Classic, Film, Hindi, India, Review


Shaheed is a Nationalist film set in the context of the Quit India Movement of 1942. Ram (Dilip Kumar) is the  son of the colonial Rai Bahadur Dwarkadas (Chandramohan), who leaves home against his father’s wishes to join a freedom fighters group. His childhood sweetheart, Sheela (Kamini Kaushal), repeatedly protects him from being caught by the authorities. She is, however, forced to marry the evil policeman, Vinod (Ram Singh), who in turn, lets her brother Gopal free and promises to save Ram’s life. In the end, accused of terrorist activities, Ram is defended in court by his now repentant father but is found guilty and eventually hanged. Sheela dies as well and is reunited with Ram in death.

Once India gained independence on August 15 1947, it was but natural that films be made on the freedom struggle. Earlier, films like Sikandar (1941) or Kismet (1943), made during the last years of British rule, packaged their films in such a manner so as to arouse Nationalism in an indirect manner. This was done to avoid censorship or films getting banned as by then the British were quick to clamp down on anything that might refer to India’s fight for Independence. A Tamil film, Thyagabhoomi (1939), did have its heroine joining Gandhiji and joining the freedom movement and faced the wrath of the British censors but Hindi Cinema generally played safe and did not take undue risks.  With no fear of censors once India got Independence, the Hindi filmmakers finally turned their attention to films that glorified the freedom struggle. Shaheed, directed by Ramesh Saigal and releasing in the year following freedom, is an early post-Independent Hindi film that looks  wholeheartedly and directly at the Nationalist Movement and India’s struggle for Independence.

Saigal was known for his films dealing with issues of National concern be it Railway Platform (1955), a melodramatic parable set in a social-realist idiom or expressing total disillusionment with Nehruvian politics a decade after Indian Independence in Phir Subah Hogi (1958). Shaheed takes a sympathetic look at a young man, who from childhood supports the Indian struggle for Independence and who, as an adult, bravely sacrifices his life for the country. It is, interestingly, a very different sort of film that came out from Filmistan, a studio that was known for making frothy entertainers like Shehnai (1947) and Nadiya Ke Par (1948)Shaheed is perhaps Filmistan’s first effort at making a serious film of some substance and depth and an extremely successful one at that. The film, it has to be said, manages to work well as a patriotic, emotional drama cum thriller set against the background of the Quit India movement of 1942. Shaheed also explores the two lines of thoughts as to what was the best way for India to get liberation from the British? While Sheela’s brother, Gopal (Prabhu Dayal) follows Gandhiji’s non-violent methods, Ram joins a group of revolutionaries who believe in using violence in taking on the British.

Shaheed is held together by an extremely strong performance by Dilip Kumar as the fiery revolutionary who becomes a martyr. Dilip Kumar was steadily becoming a superstar at this stage following the success of Jugnu released the previous year where he had starred opposite the great Noor Jehan. With films like Mela (1948) and Shaheed, he was fast building his reputation as the tragedy king, who played characters either died in the film or lost out in love. In Shaheed it’s a double whammy. He not only loses the love of his life but also sacrifices his life for the nation. Kamini Kaushal as Ram’s childhood sweetheart complements Dilip Kumar perfectly.  Along with Nargis, Kamini Kaushal was the earliest actress who initiated a sense of natural acting among heroines. Shaheed is more than enough proof of her ability as an artiste as she effortlessly matches Dilip Kumar scene for scene. There is also a strong romantic chemistry between Dilip Kumar and Kamini Kaushal, who were regarded as a hit pair of the day from 1948 to 1950, wherein they also co-starred in Nadiya Ke Par, Shabnam (1949) and Arzoo (1950).

The main cast is supported strongly by Chandramohan and Leela Chitnis. Chandramohan makes full use of his robust voice to create an extremely strong and complex character who initially opposes his son joining the freedom movement. Consequently, the father-son conflict give the film several moments of high voltage drama. The one scene of Chandramohan that truly stands out is the scene in court where he defends his son as he ‘switches sides’ and is now repentant. The scene got much applause in its time and rightly so. Leela Chitnis plays one of her earliest mother roles, her performance setting the tone for her subsequent suffering mother roles.

The music is by Ghulam Haider with lyrics by Raja Mehdi Ali Khan and Qamar Jalabadi. While not his best, Shaheed still shows glimpses of the Maestro at his best. Its standout song Watan Ki Raah Mein Watan ke Naujavan Shaheed Ho is one of the finest patriotic songs on the Indian screen. This patriotic song was used in two versions in the film apart from being integrated as a rapid march tempo into the film’s opening credit as well. The first in brisk tempo, intended to raise the morale of revolutionaries and then again slowly and solemnly as the revolutionary’s dead body is carried to the cremation ground, one of the earliest use of a sad version of a song in a Hindi film and one that is linked to a particular character in the film! It is one of life’s biggest ironies that while one of the singers of this song (Mohammed Rafi) went on to become one of the most popular singers Hindi Cinema has ever seen, the other (Khan Mastana) died a beggar at the Mahim Dargah in Bombay…

An interesting aside. Ghulam Haider took a young struggling Lata Mangeshkar to producer S Mukerji to sing the songs of Shaheed but she was vetoed by Mukerji, saying her voice was too thin and squeaky and would never suit Kamini Kaushal! Haider warned Mukerji that this girl would one day even overtake Noor Jehan. What’s more, even Kamini Kaushal in a recent interview maintained that the one singer whose voice always suited her best was Lata! In Shaheed, with Lata’s absence, Ghulam Haider introduced Surinder Kaur and used a young Geeta Roy (Aaja Bedardi Balma) to render the songs.

Shaheed went on to fare extremely well at the box office. The film endures till today as one of the best films made on the freedom struggle in India. In fact, according to reputed Filmindia owner and critic Baburao Patel, for the first time with Shaheed did Filmistan make a sensible film! With Shaheed’s success, Filmistan tried to combine making other films of Nationalistic Importance among their regular entertainers – films like Samadhi (1950), again directed by Saigal and this time using the INA as a backdrop, or Anandmath (1952) and Jagriti (1954) even as they continued to make a Sargam (1950), Anarkali (1953), Nagin (1954) or Munimji (1955)!

Hindi, Patriotic, Drama, Black & White

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