With Paan Singh Tomar, he brought to light the story of a forgotten hero, an athlete who was forced to become a bandit. Now director Tigmanshu Dhulia delves into another important chapter from Indian history, one that hasn’t been explored on the big screen. His latest directorial outing, Raag Desh, recreates the infamous Indian National Army trials of 1945, wherein the British charged a number of Indian officers with treason, torture and murder during World War II.

While staying authentic to the facts has been of prime importance to Dhulia, he has also ensured that his choice of cast reflects the innocence and integrity synonymous with people of that era. From dealing with demonetization halfway through the film’s shoot to his failed attempt at making a masala film, the director shares much in a freewheeling chat.

Tigmanshu Dhulia

Tigmanshu Dhulia during the shoot of Raag Desh

With such a vast history as a country, what was it that drew you to this particular story that led to the making of Raag Desh?

It was Gurdeep Singh Sappal, the producer of the film, who gave me this idea. He asked me if I’d be interested in making a film about the 1945 Red Fort Trials or Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. I had already worked on a film that was based on Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. In fact, that happened to be my first film as an assistant and this was way back in 1990. So, I chose a film about the soldiers of the Indian National Army, an army set up by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. Once that was decided, I started researching about the subject.

f I had made this film during the olden days, Amitabh Bachchan, Dharmendra and Shashi Kapoor would have been my cast

Was it easy to get information about the Trials and the people?

The research took a lot of time. After a while, we had to put a stop to the research because there was so much available on the subject. I met relatives of Shah Nawaz Khan, Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon and Prem Sahgal. Besides that, there are many research papers written by a lot of people. There is so much material available that it took a lot of time to compile all the information.

When I was working on Paan Singh Tomar, there wasn’t so much material available and therefore, it didn’t take such a long time. But for Raag Desh, it took about a year to research the subject and six months to finish the film.

Also Read: There’s a lot of history waiting to be covered by cinema – Farrukh Dhondy

When you take real life incidents as a subject for your film, what kind of challenges does it pose, so as to not distort history?

The thing that I can say with confidence is that a majority of the scenes in this film are authentic, in the sense that I have read about them in books and autobiographies. Expect for this one character, a journalist, which we built. During the time between 1942 to 1945 there was censorship in India, so you couldn’t write anything about the freedom struggle. Naturally, in a scenario like this, a journalist becomes an important character. There must’ve been many journalists working at that time, but we created one in our story. Apart from that one journalist and his scenes, the rest of the film is completely authentic.

This is not a drawing room film, I make cinema and not college skits and making cinema takes time and effort

Tigmanshu Dhulia

The director knows exactly what he wants from his actors

What were you looking for in the three lead actors for this story?

I was looking for people with innocence, elegance and integrity in their faces. That was my brief to the actors as well. I told them to look at old family albums and see their grandparents’ faces, because in those times people had high values. Even a bad person would have some value, he would keep his word. There was an honesty in people during that time, which was the core requirement (for the actors). After writing the script, I had these three characters who are distinctively different from each other.

There is Shah Nawaz Khan (Played by Kunal Kapoor), who is very intense and measured; whatever he says must be very calculated. He has a measured way of talking and is a no-nonsense guy. On the other hand, Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon (Played by Amit Sadh) is very brash and robust while Prem Sahgal (Played by Mohit Marwah) is very charming and comes from a good family; his father was a judge, so he has lead a comfortable life.

I felt that Amitabh Bachchan, Dharmendra and Shashi Kapoor were in front of me. If I had made this film during the olden days, and if these actors would’ve been ready to work with me, they would be my cast. Amitabh Bachchan as Kunal’s character, Dharmendra as Amit’s and Shashi Kapoor would play Mohit’s character.

Also Read: The script always tells me whom to cast – Honey Trehan

With a film of such a magnitude, what kind of challenges did you have to tackle during the making?

There was no major problem in terms of shooting. We had huge sets for the interiors, which we shot in Mumbai. The court senses were done on sets, but the action sequences, which had taken place in South East Asia, we shot them in and around Dehradun.

We started shooting on November 3, 2016 around which time demonetization happened, and that created a lot of difficulties for us. We were in Dehradun and needed cash there. The unit was huge as we had 300 people and we needed cash for the food and daily wages of the workers. At that time, I had decided that we would stop shooting. If we were shooting near Mumbai then we could have manged, we would’ve worked on credit or something else. But in Dehradun, no one knew us and therefore, how could they trust us? I thought of packing up, but the unit was extremely supportive and I think it was the spirit of the movie that kept things going. Everybody contributed in some way and we managed to finish the film.

The movie is big, in the sense that the scale of the film is huge. This is not a drawing room film, I make cinema and not college skits and making cinema takes time and effort.

After a while, we had to put a stop to the research because there was so much available on the subject

Historical dramas have attracted many filmmakers, what is it about the genre that you like?

I go back to history because I can’t find my heroes in today’s society! On whom do I make a film when there is no hero? We go back in history to find things that will reflect the emotions of people. Even though Raag Desh is set in 1945, the conflicts and the message that the film conveys is something that is relevant even today. The connection (with the story) needs to be strong, and if that happens, it can be a period film and yet be contemporary at the same time.

Raag Desh Poster

(L-R) Amit Sadh, Kunal Kapoor and Mohit Marwah in the poster of Raag Desh

You’re also going to expand the subject of the film to a 6-part series. Will it give you an opportunity to include more aspects that couldn’t be covered in the film? 

We shot the entire film together and it’s final duration is 2 hours and 12 minutes, but we still have a lot of material. Therefore, we are making a 6-part series or mini series, whatever the platform chooses to make, of 45 minutes each. If they want to make 22-minute episodes, we will make a 12-part series.

The connection (with the story) needs to be strong, and if that happens, it can be a period film and yet be contemporary at the same time

Your movies are far removed from conventional Bollywood films, what has driven this choice of filmmaking?

I tried making a Bollywood masala film with Bullet Raja years ago, but it didn’t work and I was criticized for making it. This also happens because we categorize artists. We are artists and we want to make different films and so I made a Bullet Raja. But people weren’t expecting that kind of a movie and they thought, how could I even make such a film. If the director’s name would have been different, then no one would’ve had any problem with it. But they felt that I had done something that was below my image.