In times when the fight against corruption has become a fad for a section of middle class India, “Gour Hari Dastaan” captures the silent struggle of a freedom fighter after Independence

For three decades, Gour Hari Das’ life was reduced to a shuttlecock that bounced between Kandivali and the State Secretariat in Mumbai. All that the freedom fighter was asking for was a certificate that could prove his credentials as a freedom fighter. Das finally won the battle, and his struggle is now being made into a film, “Gour Hari Dastaan” by director Anant Mahadevan. After a slew of commercial projects in Bollywood, Mahadevan has turned a new leaf with a string of meaningful films. Last year his “Staying Alive” touched many hearts, as did “Mee Sindhutai Sapkal”. The latter, a biopic on social activist Sindhutai Sapkal, went on to win four National Awards. “The brook goes through marshlands to reach the ocean,” quips Mahadevan as he puts into perspective his shift from the “Aksar” and “Aggar” kind of commercial projects to cinema that could make a difference to people’s lives.

“When I first met Das and told him that I wanted to make a film on his life, he said, ‘Why me?’ When I talked about his three-decade-long struggle with the State, he said some struggles are silent. It is this understated approach that became the metaphor for the film. We all want to join the crowd in the anti-corruption movement but when it comes to our individual cases we look for somebody else to lead us. Das fought within the framework of the system. He didn’t even knock at the doors of the judiciary, and ultimately got his due in 2008.”

Mahadevan recalls that when he met Das his memory was fading. “He gave me a file where he had kept all the correspondence with the State. That file became my screenplay and the word dastaan came into play. I asked him what kind of reaction he got when he first met the officer at the Freedom Fighter cell in the Secretariat. He said he was told to file the application in Orissa because he went to jail in Balasore. He told the officer that during the freedom struggle he didn’t fight for the freedom of Orissa or Maharashtra; he fought for the freedom of India. It is these incidents that turned it into a tale of one man’s search for his identity.”

Mahadevan says he has tried to keep the film away from the dryness of a procedural documentary by incorporating what all he and his family members would have gone through. “It started with a small incident when Das’ son applied for admission in a polytechnic institute in Matunga. He was told that he could get extra marks if he could produce a certificate indicating that his father was a freedom fighter. He rushed home and told this to his father. Das said that he didn’t participate in the freedom struggle to get a certificate but gave him a release slip of the jail. The principal said even a criminal could get such a document. This changed the life of Das because he was being called a fraud. He took on the State but found it was easier to fight the British than getting his due from his own people.”

Speaking over phone from Mumbai, 82-year-old Das says he went to jail for hoisting the Tricolour in a public place. “I was 14 or 15 then and joined the movement following my father Shri Hari Das, who was also a freedom fighter.” Das says he was part of the vanar sena, whose job was to carry the secret post of the freedom fighters. “We used to follow the rail track,” he reminisces, adding once he was praised by Mahatama Gandhi himself at a meeting Calcutta. “I was the youngest of the lot, and Mahatama praised my enthusiasm.” In jail, Das says, they were not given water to clean their utensils. “We protested by banging our brass plates with spoons, arguing that our culture doesn’t allow us to clean vessels with just brick powder. It worked.”

A few years after Independence he shifted to Bombay and started working for Sarva Seva Sangh and then joined Khadi and Village Industries Commission, where he successfully worked on a project on finding ways to improve the living standard of artisans working with khadi. “We improvised a charkha that gave better output, and during this period I got a chance to meet political heavyweights.”

Das says what hurts him is the growing trend of self over society. “When I joined the movement there, the young had to go through rigorous training in social work before they could take the stage for giving lectures. Today everyone seems in a hurry to be in the first row. In our group those who explained to the villagers the value of sanitation by literally showing them the way got recognition from party leaders. I find that people are not sad because of their pain. They are in pain because they cannot digest the happiness of others.” Translating this journalist’s name into Sanskrit, Das, commenting on the education system, says he learnt Sanskrit till matriculation but still knows its use. “My grandsons spell ‘Mahabharat’ and ‘Ramayan’ with an extra ‘a’ but they know little about their content.”

Das has yet to see the film and says he reserves the right to criticise if Mahadevan has fictionalised his life beyond a point. Mahadevan says he has taken creative liberties but knows his responsibilities well. “Like when doctors told Das that he could be in the first stage of Alzheimer’s, he wrote a letter to APJ Abdul Kalam. In the film I have shown him typing ‘Before I forget the meaning of freedom, please grant me my tamapatra’, with his wife (played by Konkona Sen Sharma) watching him from behind, looking a little baffled by the audacity of her husband.” He has roped in heavyweights like L. Subramanium for background score and Resul Pookutty for sound. “Subramanium is doing a Hindi film after ‘Salaam Bombay’ because he was touched by the subject.” Novelist and journalist C.P Surendran, who has written the screenplay, says with the way Anant has treated the subject the film oozes with warmth.

Vinay Pathak is playing the lead role and Mahadevan says we tend to typecast our actors and Vinay Pathak is one of the actors who has suffered because of this. “Once he did the bumbling simpleton part well, people thought he should keep repeating it all his life. Here he has been able to communicate both the physical and mental state of Das with conviction.”

Annoyed Anant!

Anant says the film could have made it as a work in progress at the Cannes Film Festival but was ignored. He cites last year’s example when Anurag Kashyap showcased “The Gangs of Wasseypur” and admitted from stage that it was an incomplete film. Referring to a predominance of films directed and co-produced by Anurag Kashyap at this year’s festival, Anant asks how the selection committee could allow one person to dominate in such a prestigious festival. “I am not saying it because my film has not been selected but I am surprised to see that there is no representation of regional cinema as well in the centenary year of Indian cinema.” He is trying to release “Gour Hari Dastaan” before September so that it could be eligible for selection as India’s entry for next year’s Academy Awards.