In the summer of 1976, Gour Hari Das, then 45, sat at his typewriter and wrote a courteous letter to the Maharashtra government, asking for a certificate that would recognise him as a freedom fighter.
Over the next 32 years, colour TV came to India, mobile phones and the internet changed the world and PMs changed 12 times, but Das continued to type away, struggling to convince the authorities that he was no fraud.
Finally, in 2008, Das was given his freedom fighter’s certificate, at the age of 78. His victory over bureaucracy had its brief moment in the newspapers, and then the public moved on.
But one man could not get Das’s story out of his mind. Filmmaker Ananth Narayan Mahadevan, who was then wrapping up his National Award-winning Marathi film, Mee Sindhutai Sapkal, was determined to make a film on the man who patiently held his own against a rigid and insensitive system in order to assert his identity.
This film, made in Hindi and titled Gour Hari Dastaan (The Story of Gour Hari), is now in the final stages of post-production and is expected to be released in India in September.
Its stars include actor Vinay Pathak as Das, Konkona Sen Sharma as his wife, Ranvir Shorey and Rajit Kapur, with music by L Subramaniam and sound design by Oscar winner Resul Pookutty.
“Das often says that fighting the British was tough, but fighting the government of independent India was even tougher,” says Mahadevan. “This film is about his silent struggle against the system, and how his fight for recognition mirrors the state of the country today.”
When Mahadevan first sought out Das, a retired worker with the government’s Khadi Commission, in his two-bedroom home in Dahisar (a Mumbai suburb) in 2011, the old freedom fighter was sceptical of the director’s intentions.
But after he was shown Mee Sindhutai Sapkal — the biographical account of a courageous, victimised woman who went on to become a crusader for the cause of orphans — Das did not need any more convincing.
“I was aware that I was making a film about a living person and I wanted to do him justice in a subtle, authentic way,” says Mahadevan. “He told me he was losing his memory and gave me a huge file of letters exchanged between him and the government,” says Mahadevan.
With the help of this trove, and long conversations with the veteran, the director pieced together the details of a heart-wrenching tale.
Das, born in Orissa’s Ikra village in 1931, came from a patriotic, Gandhian family. From age 10, he was a part of Gandhi’s Vanar Sena or Children’s Brigade, passing on secret messages about the fight for freedom from town to town.
He helped raise funds for the satyagraha movement and, at 14, was jailed in Orissa’s Balasore prison for hoisting the ‘national flag’ in his town.
Years later, despite a yellowed jailor’s certificate, various departments of the government did not easily acknowledge that Das spent nearly 90 days in prison, making him eligible for a freedom fighter’s certificate and pension.
“All I wanted was recognition as a freedom fighter. I was never interested in the pension. But the government kept doubting my authenticity,” says Das, who spent most of his life after 1947 as an activist, promoting Gandhian principles.
In a moment of frustration as his memory first began to fail, Das wrote a passionate letter to then President APJ Abdul Kalam. “In the letter, Das asked him to consider his application before he forgot what the word ‘freedom’ meant,” says Mahadevan.
Das, for his part, is happy with Mahadevan’s work. “At 14, I was out fighting for freedom, but today, for my grandkids, those are just old sto­r­i­es. This film will give them encouragement.”