Indian freedom fighter Bhagat Singh, hanged by the Brits in 1931 at age 23, gets structurally similar but tonally different interpretations of his life in two much-hyped pics going head to head on the subcontinent’s screens this summer. Neither “23rd March 1931: Shaheed” nor “The Legend of Bhagat Singh” do full justice to the 20th-century legend, though both movies have their individual strengths. “Shaheed” (literally, “martyr”) has a hectoring, revolutionary ardor that disguises its rather vanilla script; “Legend” has a stronger lead thesp and richer gallery of characters that triumph over often unsubtle direction. In Western markets, both are of curio interest only.
Of the five movies on Singh due out this year, “Shaheed” and “Legend,” which both opened June 7, are the second and third. Sukumar Nair’s lower profile “Shaheed-e-Azam” opened May 31 but was quickly overwhelmed; still to come are Tarun Wadhwa’s “Shaheed Bhagat Singh” and a version by director Keval Kashyap.
Both current pics have performed well in some regions of India but overall below expectations, with auds favoring the glossy romantic comedy “Mere yaar ki shaadi hai” instead.
Both movies start outside Lahore Jail in 1931 and then flash-back to Singh as a kid witnessing the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh Massacre in Amritsar. At college, he befriends agitators Sukhdev and Rajguru (who are eventually to be hanged alongside him), and all three join the Hindustani Republican Assn.
After rejecting a marriage arranged by his parents, in April 1925 Singh helps to rob a train carrying British funds; three years later, the revolutionaries bungle a reprisal shooting of an English soldier. Singh escapes from Lahore by dressing in Western guise (his trademark hat and moustache) and posing as a wealthy pro-Brit Indian.
Part 2 of both movies starts with Singh & Co. throwing a bomb in parliament in April 1929 to deliberately get arrested. In jail, Singh organizes protests and a hunger strike — and finally has to be dealt with.
Both movies soft-peddle Singh’s atheism and admiration of Marxism, though “Legend” at least mentions them. In the development of its supporting characters — with an especially good perf by Sushant Singh as Sukhdev — “Legend” is the far richer movie and, especially during Part 2, does develop some political discussion.
At the end, “Legend” even queries whether modern India has betrayed the sacrifices of Singh & Co. Most controversially, it effectively blames Mahatma Gandhi for Singh’s execution — or at least, for not trying very hard to stop it.
In “Shaheed,” Gandhi is not even shown on screen, and even major characters like Sukhdev and Rajguru are downplayed in favor of Singh. Pic is essentially an unshaded, one-man revolutionary drama, with an often thunderous score in the action sequences, tough songs by Anand Raaj Anand and — apart from a magical appearance by megastar Aishwarya Rai as Singh’s putative wife — almost no moments of softness as it charges ahead like a tank.
In comparison, “Legend” is drawn with more warmth; and Ajay Devgan, though looking too old for the part, makes a far more sympathetic hero than the inexpressive Bobby Deol in “Shaheed.”
Both pics show evidence of having been rushed to get into theaters, with the rhythm in the first half of “Legend” (which is half-an-hour shorter) especially choppy. Overall, both films are about even on the tech side, with an ochry period look and some sequences better-staged in one than the other. Musically, A.R. Rahman’s typically rhythmic score for “Legend” wins by a nose over Anand’s for “Shaheed.”