“Dilli Chalo!” Singapore documentary captures the spark from Netaji that ignited the Azad Hind movement

“Dilli Chalo!” Which Indian anywhere in the world does not know the meaning of this battle cry? Decades before they were hijacked by career politicians vying for the top seat in the Indian democracy, these two words were uttered by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose — his words were the spark that ignited the Azad Hind (Free India) movement and led to a surge in the ranks of the Azad Hind Fauj (army) led by Bose.

Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose arrives in Singapore. Photo courtesy: DBS
Re-enactment of the iconic moment. Photo courtesy: DBS

Few among today’s Indians or the Indian diaspora may be aware that Bose called for a march upon the centre of power in Delhi — with the aim of ousting the British colonial government from India — while standing on the steps of the majestic building overlooking the open space of Padang in Singapore, in July 1943.

Padang is where it all started: the revival of the Azad Hind Fauj and the final push for India’s independence, which would come just four years later. This is the chapter of Bose’s life and times captured by a new documentary, titled Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: A Singapore Saga, to be premiered on August 25, 2023, in Singapore.

This scene from the documentary shows the building at Padang, in Singapore, from where Netaji declared his march upon Delhi. Photo courtesy: DBS

Commissioned by Tagore Society Singapore, the documentary has been written and directed by Lakshmi Raman Venkat, and has DBS Singapore and DBS India as its main sponsors. The background narration is by Siddhartha Basu, the voice familiar to many Indians as the quizmaster of Mastermind and other quiz shows. The documentary production team from Lakshmi’s company Gravitas Media includes Rajendra Nanoskar, Prakash Parmar, Santosh Mithbawkar, and Wilson Thomas.

Speaking to Connected to India about the documentary, Dolly Davenport, Creative Director of Tagore Society Singapore, a cultural orgnisation that draws inspiration from the great Bengali poet, composer and playwright Rabindranath Tagore, said that she had always cherished the dream of telling the story of Netaji in Singapore. Women shouldered equal responsibilities with men in the Azad Hind Fauj, also known as the Indian National Army (INA), and Dolly has inherited some insider knowledge, so to speak.

“My own mother-in-law was closely associated with Netaji and travelled with him all over Southeast Asia, helping him raise funds for the INA, when my husband was just a child. This is one of the reasons for my abiding interest in this subject,” said Dolly.

Selva and Janaki, narrators of the documentary, looking at the INA exhibit at the Indian Heritage Centre, Singapore
Selva and Janaki, narrators of the documentary, looking at the INA exhibit at the Indian Heritage Centre, Singapore. Photo courtesy: DBS

She is determined to ensure that Singapore’s link with the Indian freedom movement and the glorious feats of the Rani of Jhansi Regiment of the INA are always remembered. “This film provides a glimpse into how ordinary people in this region were drawn to Netaji and the cause of India’s freedom,” said Dolly.

The call of “Dilli Chalo!” in Singapore rang through this part of the continent, getting an overwhelming response from people.

Re-enactment of a Rani of Jhansi Regiment officer. Young women of Indian origin from across South-East Asia joined the Indian National Army in large numbers, inspired by Netaji. Photo courtesy: DBS

“Tens of thousands of civilians from the Indian and Indian-origin communities throughout South-East Asia, from that point on, volunteered to join the Indian National Army as soldiers,” said Sumantra Bose, a descendant of Netaji, in the documentary. Sumantra is the son of Netaji’s nephew Sisir Bose, who helped the revolutionary leader plan his “Great Escape” — evading British intelligence to escape house arrest in January 1941.

Thrilling recreation of Great Escape

Lakshmi spoke of a “thrilling” re-enactment of the Great Escape. “We recreated this sequence with the original car in which Netaji escaped from Calcutta (now Kolkata). This is a Wanderer, which has been restored by Audi, and is exhibited at Netaji Bhawan in Kolkata. It was a thrilling experience to be able to visualise the ‘Great Escape’ for ourselves, and we filmed this late at night to recreate the same situation. And we got Sumantra himself to play Subhas!” she said.

