‘Swatantrya Veer Savarkar’ review: Randeep Hooda is the only saving grace

Swatantrya Veer Savarkar, directed by and starring Randeep Hooda, is not really a film. It’s strident agitprop in the guise of a film.

The film is only interested in deifying Savarkar, pushing his thoughts and staring at Hooda as he does so.

Luckily, Hooda is a fine actor.

Though, as a writer and director, he reduces all others around him to vapid stock characters – loving brother, crying wife, mean Muslim jailor, evil British officers and, well, morally compromised Congress leaders – as an actor, he is powerful and somewhat saves the film.

The problem is that he manages to do that only in the second half.

The first half of the film is a dreary history lesson with dates and text on the screen, and Hooda struggles to find his bearings, as do we, trying to play catch-up to what’s happening on the screen.

But, soon after the interval, in a long sequence where Savarkar is in solitary confinement at the Cellular Jail, Hooda fills up the screen, enlarges it with his bravura performance that both grounds the film and elevates it.

This scene, in which no words are spoken, is pure cinema and is absolutely riveting.

Swatantrya Veer Savarkar, written by Hooda and Utkarsh Naithani, begins with the 1897 plague outbreak in Pune. In tacky, stock scenes, we watch atrocities being committed by the British. There are beatings, rape, families split and tortured, and mass cremations.

In the midst of all this, is the Savarkar family whose two brothers—Ganesh (Amit Sial) and younger brother Vinayak (Randeep Hooda)—are traumatised and enraged. So, they create a secret, underground organisation, Abhinav Bharat Society, where oath to free the motherland from imperialists is taken with the Nazi salute.

This segment – which feels like a slideshow in fast-mode about British officers, assassinations, hangings – is like a pall of gloom that engulfs the film and us. We are unable to get into it because the story telling is so scattered and staccato, and the annoying, loud background score keeps trying to instruct us how to feel.

The film follows Savarkar as he gets married to Yamuna Bai (Ankita Lokhande), joins Fergusson College and then heads to London to study law.

The story that runs parallel to this is of India’s freedom movement which is split into two, with two separate cast of characters: The main part of the story is about Savarkar, of leaders like Lokmanya Tilak and his Swadeshi Movement, of men, women devoted to overthrowing the British through armed revolution. These include residents of India House in London.

Run by Shyamji Krishna Varma as a hostel and safe haven for Indians, at India House we meet Bhikaji Cama who supports the cause and stages protests, as well as a dashing Madan Lal Dhingra (played charmingly by Mrinal Dutt) who grabs a gun and shoots a British officer on British soil.

These revolutionaries are later joined by Bhagat Singh and Subhash Chandra Bose, both of whom, the film claims, were inspired by Savarkar.

On the other side of the aisle are the British, the Congress and Jinnah.

Through archival footage and dramatised scenes we meet morally corrupt officers of the Crown who kick, abuse, punish common Indians, plot India’s division on religious lines, and keep Congress leaders engaged in endless meetings and discussions while throwing crumbs at them. The clueless Congress leaders seem too lost in their own egos to see what is happening, but Savarkar sees it all and keeps warning that ahimsa won’t get India anywhere. Bomb blasts, assassinations are the only way to attain swaraj, he says again and again.

The film, now enroute to Independence, makes us listen to Savarkar’s dreary lectures about sanskriti and sabhyata, about Hindus and Hindutva, and at the Cellular Jail meet several Bollywood stereotypes, including a cruel Muslim warden who is either beating up prisoners or trying to convert them.

The jail segment is where Hooda lifts the film with his stunning performance. And it is here that the film, quite cleverly, and through dialogue between Gandhi (played by Rajesh Khera) and Savarkar, manages to merge all the voices of those who believed in armed rebellion into one single voice, that of Savarkar. And then he begins to slowly introduce many of Hindu Mahasabha’s pet peeves and projects, from framing 1847 as the first war of Independence to the concept of Akhand Bharat, from ahimsa being an affliction of the feeble and not a moral force, to all those who live in Hind are Hindus.

While the film illuminates parts of history that are not well-known—like a temple Savarkar had build in Ratnagiri, Maharashtra, that is open to Hindus of all castes, many inconvenient facts, including Savarkar’s support of the two-nation theory, or that he called Muslims and Christians “misfits” in India—are either twisted or completely ignored. And, at the end, the film declares that India got Independence because of the Naval uprising in what was then Bombay.

Swatantrya Veer Savarkar is in colour, but its soul is in black and white.

It is a cleverly scripted film that brings Savarkar out of the margins and places him alongside Patel, Gandhi, Ambedkar, Bose, Bhagat Singh as not just an equal, but as a man who was greater than all of them put together.

It weaves in propaganda and paints Savarkar as not just as a revolutionary in pursuit of freedom, but also as a man who was not given his due in India’s history.

But the film’s impact is lost because of its weak story-telling, uninteresting characters and its length. The film is 178-minutes long, and by the end of it, I could feel that the hair on my arms had grown at least an inch.

What keeps us going is Hooda the actor.

While the first half of the film feels like we have been sentenced to an endless kaala paani, after interval we sit admising Hooda’s performance.

Initially, Hooda’s Savarkar feels like we are being made to stare at a dusty, old, one-dimensional portrait of a serious man hung on a wall.

But with one scene in a dark cell, Hooda adds humanity to Savarkar and brings him to life as a man who was single minded and, towards the end of his life, became frustrated, even unhinged. It’s a national award-winning performance.

Film: Swatantrya Veer Savarkar

Director: Randeep Hooda

Cast: Randeep Hooda, Ankita Lokhande, Rajesh Khera, Apinderdeep Singh, Amit Sial, Mark Bennington and others

Rating: 1.5/5