On Independence Day, I always remember Manoj Kumar’s first patriotic film, Shaheed. Made in the mid-Sixties, at a time when colour had recently suffused the Hindi film screen with extravaganzas like Sangam, Aarzoo and Waqt, this black-and-white, small-budget but filled-with-intensity film left an indelible impact on the viewers as well as on Manoj Kumar who was inspired by this film’s success to make a string of career-defining patriotic films spanning three decades — Upkar (1967), Purab Aur Paschim (1970) and Kranti (1981).
Fittingly, Shaheed won the National Award for the Best Feature Film on National Integration, a newly announced category then, besides also bagging awards for the Best Feature Film in Hindi and the Best Story Writer.
Moreover, the film was also appreciated by then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shashtri whose popular slogan ‘Jai jawan jai kisaan’ inspired Manoj Kumar to helm Upkar subsequently.
Today, Shaheed is a valuable cinematic documentation of renowned freedom fighter Bhagat Singh’s martyrdom narrated in an instantly involving, humanistic manner.
The film’s success has sought to be replicated; most famously in 2002 when three films — The Legend of Bhagat Singh with Ajay Devgn, 31 March 1931 with Bobby Deol and Shaheed-e-Azam with Sonu Sood — were simultaneously released on the subject.
But even five decades after it was made, the S Ram Sharma-directed Shaheed remains arguably the defining cinematic biography of the great freedom fighter.
The biopic takes you back to back the early years of the twentieth century when a young Bhagat Singh grew up in pre-Independence India. The country is ruled over by the British with an iron hand.
Bhagat Singh’s rebellion against the British starts early and he asks his deeply patriotic mother (Kamini Kaushal), “Hum bahar kyon nahin nikaal dete? (Why don’t we throw them out)?”
As he grows into a young man, he makes a firm resolve to free his country from the foreign yoke. He holds his hand unflinchingly over an open flame and his zeal persuades freedom fighter Chandrashekhar Azad to include him in his group of young revolutionaries.
It makes for thrilling cinema when Singh and fellow patriots Sukhdev and Rajguru plot to assassinate a British officer, which leads to the colonial forces pursuing them with a vengeance.
Bhagat Singh, however, disguises himself in a suit and with the help of his sister-in-law, who pretend to be his wife, he gives the British the slip.
After hurling a bomb which does not hurt anyone in Parliament, Singh willingly surrenders to the police. His motive is to infuse the masses with the Inquilab Zindabad message.
Summarily sentenced to jail, he rebels against the inhuman conditions in prison and goes on a hunger strike; his fellow inmates join in. The hunger strike lasts for 40 days and is heart wrenchingly filmed.
But the film shows the camaraderie born of a shared goal and the spirit runs high. If ‘How is the josh?’ from Uri — The Surgical Strike is the dialogue in vogue, in Shaheed it’s the manner in which they hail each other when they meet in jail: “Lagta hai barso baad mile hai (It feels like we’re meeting after ages).”
Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru are sentenced to death. The mother’s anguish underlines the human cost of Independence but the patriots go to the gallows with their heads held high.
The film gives a large chunk of screen time to its male actors but the women in the film are strong, bringing to mind their contribution to the freedom struggle.
Nirupa Roy deftly imbues emotion with steely pragmatism. And Shaheed marked a new phase in Kamini Kaushal’s career. A successful leading lady in the 1950s, she had quit films but her effective portrayal of Bhagat Singh’s mother saw her embarking on a busy second innings.
Shaheed’s rousing music score by Prem Dhawan adds immeasurably to its appeal and songs like Aye wattan aye wattan, Mera rang de basanti chola and Pagdi sambhal Jatta are hummed to this day.
Lata Mangeshkar’s zesty romantic number Jogi... hum toh lut gaye tere pyar mein provides a much needed reprieve in the film’s consistently taut narrative.
Pran and Prem Chopra, who had established themselves as villains, play positive roles in the film. Madan Puri too plays a jailor who is not unsympathetic. The film has some evocative dialogue.
When the jailor pleads his inability to help with, “Main majboor hoon (I am helpless),” Singh retorts, “Aap hukum se majboor hai. Main dil se majboor hoon. (You are helpless due to your bosses. I am helpless due to my convictions).”
Sporting a moustache and shedding most of his famous mannerisms, Manoj Kumar gives the best performance of his career. He imbues his historical character with dignity, conviction and reflects his unflinching love for the country.
The year 1965 was a watershed year for Manoj. Alongside Shaheed, he had two other hits, Himalay Ki God Mein and Gumnaam; and this hat-trick firmly established him as a major star.