Sumantra Bose (in this picture) is the son of Netaji’s nephew Sisir Bose, who helped the revolutionary leader plan his “Great Escape” in January 1941. Photo courtesy: DBS

The documentary team researched the Singapore saga of Netaji by unearthing remarkable stories. The filmmakers spoke to Ishwar Nahappan, the son of Janaki Thevar, “a young girl from an affluent Tamil family of Malaysia who ran away to Singapore to join the Rani of Jhansi Regiment after hearing Netaji speak at a rally in Kuala Lumpur”, and to Subhashini Ali, “daughter of Dr Lakshmi Sahgal (nee Swaminthan), who shared interesting insights about her mother’s role in the Rani of Jhansi Regiment”. Yet another interviewee, named Ashok Rai, had both parents in the INA, though they had joined the freedom army separately, before their marriage.

Subhashini Ali (in this picture), daughter of Dr Lakshmi Sahgal, one of the closest aides of Netaji in the INA, has shared her insights with the documentary makers. Photo courtesy: DBS

About the story she has told through this documentary, Lakshmi said, “What people can expect to see in the film is the amazing story of a man who inspired thousands of ordinary people, living far from India, the land of their forefathers, many of whom had never even been to India, to join the battle for Indian freedom.”

The Azad Hind Fauj was not only marching for freedom, but it was also setting women free of their traditional confined roles, shaping them into fierce soldiers. “It’s mind-boggling to imagine that these thousands of people — plantation labourers, workers, housewives, young students — received military training and actually fought in the battles in north-east India against the might of the British army,” said Lakshmi.

“To imagine that the young women of the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, many of whom were in their teens, actually sent Netaji a petition written in their own blood, that they be sent to the battlefields of Imphal and Kohima.”

Lakshmi Raman Venkat, Chief Creative Officer, Gravitas Media; Chef Pinaki Ray, essaying the role of Netaji; and Prakash Parmar, Director of Photography check a shot during the filming of the documentary on the steps of the Padang building. Photo courtesy: Gravitas Media

One of the “hidden gems” that Lakshmi found during her research was “the rich repository of songs created by the orchestra/band of the INA under its music director, Ram Singh Thakuri”, the man who put music to the words of Kadam Kadam Badhaye Ja, the legendary marching song of the INA. “We learnt that Netaji loved music, and that there was a lot of cultural activity going on inside the INA in Singapore, with even small plays being written and staged,” said the documentary-maker. “That was a fascinating discovery for me, personally, to know how even in the direst of situations, Netaji kept the morale of his troops alive through music and theatre.”

‘Immense significance’ for DBS

Elaborating on what led to the DBS sponsorship for the documentary, Shoma Narayanan, Managing Director – Group Strategic Marketing & Communications at DBS Bank India, said, “We are truly honoured to be associated with a compelling documentary that captures the connection between India, Singapore, and a historic figure: Subhas Chandra Bose. He was a visionary leader who played a pivotal role in India’s struggle for independence. His spirit of resilience and dedication continues to inspire generations in both countries.

Re-enactment of an interesting anecdote related to the INA band. Photo courtesy: DBS

“This project holds immense significance for all of us at DBS Bank. We have been a part of India’s journey since 1994…. This documentary allows us to commemorate the intertwined histories and strong cultural ties between India and Singapore.

“Through our collaboration with Tagore Society Singapore, we wanted to highlight a period of history that transcended geographical boundaries and will resonate with audiences worldwide.”

Shoma said that after the August 25 release, DBS would “amplify the documentary” across the bank’s digital platforms and to its customers and staff. “Our supporting social media campaign will span platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, featuring teasers, interviews, anecdotes, and film excerpts. We will also arrange exclusive screenings for our employees and their families. Additionally, the documentary will be screened across several cities for audiences interested in learning more about the life and achievements of Subhas Chandra Bose,” she said.