Gaur Hari Das spent an astounding thirty two years trying to prove to the Indian government that he was a freedom fighter and had been jailed as a child.
Director Anant Mahadevan’s touching film deals with Das’ extraordinary story, exploring another form of identity and the near impossible struggle between the individual and state.
As a teenager, Gaur Hari (Vinay Pathak) was part of the ‘Banarsena’ (Monkey Army) who helped carry secret messages between freedom fighters.
He was jailed along with other nationalists at Balasore jail in Odissa.
The film opens decades later in Bombay where he works for Khadi like a true Gandhian.
Every day he writes to the state authorities and is tossed from desk to desk on a futile mission.
Getting the ‘tamrapatra’ (copper plate) is vital for him as an acknowledgment of his fight for the nation. Yet he is constantly denied, questioned, harassed and humiliated.
At home his domestic life falls apart. He ages prematurely, as does his wife.
His only son leaves to work abroad after failing to get admission through the freedom fighters quota.
Armed with a “freedom file” brimming with official documents, Gaur approaches every newspaper bureau in the land until two journalists agree to pursue his story.
As the file is opened, Gaur Hari narrates his story and flashback sequences are built up.
It is a scathing account of a man with ideals and belief in his nation constantly facing a system which does not care for him. Worse still he is questioned about his intent and accused of lying. His meetings range from government clerks to local politicians and finally the ministers. As Pathak’s soft natured Gaur Hari starts showing signs of Alzhiemers his mission grows more urgent.
Made in docu-drama style, Mahadevan’s story of a Gandhian man battling the system is a scathing comment on the corrupt Indian bureaucracy.
After being refused a bribe, a disgruntled fixer tells him, “If there was no giving and feeding, this whole building would collapse.”
Stellar performances from the lead cast actually make this moving story real.
In yet another striking coup, Vinay Pathak brings to life a bewildered idealist whose very existence depends on paper proof.
He is ably supported by Konkona Sen Sharma as the loyal wife who feels estranged from her obsessed husband.
Playing a role well beyond her years, body language and nuanced gestures display the exhaustion and alienation taking over the character.
Sen’s real-life husband Ranvir Shorey as the troubled journalist and his colleague (Tannishtha Chatterjee) put in credible performances.
The cast boasts cameos from reputed character actors (Bharat Dhabolkar, Neena Kulkarni, Vikram Gokhale, Sandeep Kulkarni, Vipin Sharma and Upendra Limaye.
The quiet pacing livens up with evocative flashbacks of young freedom fighters running through the river with flags in hand.
A memorable sequence occurs when Gaur Hari finally revisits Balasore jail and sees his younger self on the other side of the frame.
Another is when he has an imaginary conversation with Gandhi at the spinning wheel.
The technical aspects are well handled with Alphonse Roy (cinematography) Sreekar Prasad (editing) and the legendary Resul Pookutty (sound).
What emerges is a sensitive, low key human drama fortified with strong performances.
A testament that socially relevant independent cinema like this is still possible.