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Filmmaker Srijit Mukherji. Image Credit: IANS

The controversy over the death of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, one of India’s most prominent freedom fighters, simply refuses to die down — even after more than 70 years and several inquiry commissions later. The embers have been stoked again over the last month as ‘Gumnaami,’ a Bengali feature film by the Indian National Award-winning director Srijit Mukherji, which examines the various theories, is set to release in India on October 2.

“Did he die in the plane crash?” “Did he die in Russia?” “Did he die as an ascetic?” screams the teaser of the film which was released on August 15, India’s Independence Day, and has been in the eye of the storm ever since.

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A still from the upcoming film 'Gumnaami'.

The so-called mystery over the death of Bose, who disappeared after the crash of an Japanese air force plane carrying him from the Taihoku Air Base on August 18, 1945, had been one of the most contentious debates in India since it’s independence in 1947. At least three major inquiry commissions were conducted over the last seven decades — with the last one conducted by retired justice Manoj Mukherjee (1999-2005) throwing open some startling possibilities.

Justice Mukherjee questioned the authencity of the three above possibilities on the last days of the founder of the Indian National Army (INA), the parallel command force to take on the British imperialist forces. This forms the storyboard of the upcoming controversial film, which has seen the director being slapped with a legal notice by one Debabrata Roy while Netaji’s grand nephew and historian, Sugata Bose, has called the project “an insult to Subhas Chandra Bose, a travesty of history and a mockery of the arts”.

Sugata Bose and his mother Krishna Bose, a former politician, are firm believers of the theory that Netaji had laid down his life at the plane crash — but the fact remains that August 18 is not yet recognised as the official death anniversary of the leader in the absence of any conclusive evidence. This is where the relevance of Mukherjee’s provocative film, starring Bengali matinee idol Prasenjit Chatterjee in the lead role of Netaji, comes in — as he repeatedly points out that his film doesn’t claim to say that Netaji was Gumnaami baba himself but examined all the three possibilities hinted at by the Mukherjee Commission.

Speaking to Gulf News tabloid! over a telephonic chat, the director said: “The tweet from the Press Information Bureau on August 18, remembering Netaji on his so-called death anniversary, created quite a furore and it was removed later. There are different schools of belief in Bose’s family itself about the theory of his death in the absence of any physical evidence. While Sugata Bose and his mother are a firm believer in the plane crash theory, there are others who refuse to rule out the possibility of Gumnaami Baba being Netaji himself.”

Defending the basis of his film, Mukherji refuted the criticism that the film is a product of a rightist propaganda by trying to show Netaji as the Gumnaami Baba, a godman who lived under a cloak of secrecy in Faizabad in Uttar Pradesh until his death in 1985. “I have only followed the Mukherjee Commission proceedings and the debates and questions that arose of the three theories. In the end, I have also quoted the commission where it debunked the theory to the extent that the ashes kept in the Renkoji temple in Japan were not his. However, it also says that there is no clinching evidence that Gumnaami Baba was actually Netaji,” he says.

When reminded about the criticism that the title of the film, ‘Gumnaami’ seems to drive home the conspiracy theory, the director said: “Ironically, when Shyam Benegal made his film on Netaji in 2005, it’s Hindi title was ‘Bose — Ek Gumnaam Daastan’ but nobody raised any questions then.

“People need to see the film before arriving at any conclusion about it’s content. I was also apprehensive when we were showing the film to the Censor board which had Netaji scholars and historians on board. However, they found it a balanced and objective work and gave it a U certificate without any cuts. I now leave it to the judgement of the audience,” said the decorated filmmaker, who has been at his prolific best over the last decade — churning out hits like ‘Autograph,’ ‘Baishe Sraban,’ ‘Chotuskone,’ ‘Jatishwaar’ or ‘Uma.’

Harping on the controversy over the title of the film, Mukherji adds: “I had also discussed the title of the film with the Censor Board since it was a sensitive issue. They felt that a name like Gumnaami Baba would have been a manipulative one but not ‘Gumnaami,’ which in Hindi means unknown or lost.”

How did he prepare for such an ambitious project — and for how long? “I had prepared myself and done enough research on the three prevailing theories. History fascinates me and I have handled subjects on the backdrop of the Partition of Bengal (Rajkahini or Begum Jaan in Hindi) or historic court cases (Ek je chilo Raja).

“I had never been judgemental in my treatment on the subject of Netaji’s death — I have just raised the questions for the audience to ponder,” he added.