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Cashing in on the patriotic zeal

Hindi filmdom's dalliance with history continues unabated despite a few coming a cropper. At the moment, the eyes of many film-makers seem to be on the 20th century revolutionary, Bhagat Singh, says ZIYA US SALAM.

Its Boby Deol turn to play the patriot... in "Bhagat Singh".

"RAZIYA SULTAN" may be a forgotten footnote of history. And "Asoka" may have lost the battle at the turnstiles, but Bollywood continues its dalliance with history. This time with Bhagat Singh, the early 20th Century revolutionary who was involved in several key activities of armed protest against the British rule. Now the man who shot dead English Assistant Superintendent of Police, Saunders, for ordering a lathi charge against Lala Lajpat Rai, is the favourite hero of Bollywood producers and directors all over again. Gandhi is passe. Sardar Patel has had his date. Ditto for Savarkar. And Ambedkar does not enthuse anymore. In these surcharged times, Bhagat Singh's aura is difficult to match. Lining up to play the man who threw a bomb at the Central Legislative Assembly's visitors' gallery — along with Batukeshwar Dutt — and refused to run for life, are virtually the who's who of Bollywood. And many who would like to be somebody are attempting to don the mantle of the Jat Sikh from undivided Punjab, who was a key member of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army, and remains to this day the best-known comrade of the likes of Ram Prasad Bismil, Ashfaqullah, Rajguru and Sukhdev.

Nana Patekar has gone on record saying that this is his dream role. And the likes of Ramanand Sagar and B.R. Chopra may have nurtured serious ambitions of filming the inspiring saga on celluloid. Now they have competition. And a multi-pronged one at that. Not one or two but four films on Bhagat Singh are involved in a race to film the life and times of Bhagat Singh. And only the fastest man can hope to breast the silver screen. Others may just fall by the wayside. Or may be reduced to mere mothballs to be released during a lean period. The stakes are high. And the prize, considering how the patriotic films have been raking it rich in recent times, is lucrative too.

Leading the pack is the new son of the soil, Sunny Deol, who has come to be identified with stirring patriotic films post "Gadar: Ek Prem Katha''. This time, he has brother Bobby Deol for help. In fact, in a rare show of fraternal feeling in the cut-throat industry he has left the centre stage for the sibling. In the forthcoming film, "Bhagat Singh" Sunny Deol plays the part of Chandrashekhar Azad while kid brother Bobby Deol, who has done little of note in his insipid career so far, plays the title role of Bhagat Singh. The film, which is going on the floors in February, is slated for a start-to-finish shooting schedule and is vying with Rajkumar Santoshi's film on the legendary freedom fighter, to hit the cinema halls around the Independence Day this year. Incidentally, shooting for Santoshi's film started in early January and is likely to be wrapped up by late May. Ajay Devgan, who successfully played a Naxalite in Santoshi's failed tribute to Indian women, "Lajja", plays the title role here.

Sunny Deol is not taking any chances. He has for script writer, Manoj `Bharat' Kumar, the man who came up with his brand of celluloid patriotism in the 1960s and 1970s. Manoj Kumar, though, is not coming up with either a half-baked fare. Or a dated story of history ready for use. He has done painstaking research for the script. "I read around 200 books on Bhagat Singh, though there are hardly any books which reveal the person. My main source for the script have been the anecdotes Bhagat Singh's mother shared with me over the years. I also spoke to Manmath Nath Gupta of the Kakori Train Conspiracy fame.''

Incidentally, in the 1925 Kakori Train Conspiracy, 17 revolutionaries were imprisoned — Gupta among them — four transported for life, and four, including Bismil and Ashfaqullah, hanged. Manoj Kumar's family is said to have been close to Bhagat Singh's kin for quite sometime — when Kumar won the National Award in the 1960s, his family members went to fetch Bhagat Singh's mother in Punjab for the ceremony in Delhi.

"It has taken me 40 years to compile the script. I have given it to Sunny Deol who is like a child to me, considering Dharmendra and I started our career together."

For record, Manoj Kumar himself has made a film on Bhagat Singh — "Shaheed" in 1965, directed by S.R. Ram Sharma with music by Prem Dhawan, the first time he gave an independent score in Bollywood. He hastens to point out that there is no likelihood of a similarity between the two films beyond the basic facts, as also with other films reportedly in the fray. "The only things in common are the Saunders Murder Case, the Central Legislative Assembly bombing and the final hanging on March 23, 1931."

Neither Kumar nor Sunny is spending sleepless nights over the Santoshi film produced by Tips Industries, which is keen to finish the film before Deol's.

"Every year it happens. People announce a film on Bhagat Singh and other freedom fighters. They don't even go to the floors," says Manoj Kumar. Sunny agrees: "We would like to wrap up the film as soon as possible. The script is ready. And so is the music."

Ajay Devgan... shedding weight for that perfect "Bhagat Singh" look.

In fact, if Sunny is to be believed, the Deols have been working on "Bhagat Singh" for over a year with attention paid to every minute detail, including Bobby Deol's costume and lingo.

The film is to be directed by Guddu Dhanoa, who has no track record of anything other than assembly line flicks, including "Salakhein" and "Ziddi", both of which caught the eye for their item numbers. Reportedly, it is his proximity to the Deol family which clinched the issue in his favour. Uttam Singh, who scored the music for "Gadar", provides the fare here too.

Ajay Devgan, on his part, takes "Bhagat Singh" seriously. The man has shed weight to resemble the gaunt freedom fighter and believes that his `chemistry' with Santoshi will make a difference at the box office. "It is not the kind of film one does every year. It is something I am looking forward to. The whole team has done extensive research on the subject,'' he says.

Locked in a battle with Ajay Devgan and Bobby Deol to play Bhagat Singh is an unusual name — Harbhajan Mann. Close on the heels of the Punjabi film, "Je Aayian Noon", the popular singer is preparing to dab the grease paint for a date with history. He is playing Bhagat Singh in Ved Gandhi's film, which too hopes to see the light of cinema halls later this year.

Keeping the trio company is, hold your breath, a Pakistani film-maker who has announced a film on Bhagat Singh with a leading Pakistani actor to do the title role. Incidentally, in a rare occurrence, Indian singers, Sonu Nigam and Jaspinder Narula are likely to lend their voice for the music track of the film.

And then there is more. Well-known producers-director Ravi Rai is reportedly directing a serial on Bhagat Singh. The serial is likely to be ready for screening later this year.

Singer Harbhajan Singh Mann in Ved Gandhi's version of the revolutionary.

But if the young cine-goers thought that Bollywood's dalliance with Bhagat Singh is nothing but a fleeting fad, think again.

The Hindi film industry has always had a soft corner for the man who believed that "the deliverance of the country will come through a revolution. Ours is a war to the end, to victor or death''. Way back in 1954 Prem Adib had made "Shaheed Bhagat Singh''.

It was directed by Jagdish Gautam with music by Lachhi Ram. Then came Vishram Bedekar's film in 1963, which had Shammi Kapoor playing the lead with Prem Nath enacting the part of Chandrashekhar Azad. Here music was scored by Husnlal Bhagatram.

A little later came Manoj Kumar's "Shaheed" which also had Prem Chopra and Pran in important roles, besides Kumar himself.

How close the clones come to actual remains to be seen... the original Bhagat Singh.

Now, history, as the cliche goes, is repeating itself. Whether these films fall through from the sieve of human memory or add memorable chapters to Bollywood history, only time will tell. For the moment, just gear up for a date with history.

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