Even as India gained independence in 1947, it was but natural that films be made on the freedom struggle. Earlier films like Sikandar (1941), Kismet (1943) or Dr Kotnis ki Amar Kahani (1946) made during British rule packaged their films in such a manner so as to arouse Nationalism in an indirect manner but perhaps the first film looking wholeheartedly at the Nationalist Movement and India's struggle for Independence was this Filmistan film releasing the following year after Indian Independence.
Based on a story by Ramesh Saigal with dialogues by Ramesh Saigal and Qamar Jalalabadi, the film is directed by Ramesh Saigal. Ramesh Saigal was known for his films dealing with issues of National concern be it Railway Platform (1955), a melodramatic parable set in a social-realist idiom or expressing total disillusionment with Nehruian politics a decade after Indian Independence in Phir Subah Hogi (1958). Shaheed takes a sympathetic look at a young man who bravely sacrifices his life for the country. The film manages to work well as a thriller set against the background of the Quit India movement of 1942. It is, interestingly, a very different sort of film that came out from Filmistan, a studio that was known for making frothy entertainers like Shehnai (1947) and Nadiya ke Paar (1948). Shaheed is perhaps Filmistan's first effort at making a serious film with some substance and depth to it and an extremely successful one at that.
Shaheed is held together by an extremely strong performance by Dilip Kumar as the revolutionary who becomes a martyr. Dilip Kumar was steadily becoming a superstar at this stage following the success of Jugnu released the previous year where he had starred opposite the great Noor Jehan. With films like Mela (1948) and Shaheed, he was fast building his reputation as the tragedy king who either died on the film or lost out in love. In Shaheed too, he not only loses the love of his life but also sacrifices his life for the nation. Kamini Kaushal complements Dilip Kumar perfectly. Having made her debut in Chetan Anand's IPTA supported Neecha Nagar (1945), she was at the peak of her career when Shaheed released. Along with Nargis, Kamini Kaushal was the earliest actress who initiated a sense of natural acting among heroines. Shaheed is more than enough proof of her ability as an artiste as she effortlessly matches Dilip Kumar scene for scene. There is a strong sense of chemistry between Dilip Kumar and Kamini Kaushal who were regarded as a hit pair of the day from 1948 to 1950 wherein they also co-starred in Nadiya ke Paar, Shabnam (1949) and Arzoo (1950).
The main cast is supported strongly by Chandramohan and Leela Chitnis. Chandramohan was an extremely popular star having played the lead in films like Shantaram's Amrit Manthan (1934), Sohrab Modi's Pukar (1939) and Mehboob Khan's Roti (1942) and was initially essaying the role of emperor Akbar in Mughal-e-Azam (1960) before he died. Chandramohan makes full use of his robust voice to create an extremely strong character that opposes his son joining the freedom movement. Consequently the father son conflicts give the film several moments of high voltage drama. The one scene of Chandramohan that stands out is the scene in court where he defends his son as he 'switches sides' and is now repentant. The scene got much applause in its time and rightly so. Leela Chitnis, who had been a top heroine at Bombay Talkies and formed an extremely successful partnership with Ashok Kumar in films like Kangan (1939), Bandhan (1940) and Jhoola (1941), is in one of her earliest mother roles setting the tone for her subsequent suffering mother roles.
The music is by Ghulam Haider with lyrics by Raja Mehdi Ali Khan and Qamar Jalabadi. If one man revolutionalized the Hindi Film song it was Ghulam Haider. With Khazanchi released in 1941, he introduced Punjabi folk into Hindi film Music. By then Music Directors of the 1930s, who had embellished films with their exquisite compositions set in classical ragas, were beginning to sound commonplace. Khazanchi's refreshingly free wheeling music not only took the audiences by storm but also made other music directors sit up and take notice. Khazanchi, combining popular ragas with the rich verve and rhythm of Punjabi folk music, ensured that the Indian film song would never be the same again. And that is not all. Ghulam Haider also introduced singers like Shamshad Begum, Noor Jehan, and with Shaheed, Surinder Kaur. With the advent of the partition, the Film Industry lost stalwarts like Khursheed, Noor Jehan and Feroz Nizami to Pakistan. But perhaps the biggest blow was losing Ghulam Haider. Ghulam Haider initially resisted migrating and stayed back in Bombay composing music for films like Majboor, Padmini, Pathjad, Barsaat ki Ek Raat and Shaheed all coming in 1948. However, admittedly it was no longer the same Ghualam Haider seen in films like Khazanchi, Khandaan (1942) and Zamindar (1942). His musicians had migrated to Lahore in spite of him offering them two months salary and a secure shelter and the new Bombay Musicians with western instruments found it difficult to translate his ideas. But Shaheed still showed glimpses of the Maestro at his best. Its standout song Watan ki Raah Mein Watan ke Naujavan Shaheed Ho is one of the finest patriotic songs on the Indian screen. This patriotic song was used in two versions in the film - the first in brisk tempo, intended to raise the morale of revolutionaries and then again slowly and solemnly as the revolutionary's dead body is carried to the cremation ground, perhaps the first use of a sad version of a song in a Hindi Film! The first part had Mohammed Rafi leading Khan Mastana and vice versa in part II. It is one of life's biggest ironies that while one of the singers of this song went on to become one of the most popular singers Hindi Cinema has seen, the other died a beggar at the Haji Ali Dargah in Bombay... Following Kaneez in 1949, Ghulam Haider too finally left for Lahore where he launched his own film company 'Filmsaaz' with director S. Nazir Ajmeri and actor S Gul. Today Ghulam Haider's name is all but forgotten. A genius is gone - what remains is the work of others influenced by him.
An interesting aside. Ghulam Haider took a young struggling Lata Mangeshkar to producer S Mukherji to sing the songs of Shaheed but was vetoed by producer S. Mukherji saying her voice was too thin and squeaky and would never suit Kamini Kaushal! Haider warned Mukherji that this girl would one day overtake Noor Jehan and so it happened. Even Kamini Kaushal in arecent interview maintained that the one singer whose voice suited her best was Lata! In Shaheed with Lata's absence Ghulam Haider introduced Surinder Kaur and used a young Geeta Roy (Aaja Bedardi Balma) to render the songs.
Shaheed went on to fare extremely well at the box office. The film endures till today as one of the best films made on the freedom struggle. In fact, according to reputed Filmindia owner and critic Baburao Patel, for the first time with Shaheed did Filmistan make a sensible film! With Shaheed's success, Filmistan tried to combine making other films of Nationalistic Importance among their regular entertainers - films like Samadhi (1950) using the INA as a backdrop, or Anandmath (1952) and Jagriti (1954) even as they continued to make a Sargam (1950), Anarkali (1953), Nagin (1954) or Munimji (1955)!