Ananth Narayan Mahadevan is a man with a remarkable range of abilities. Some may remember him from his various supporting roles in ‘90s Hindi cinema, in films such as Baazigar (1993), Yes Boss (1997), and Pyaar Toh Hona Hi Thha (1998). Followers of regional cinema will know him as the director of the acclaimed Marathi film Mee Sindhutai Sapkal (2010), which fetched him a National Award for co-writing its screenplay and dialogues. Lovers of ironically bad cinema will associate him with his recent Hindi film, The Xposé (2014), a comic caper that was panned by critics and audiences.
Once you recover from the sheer extremes that the 64-year-old writer-director has explored in his career, his latest Hindi film Gour Hari Dastaan: The Freedom File comes across as an interesting step forward. Has the man who made a largely ridiculous film starring Himesh Reshammiya and Yo Yo Honey Singh actually gone ahead and made a serious, semi-arthouse film about a little-known freedom fighter? And is it actually watchable?
The answers to the above questions are ‘yes’ and ‘maybe, depends’. On paper, Gour Hari Dastaan is, in many ways, a breath of fresh air. It boasts of a talented and capable cast that includes Vinay Pathak as the real-life Gour Hari Das, a man who famously fought the government for 32 years to be recognised for his contribution to the freedom struggle; aside from that, it also features ‘meaningful cinema’ regulars such as Ranvir Shorey, Konkona Sen Sharma, and Tannishtha Chatterjee.
Mahadevan’s real ‘stars’, instead, can be found in his crew, which includes the legendary L Subramaniam (background score), Oscar-winner Resul Pookutty (sound design), and Emmy-winner Alphonse Roy (cinematography). To top it all, the screenplay has been co-written by well-known journalist, novelist, and poet C.P. Surendran, writing a film for the first time. A respectable cast, a ‘dream team’ of technicians, a respected writer and a strong real-life story to depict. Really, it’s the kind of situation where you’d think that absolutely nothing could go wrong.
And yet, some things do. For despite this film’s relatively restrained storytelling, sincere attempt at subtlety, and overwhelmingly wonderful intentions, it falters on a number of levels. Gour Hari Dastaan is a peculiar film — one that attempts to emulate a somewhat dated style of arthouse cinema that works only in bits and parts. The rest of the time, at best, it’s a bit of a snooze-fest; at worst, in some places, it’s so far off the mark that it almost works as parody.
Consider Pathak’s much-praised performance, which involves him playing Das over a period of 30 years, from a man in his thirties to one in his seventies. Das is shown as balding and becoming somewhat less able; however, Pathak’s slow and deliberate dialogue delivery tends to gets quite monotonous after a point. It’s a better performance than most and one of his more memorable turns, but definitely not a career-redefining embodiment — one is always aware that this is Pathak playing Das, not the man himself.
In fact, that’s the main grouse I had with Gour Hari Dastaan — the product is quite respectable in theory, but the strings are often too visible in the most unexpected places. So, attention to period details, government offices, and the lovely colour grading transport us to Das’s world for the most part; on other occasions, however, we spot ATMs in what is supposed be the ‘70s and a Wagon R in what is supposedly the ‘80s. Meanwhile, while the film is mercifully not drenched in wall-to-wall background music, Subramaniam’s score is sometimes bang-on and sometimes incredibly cheesy.
Ranvir Shorey and Tannishtha Chatterjee in a still from 'Gour Hari Dastaan: The Freedom File'
The writing too suffers from numerous problems. Shorey, playing a journalist at Mid-Day (shot on-location at the Mumbai office), is shown to be an idealist, an alcoholic, and a chauvinist pig all at once. Stuck in an unhappy marriage, he goes out of his way to bitterly diss feminists for no reason other than the writers wanting the audience to know that he hates feminists. This aspect of his personality ends up having no real bearing on his character arc — at no point is he forced to confront this — and therefore comes across as a needlessly provocative screenwriting decision rather than one that has any actual aesthetic reason to exist.
The dialogue is functional for the most part, barring a couple of well-written scenes (such as an exchange between Das and a tout who offers to help him push his papers for some chai-paani). Others, however, test the limits of believability. Can you swallow, for instance, a scene in which a security guard (played by Bharat Dabholkar) working for an MLA doesn’t notice anything amiss when Das introduces himself as ‘Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’? Still others — such as a sub-plot about a jealous neighbor (Vipin Sharma) — come across as semi-developed ideas that have unexpectedly found their way into the final cut.
Relationships and conflicts are touched upon, but never explored satisfactorily in this movie. Chatterjee plays a lower-lip-pierced colleague of Shorey’s, but her character is wafer-thin and we never really find out why she gets along with him before despite his obvious douchiness. Similarly, the movie glides superficially over the strained relationship between Das and his son, who sets the ball rolling early on when his father’s documents are deemed as inadequate by the college he’s trying to get admission into under a freedom fighter’s quota. This interesting conflict is only picked up towards the end, when he returns from the United States after decades along with a family, and the eventual pay-off is emotionally hollow.
Ultimately, Gour Hari Dastaan becomes a half-baked, scatter-brained look at one man’s fight against Indian bureaucracy, somewhere coming up with the idea that perhaps certain things were indeed better under British rule. The intentions behind it are commendably noble and it is most definitely a more laudable effort than much of the fare we’re subjected to week after week.
However, the final product is a testament to how the idea or promise of something is often more appealing than its actual existence. Just like freedom was for Das — and perhaps many of us?