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‘Ae Watan Mere Watan’ review: Dead air

The true story of Usha Mehta’s secret radio broadcasts during the 1940s is ill-served by a terribly awkward film

Sara Ali Khan in 'Ae Watan Mere Watan'
Sara Ali Khan in 'Ae Watan Mere Watan'

Of all the sacrifices made in Ae Watan Mere Watan, the weirdest is friendzone via Gandhi. Baby revolutionary Kaushik (Abhay Verma) and his friend Usha (Sara Ali Khan) are at a meeting in Bombay in 1942, presided over by none other than Mohandas Gandhi. Just a while earlier, they’d been flirting on the tram. Now, Gandhi’s call for a celibacy vow (so as to love your country better) finds its first responder in Usha. Kaushik’s eyes fill with tears. You have to feel for him. His situationship is already resembling a suicide pact, and now it’s a chaste one.

Freedom isn’t the only thing that’s a struggle in Ae Watan Mere Watan. Set in the final, violent years of the British in India, Kannan Iyer’s film focuses on the contribution of Usha Mehta—a Gandhian revolutionary who died in 2000—to the freedom movement. The Usha we see at the start is an idealistic college-goer who hits upon the radical idea of disseminating the Congress Party’s message via pirate radio. Soon, Usha, assisted by Kaushik and their fervently committed friend Fahad (Sparsh Shrivastav), is broadcasting revolutionary messages every night, to the growing irritation of the authorities.

Over 120 minutes, this promising premise is transformed into one of the ineptest Hindi films in recent memory. Usha, Fahad and Kaushik are a school play’s idea of young freedom fighters: one-dimensional, painfully sincere, enthusiastically shouting “vande mataram” and “karo ya maro” in everyday conversation. “I’ve saddened his heart,” Usha says, looking pensively out of the window. “How could I know it would hurt so much to do the right thing?” What young person talks like this after fighting with their parents?

Director Kannan Iyer and co-writer Darab Farooqi struggle to find a casual speaking style for the characters that’s period-appropriate but not stilted. This lack of balance extends to the code-switching—the British are an “organized fauj” but message remains “sandesh”; Congress leader Ram Manohan Lohia (Emraan Hashmi) follows “ikai” and “ailaan” with “speech” and “green signal”. Much time is wasted saying obvious things in obvious ways. “What a world this is,” says Fahad, as they struggle to gather funds to buy radio time. “You can’t bring about a revolution without money.”“Lohia. A political agitator we’ve not yet caught,” sadistic inspector Lyre (Alexx O'Nell) hisses when he hears the Congress leader’s voice on the radio, even though the Indian subordinates he’s addressing must know who Lohia is.

In one scene, Usha, pursued by Lyre, slips on a burqa and hides in a mosque. The ensuing search is soundtracked by a qawaali—a composition with “azaadi” (freedom) in every second line. This was a word familiar to every English person in India at the time (the Hindi-speaking Lyre would probably understand the rest of the song as well). The film correctly points out the excessive censorship by the British around the time of Quit India Movement. And yet here is a large group of Indians in a public space, singing about freedom without repercussions.

Everything that’s wrong with the performances can be traced back to the writing or the casting. Sara Ali Khan is proof that you can’t put just anybody in a period film and hope it’ll work—she has the look of someone who knows what a meme is. So does Verma, whose actions say freedom fighter but hair says Archies. Shrivastav, delightful in the recent Laapataa Ladies, has the right look but is saddled with egregious scenes like Usha saying she’s had it tougher because she’s a girl compared to him growing up with polio. Emraan Hashmi, most compelling when playing characters with some grey in their soul, is desperately boring as straight-ace Lohia.

It doesn’t feel like Iyer, whose only other film as director is the wickedly amusing Ek Thi Daayan (2013), was given a lot to work with by Dharmatic, Dharma’s OTT arm. Yet, even a lack of resources can’t fully account for the diseased yellow look, the fake-looking sets and crowds, and the lack of rhythm. It’s a pity, because this is a rare recent Hindi film that refuses to view Indian history through an explicitly Hindu lens. Rather, it’s almost nostalgic in its unifying gaze, with Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian and Parsi characters working together for freedom.

In a 1970 interview to the Centre of South Asian Studies, screenwriter and director K.A. Abbas speaks about Usha Mehta’s work, adding that the situation was complicated by fascists abroad broadcasting anti-Allied propaganda and calling it “Congress Radio”, which confused the Communist Party in India. A better film on Mehta might have incorporated such fascinating cross-currents. This one is just a lot of dead air.

‘Ae Watan Mere Watan’ is on Amazon Prime.

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