When Bollywood Made a Movie About the Komagata Maru

White villains. Brown heroes and victims. Evil spies. The Komagata Maru story provided fodder for many artistic projects, including a little known, rarely seen Bollywood film in the 70s.Jeevan Sangram Komagata Maru Movie

Story by Naveen Girn, Curator + Historian, komagatamaru100.com

In the early 1970s, Rajbans Khanna was a filmmaker whose documentary about Buddha, Gotama the Buddha, received an honorary mention at the 1957 Cannes film festival. Not much else is known about the director, but at some point between the late 50s and 1970, he was inspired enough to write, direct and produce a film about the Komagata Maru. In 1974, he released Jeevan Sangram, starring popular Indian film star, Shashi Kapoor.

The film opens with a series of unexpected dedications from the director:

  • “The makers of this film offer their homage to Baba Gurdit Singh, whose courage and vision steered S.S. Komagata Maru back to Indian shores.”
  • “Sohan Singh Bakhna, undisputed leader of the early revolutionaries. Founder-president of the Ghadr Party in California, U.S.A.”
  • “Kartar Singh Saraba. Story petrel of the Indian revolution. Fearless firebrand who was sentenced to death at the tender age of 19.”
  • “And those thousands of others, who like the hero of our film, gave of their utmost to their motherland, but whom history has cruelly ignored.”

Following the dedications, the opening credits show a series of paintings of the Komagata Maru, and we see Shashi Kapoor, whose character is a passenger on the ship, superimposed into these paintings in a kitschy style reminiscent of 1970s Bollywood posters.

Watch the opening credits for Jeevan Sangram:

Next, it’s September 29, 1914, when the Komagata Maru arrived in Budge Budge, India. Through a series of drawings and live action, we see and hear about the riots that broke out when the ship arrived in India, and how many of the passengers were killed by the British Indian police. Baba Gurdit Singh, Arjun (Shashi Kapoor), and others escape – and here is where the story begins.

The film’s narrative doesn’t actually follow the Komagata Maru story. Instead, it follows the fictional tale of Arjun who is radicalized by his experience with the Komagata Maru and joins the freedom movement to overthrow British rule in India. The film is filled with catchy songs and elaborate action sequences, and despite this, it attempts in its own way to shed light on some of the forgotten stories of Indian freedom fighters.

Watch the full movie, Jeevan Sangram, here.

Interested in learning more about the Komagata Maru and early South Asian immigrants to CanadaVisit our special History section for stories about history, racism, fashion and film.