'When Rajkummar Rao plays Bose with his tummy jutting out, Buddha Ears, his mouth puffed, and his talk straight, it feels more like an echo piece than a real person,' feels Sreehari Nair.
Bose: Dead/Alive is less Subhas Chandra Bose and more an attempt to tap into our collective paranoia; it's less about Bose: The Legend, and more about Bose: Our First Ghost.
There's no dead Indian that living Indians think of more, debate about more, or offer more theories, suppositions, and guesstimates; and this Web Series, helmed by Pulkit and supervised by Hansal Mehta, asserts that the time for abandoning our obsession hasn't come yet.
'There's a truth hidden beneath bureaucratic lies and dig we must,' insist Pulkit and Mehta, as they supply the shovels and spades for the inquiry, and Ekta Kapoor (who is here credited with providing the 'Concept') lends to the show her soul.
Every 20 minute episode ends with a cliffhanger and every subsequent episode begins with a squeaker of a prologue, and before we can get down to critiquing the merits of the show, we are pulled into its orbit.
No, we don't learn much, nothing comprehensive in any case, but the series greatly fulfills our desire for shallow entertainment. It's a Schlock Classic to compete with our biggest bedroom secrets!
Bose's death continues to be a mystery, but his life was, in many ways, an equal mystery.
The man frequently lived on the edge of death (rumours about his demise circulated all through his INA years), he was a master masquerader, to the common public a stentorian voice on the radio than a real presence, and his exploits were often disseminated through 'small details' and 'compressed tales of heroism' than in-depth narratives.
In a sense, our most charismatic pre-Independence figure was a Western outlaw who fulfilled all the ideals of a revolution. And it's from this image of Bose that Pulkit, Hansal Mehta, Ekta Kapoor, and Anuj Dhar (whose book India's Biggest Cover-up gave Kapoor her 'Concept') design the Netaji of this Web Series: he's a Pop Revolutionary to put beside Phantom.
When Rajkummar Rao plays Bose with his tummy jutting out, Buddha Ears, his mouth puffed, and his talk straight, it feels more like an echo piece than a real person.
It's a showy performance as a character that seems simultaneously caught between the bindings of a history text book and the pages of a comic book.
This Bose defies the British by marching in slow motion and his brightest moments are often underscored by Bangla Rock; he's maybe a touch too precious to be believably human.
Tigmanshu Dhulia, in his supremely under-appreciated Raag Desh, gave us a Subhas Chandra Bose who was only half aware of his grandeur. That was a Pop Character with Pop Clarity.
Rao's Bose lives through his present convinced of his future historical significance.
Surfacey as Rajkummar Rao's central performance is, it's never distracting, for it finds itself in a piece of work that isn't out to showcase its fineries.
For example, the shots aren't designed to consciously unload upon us avid sartorial specifics or preeningly expert architectural details of the age; oh no, the makers are aware that that'd be too thick for floating suspense.
Tapping into our most primitive ideas of patriotism and valour and playing off our most basic affection for conspiracy theories, the narrative of each episode crosscuts between a British sergeant's (Stanley played by Edward Sonnenblick) efforts to verify Bose's death in the 1945 plane crash, and his past encounters with Bose told over a period of 20 plus years.
The sergeant is sure beyond doubt that Bose has faked it ('Bose wants the world to know he is dead,' he theorises at one point; later, watching a film of Harry Houdini performing an airplane-escape act, his eyes burn with fever), and Naveen Kasturia's voiceover explains why.
Kasturia plays Darbari Lal, a subservient havaldar in the British-Indian force, a straight Uncle Tom, and it is his comically alive performance that gives this series a pulse even when the proceedings become sluggish.
Darbari's havaldar first meets Bose as a student leader when Bose's hair seems on the verge of falling off, and through the years, as Bose turns into a balding national hero, we see Kasturia tailing him (upon Stanley's orders), silently admiring him, and finally obsessing over him.
The scenes between Kasturia's Darbari and Rao's Bose are the best bits in this pop-mythology series and I am guessing (having watched only five episodes so far) that the story will be as much about Darbari's coming of age, as about investigations into the big unknown.
Editor Yasha Ramchandani squeezes into the tense narrative newspaper cuttings, archival footage, and newsreels (with Zelig-like inserts of Rao's face) and all of that become a part of the series' overall slapstick tone!
Reshu Nath's lines, together with the actors' line-readings, give the interplays between the Indians and the British a feeling of schoolboys fighting for annual day glory.
In a scene of his first arrest, Bose gets asked: 'What is your drug? Opium? Cocaine?'
'Gandhi,' Bose smiles back.
Rao's chest never feels heavy, and his dialogues never once sag (there's not one moment of atonality).
'You think you can get away?'
'I always get away,' says Houdini-Bose.
The lines aren't bad, but they aren't curvy enough, only set-ups waiting for punchlines.
'To be immortal, you have to die first.'
We put such stuff on billboards now, and there is a weird pleasure in knowing that they were once mouthed.
Bose's death is thus described: 'It was an ending that spawned a hundred stories!'
And it's all in good jest. Plus, the readings aren't totally devoid of inflections, and there are nuances about the way people address each other that convey levels of authority.
Jawaharlal Nehru, for instance, refers to Bose as 'Subhas' while he simply calls him 'Nehru.'
Bose here is also quite The Ladies Man, smartly dividing his time between raising his fist and holding hands.
To a looker (Nandini), he draws the parallel between smoking and women's liberation as he offers her his cigarette while quipping, 'But do women want to be free?'
To Emilie Schenkl (Anna Ador), who nervously walks the streets of Vienna in tweed and hat, and who experiences religious reawakening in Bose's company, he states: 'I am married to Azaadi, like you're married to Christ.'
Though distant for most part, it's in his scenes, devoid of the compulsions of patriotism, that we get some semblance of Subhas Chandra Bose, the person.
There's one smartly written sequence of Bose hiring Emilie as his stenographer, where she confesses to knowing only little English but gets selected because the other candidate girl knows absolutely no English. (Bose wants to tell the second candidate that she can't be hired, but she's so clueless about English that Emilie has to finally translate his message).
That was about the only hint of uncertainty in Rao's portrayal of Bose, the only foible I could discern in that super-virtuous frame, and it made me want to stand up and applaud!
Bose: Dead/Alive is the sort of icon-milking that stays just this side of offensive. And because it has shrewd minds working behind it, it plays out in a medium best suited to transmit its pizzazz.
Unlike our cinema, which talks to us best when it sharpens our sense of the Indian Reality, the duty of Television or our other sources of Bedroom Entertainment is perhaps to dip into the Indian Paranoia, that, in a sense, makes the Indian way of life possible.
The rectangular screen, as it grows narrower, offers latitude for us to approach subjects in greater breadth but demands less depth.
And if Inside Edge (the Web television series that presented a heady mix of T20 Cricket, Money, Sex, and Power) and Bose: Dead/Alive are any indicators of which way our Web Content is headed, we may be in for many more populist versions of our most preferred paranoias.
So while you may forget everything about the Bose in this Web series five minutes after an episode is over, and after you've taken your dog out for a walk or turned off your whistling cooker, it reinforces that gaudy belief that sees you through your dullest days: 'Someone, somewhere, knows something that he isn't telling me!'