Benegal with Sachin Khedekar (left) on the sets of Netaji — The Last Hero. Picture by Ashoke Majumdar
Berlin: Hitler’s office, May 27, 1942. A historical meeting takes place between the German Fuhrer and the Congress rebel from India, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. Bose has raised the Indian legion or Azad Hind Fauj from the prisoners of war in Germany and Italy. He planned to march this army into India through Russia. However, when Russia is attacked by Hitler, Bose’s plans fall through. He hears about the formation of the INA in Singapore and the advance of the Japanese army across Asia. For the past year, Bose has been trying to get to Japan. It is only after his one and only meeting with Hitler that Bose is given permission to leave. Hitler offers him a U-boat, which will take him by the old sea route all the way round the Cape of Good Hope to Madagascar. Here, Bose transfers in mid-ocean to a waiting Japanese submarine.
Berlin: Charlottenburg Town Hall, July 31, 2003. This historical meeting is re-enacted on celluloid for Shyam Benegal’s biopic entitled Netaji — The Last Hero.
The German schedule of Benegal’s film has recently concluded on location in Berlin and its outskirts. Charlottenburg is the borough in which Bose had his own original office. A large room in Town Hall has been transformed into Hitler’s headquarters, with the overbearing Nazi insignia on the gleaming wooden panels. English-speaking German actors have been cast in the roles of Adolf Hitler and other Nazi officers — Van Tropp, Ribbentrop and Kepler. Udo Schenk, playing Hitler, has already been offered the Nazi dictator’s role in another big-budget Hollywood film. Christain Spitzl, a popular TV actor, has carefully researched the life of Van Tropp. Other actors have travelled long distances, some from Munich, Vienna, Poland and Switzerland.
“Silence!” floor manager Linda Barutzki shouts. “Action!” says Benegal, as he lowers his raised hand. Bose walks in and shakes hands with Hitler; the frame is an uncanny echo of a familiar photograph in our historical archives. Hitler is alternately indulgent and hysterical. Bose is strong and unflinching. He asks for help to travel to Japan, Hitler advises him to take a U-boat.
The four-minute-long take is a challenge in the stifling heat, both to the German actors speaking in a foreign tongue as well as the Indian cast who feel the historical weight on them. Lines get muffled, actors break into sweat, the director sits at the monitor, relaxed, urging the cast to find their rhythm. With requests from cameraman Rajan Kothari and sound engineer Ashvin Balsaver, Benegal agrees to a few more takes. This is a decisive historical moment, the shot has to be right.
The 30-strong Indian cast and crew are joined by an equal number from the German side. A German company, International Production Services, is in charge of local production logistics, providing the cast and technical crew, displaying great spirit and humour. The day’s schedule is preceded by detailed pre-production meetings. The Germans want all possible questions answered, Benegal and his executive producer Raj Pius are patience personified. Chief assistant director Ravi Kemoo has storyboards mapped out with precision. Scriptwriters Shama Zaidi and Atul Tiwari pore over the dialogues every evening.
Pick-up cars arrive at the Citadine hotel for the Indian unit at 6 am. The day starts on location with a lavish breakfast served by the best caterers in the German film industry, Moviecat. Sachin Khedekar transforms into Bose with his prosthetic chin and round glasses. The actor has had to shave his hair daily to resemble the balding Bose in his forties. Khedekar admits that “in living Bose’s identity for a year, my perception of life has changed, I must admit that I have grown as a person and see life differently today”.
Rajit Kapur, part of the Benegal repertory and here playing the role of Abid Hasan, is on the set early morning, joking and elevating moods. Priya Benegal, the costume designer has been on the set earlier. Her costume truck is impressively organised, the actors’ costumes, labelled and hung neatly.
Much research has gone into the cuts and designs of period costumes, the Nazi costumes sport shining brass buttons. Rajan Kothari, the cinematographer, as always is cool as a cucumber; a man of few words, he knows what he wants and more importantly, how to get it. Ashvin, the sound recordist, has been doing synch sound for Benegal’s films for many years, much before this recent hype over synch sound in Bollywood films like Lagaan and Dil Chahta Hai.
Benegal, in his characteristic manner, greets everyone on the sets. As always, there is great geniality in the man and his unit reflects the same spirit. It has been a long haul. There have been schedules in Calcutta, Delhi, Bombay, Uzbekistan and now Germany. After which, a long schedule was planned in Myanmar, where the war scenes have to be shot. Netaji is perhaps the most ambitious project in Indian film history in terms of its historical and geographical canvas. So why is Netaji called The Last Hero' “Because he is truly the last romantic hero of our nationalist history. In this film, I have concentrated on his final course of action. When he disappeared from house arrest in Calcutta and started his four years’ saga of endurance, he had but one fixed idea: to raise an army to fight for India’s independence. The war that the INA undertook was a true war of independence.
“Look at the journey he undertook, from India to Peshawar, through Russia, to Germany. Then the long journey in the U-boat to Japan when he doesn’t see daylight for three months. Bose finally arrives in Burma at the head of the army, advances to India through Manipur and Assam. The Indian Tricolour is planted on Indian soil for the first time.”
Joining us in the discussion are the scriptwriters, Zaidi and Tiwari, who have spent 18 months researching their subject. Also present is a young scholar from Hiedelberg University, Jan Kuhlmann, whose book on Bose is just out in Germany.
The German chapter of the schedule also includes the romantic angle to Netaji’s story, his marriage to his secretary Emilie Schenkle. In a beautiful small castle in the countryside of Brandenburg, a song sequence is picturised Desh ke mitti ki khushboo yaad aati hai (I remember the fragrance of the soil of my land).”
As Subhas walks through the pastoral landscape, young Emilie (played by the petite talent Anna Prustel) snuggles up to him, the lovers embrace and walk closely as they pass a scarecrow in the fields and a horse carriage brushes past them.
Sceptical questions are whispered in the unit — what will Calcuttans say about this scene, can Netaji sing a romantic/nostalgic song' How difficult will it be to see Bose as human for those to whom he has already transcended into myth'
Benegal’s unit was to proceed to Keil Harbour to shoot the scenes on the U- boat before wrap up. The Rs 20-crore production for Sahara India will spend a quarter of its budget in the present schedule.
The writer is author of Shyam Benegal, published in India by Roli Books