momentum going post GoT.

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2. Westworld

What do you get when the makers of the Dark Knight Trilogy and the studio behind Game of Thrones collaborate to remake a Michael Crichton classic? Westworld brings together two worlds: an imagined future and the old American West, with cowboys, gun slingers - the works. This sci-fi series manages to hold on to a dark secret by wrapping it with the excitement and adventure of the wild west. Once the plot is unwrapped, the secret reveals itself as a genius interpretation of human nature and what it means to be human. Regardless of what headspace you’re in, this Emmy-nominated series will absorb you in its expansive and futuristic world. If you don’t find all of the above compelling enough, you may want to watch Westworld simply because George RR Martin himself recommends it! Westworld will return for season 2 in the spring of 2018.

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3. Big Little Lies

It’s a distinct possibility that your first impressions of this show, whether you form those from the trailer or opening sequence, will make you think this is just another sun-kissed and glossy Californian drama. Until, the dark theme of BLL descends like an eerie mist, that is. With the serious acting chops of Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman as leads, this murder mystery is one of a kind. Adapted from author Liane Moriarty’s book, this female-led show has received accolades for shattering the one-dimensional portrayal of women on TV. Despite the stellar star cast, this Emmy-nominated show wasn’t easy to make. You should watch Big Little Lies if only for Reese Witherspoon’s long struggle to get it off the ground.

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4. The Night of

The Night Of is one of the few crime dramas featuring South Asians without resorting to tired stereotypes. It’s the kind of show that will keep you in its grip with its mysterious plotline, have you rooting for its characters and leave you devastated and furious. While the narrative revolves around a murder and the mystery that surrounds it, its undertones raises questions on racial, class and courtroom politics. If you’re a fan of True Detective or Law & Order and are looking for something serious and thoughtful, look no further than this series of critical acclaim.

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5. American Horror Story

As the name suggests, AHS is a horror anthology for those who can stomach some gore and more. In its 6 seasons, the show has covered a wide range of horror settings like a murder house, freak shows, asylums etc. and the latest season is set to explore cults. Fans of Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange are in for a treat, as are Lady Gaga’s fans. If you pride yourself on not being weak of the heart, give American Horror Story a try.

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6. Empire

At its heart, Empire is a simple show about a family business. It just so happens that this family business is a bit different from the sort you are probably accustomed to, because this business entails running a record label, managing artistes and when push comes to shove, dealing with rivals in a permanent sort of manner. Empire treads some unique ground as a fairly violent show that also happens to be a musical. Lead actors Taraji P Henson and Terrence Howard certainly make it worth your while to visit this universe, but it’s the constantly evolving interpersonal relations and bevy of cameo appearances that’ll make you stay. If you’re a fan of hip hop, you’ll enjoy a peek into the world that makes it happen. Hey, even if you aren’t one, you might just grow fond of rap and hip hop.

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7. Modern Family

When everything else fails, it’s comforting to know that the family will always be there to lift your spirits and keep you chuckling. And by the family we mean the Dunphys, Pritchetts and Tuckers, obviously. Modern Family portrays the hues of familial bonds with an honesty that most family shows would gloss over. Eight seasons in, the show’s characters like Gloria and Phil Dunphy have taken on legendary proportions in their fans’ minds as they navigate their relationships with relentless bumbling humour. If you’re tired of irritating one-liners or shows that try too hard, a Modern Family marathon is in order. This multiple-Emmy-winning sitcom is worth revisiting, especially since the brand new season 9 premiers on 28th September 2017.

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8. The Deuce

Headlined by James Franco and Maggi Gyllenhaal, The Deuce is not just about the dazzle of the 1970s, with the hippest New York crowd dancing to disco in gloriously flamboyant outfits. What it IS about is the city’s nooks and crannies that contain its underbelly thriving on a drug epidemic. The series portrays the harsh reality of New York city in the 70s following the legalisation of the porn industry intertwined with the turbulence caused by mob violence. You’ll be hooked if you are a fan of The Wire and American Hustle, but keep in mind it’s grimmer and grittier. The Deuce offers a turbulent ride which will leave you wanting more.

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9. Dexter

In case you’re feeling vengeful, you can always get the spite out of your system vicariously by watching Dexter, our favourite serial killer. This vigilante killer doesn’t hide behind a mask or a costume, but sneaks around like a criminal, targeting the bad guys that have slipped through the justice system. From its premier in 2006 to its series finale in 2013, the Emmy-nominated Michael C Hall, as Dexter, has kept fans in awe of the scientific precision in which he conducts his kills. For those who haven’t seen the show, the opening credits give an accurate glimpse of how captivating the next 45 minutes will be. If it’s been a while since you watched in awe as the opening credits rolled, maybe you should revisit the world’s most loved psychopath for nostalgia’s sake.

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10. Rome

If you’re still craving an epic drama with extensive settings and a grandiose plot and sub-plots, Rome, co-produced by HBO and BBC, is where your search stops. Rome is a historical drama that takes you through an overwhelming journey of Ancient Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire. And when it comes to tastes, this series provides the similar full-bodied flavour that you’ve grown to love about Game of Thrones. There’s a lot to take away for those who grew up quoting Julius Caesar, and for those looking for a realistic depiction of the legendary gladiators. If you’re a history buff, give this Emmy-winning show a try.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.