Sunday, August 10, 2014

Patriotism sans jingoism: Bedabrata Pain's Chittagong

Sharing your birthday with historical events can have unexpected perks. On the 72nd anniversary of Quit India Movement, the husband and I spent the evening sitting on cane chairs, watching a special screening of Chittagong at the open air theatre on the rooftop of Seasons Apartment Hotel in Aundh, Pune. This was followed by a lively chat with the film's writer-director, the scientist-turned-filmmaker Bedabrata Pain and the young actor Delzad Hiwale who played a young Subodh Roy 'Jhunku' in the film. I couldn't have thought of a better way to celebrate the bittersweet occasion of turning 32.

The film recounts the movement through Roy's eyes, who was the youngest revolutionary in the movement, and also the youngest Indian to be imprisoned at the dreaded Kaala Pani. Narrated in a flashback by the adult Roy, the story is as much about the journey of a young boy from a rich Indian family who gave up on prospects of a comfortable life for a larger cause, as that of a much-chronicled historical event. By training its focus on the reluctant young revolutionary instead of the enigmatic 'Masterda' Surya Sen (played by the ever dependable Manoj Bajpai), Pain has managed to make the story more personal than most historicals of this sort can hope to be.

We first find Jhunku weakly arguing with his childhood sweetheart Aparna that the British aren't all bad people. His opinion is based on the warm relationship he shares with Magistrate Wilkinson, whose wife gives him piano lessons. At the same time, Jhunku is also in deep awe for Masterda, portrayed here as a much beloved revolutionary with clear ideals, a cool head and an ambitious plan. While the ruthless DIG Charles Johnson goes on an arresting spree, rounding up all the known revolutionaries in the area and depriving the genteel Masterda of his trained resources, the latter recruits young boys with clean records and no training in weaponry in an unprecedented coup to take over the British Armoury. After an incident that leaves Jhunku both disillusioned about the British administrators and discredited among his peers, he throws his lot with the rebels. What follows is this boy's journey from being a reluctant revolutionary to a fervent patriot, and later the leader of another uprising.

Like I wrote before, the film remains a mostly personal story. Jhunku's conversion to the cause is triggered by a personal betrayal, rather than lofty speeches, of which there aren't any in this film. During a moment of weakness when he thinks of running away, what holds him back is the desire to redeem himself in Aparna's eyes. The framing device allows Jhunku to tell Aparna his version of otherwise well-known events. The heroes of the uprising - Surya Sen, Pritilata Waddedar, Nirmal Sen, Ganesh Ghosh, Lokenath Bal and Ananta Singh are portrayed as flesh and blood people with their moments of doubt and strokes of inspiration. The planning and execution of the coup too, is seen as a series of strategic problems in the way of a very specific goal. More than one, you find a revolutionary asserting, "this can be done" with the confidence of a bright student presented with a math problem. So when our heroes blow up a railway track and cut off phone lines, the audience can see it as important steps of a larger plan without a hint of Schadenfreude in destroying public property just because it's set up by the evil angrezz.

By presenting events of the uprising without embellishment, the film stays respectful of the inherent heroism in the ordinary people one sees on screen. In fact, I feel very tempted to write an entire post about all the familiar tropes of movies about the freedom struggle that Chittagong has smoothly steered clear of. Let me see: The soundtrack by Shankar, Ehsaan & Loy is far removed from the thumping beats I have come to associate with these movies. The production design by Samir Chanda lends an earthy tone without being too in-your-face. The narrative is simple, and never tries to turn the story into some sort of a thriller. There is no heroic posturing, no pigtails-in-black-ribbons, no screeching clarion call to fight for freedom, no Wande Mataram moments. What you get instead is a well-researched, ground level view of an important era in the country's history.

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