‘Bose Dead/Alive’ Review: More Plot-Driven Than Character-Driven
The web series, Bose Dead/Alive stands out in ALTBalaji's line-up of original fiction for its sheer premise. Based on Indian author and former journalist, Anuj Dhar’s book, India's Biggest Cover-up, it stars one of the most coveted actors, Rajkummar Rao in the titular role and takes on the ambitious task of demystifying the circumstances surrounding Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s death.
Beginning with the plane crash in which Bose allegedly died and that spawned numerous theories about how he was alive and continued to live incognito, many years later, it goes back in time to his childhood and retraces his journey that culminates in him becoming the founder of Azad Hind Fauj.
The series unfurls from the point of view of Darbari Lal, the fictional spy who shadows Bose. The choice of the narrator is effective since the tone of the narrative does not assume undue reverence and does not it slip into hagiography.
The scene that introduces Bose in his youth in Presidency College resonates the entry of a Bollywood hero. It goes on to highlight the bravura of Bose in the same vein and less like a comic book hero.
He is seen beating up a professor in class, who ridicules Indian students during an exam for carrying chits of the Gayatri Mantra as ‘totems’. The intention to make Netaji contemporary for the youth is apparent with his portrayal as the relatable poster boy of rebellion, who was ahead of his time.
The thumping title track sung or rather rapped by filmmaker Q (Qaushik Mukherjee) echoes the edgy fervour of Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! setting the stage for a noir treatment.
You wonder if it would have been richer if it would have played out like a languorous, slow-burn mystery instead of a fast paced tale trying to cover as much ground as possible in the runtime of about 20 minutes (per episode).
The device of narration to fill gaps, to make up for the complex non-linear format and to avoid ambiguities may be directed towards an audience, unfamiliar with the legacy of Bose.
But it ends up compromising on the emotional heft of Bose’s enigma, that it sets out to explore when it follows his trajectory from the age of 14, when he is a reticent truant till he is a 41-year-old intrepid nationalist.
The stories weaved around the pre-independence hero are countless and the biographies, incongruent. Bose Dead/Alive should be commended for sifting the credible chronicles from the downright ludicrous conspiracy theories.
For the uninitiated, the series offers a quick glimpse into the timeline of Bose’s rise and disappearance and how it is difficult to isolate the man from the myths. It shines a light on various chapters of his life and paints Bose in varied shades of dissent.
He attempts to sell Khadi to the British, he forms an army right under their noses and even gets the army uniforms stitched by a British tailor. But his disagreements with Gandhi and his creed of non-violence are not dramatically mined. We get a few scenes that cursorily address their incompatibility when in actuality, Bose was the only man who stood up to Gandhi and contradicted him publicly.
It is the dialogues of Bose Dead/Alive that have a lingering effect. We find Bose giving us different renditions of ‘Azaadi’. The character’s non-conformity is a given but it is his irreverence that makes a mark. Anna Ador plays Emilie, the German wife of Bose but it is this sauciness that makes his brief scenes with Patralekha more memorable.
A period setting demands a supporting cast that can imbue the tale with much needed authenticity. Bose Dead or Alive falters in this regard. The series comes into its own in the scenes where Darbari Lal (essayed by Naveen Kasturia), the fictional spy and the Hawaldar who witnesses the revolution led by Bose shares screen space with Bose. This is when character quirks become apparent, humour abounds and there is a lot of clever banter.
The director-actor combination of Hansal Mehta and Rajkummar Rao can be termed as a winning formula but Mehta takes on a different role in this project. It is rare for a well-known director to come on board as a creative producer for a series. It would be interesting to find out the extent of his involvement in the different stages of its making with the director, Pulkit.
Despite the declassification of secret files regarding his last days, Bose’s story is open-ended. This lends him to varied interpretations. This version can give you a lot to chew on but can leave you wanting more.
Bose: Dead/Alive will whet your appetite if you like cliffhangers at the end of every episode but its characters are not very layered and the production, not up to the mark. It is more plot-driven than character-driven. Notwithstanding the flaws, I would continue to watch the remaining episodes simply because it unfolds like a riveting page-turner.
(Bose Dead/Alive airs on ALT Balaji from 20th November. This piece is based on the first 5 episodes of the series.)