Chittagong: A Review

Louis Proyect, the author of this piece, is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list, where his various articles first appear. For information on how to subscribe to the list, go here. Active in socialist politics since 1967, he has given workshops on the Internet to community and union groups, as well as moderating a Marxist mailing list on the Internet that can be linked to above. He has also created a small archive of the writings of James M. Blaut, an outstanding scholar and revolutionary. Proyect’s articles, many of which appeared originally as postings to the Marxism list, have appeared in Sozialismus (Germany), Science and Society, New Politics, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Organization and Environment, Cultural Logic, Dark Night Field Notes, Revolutionary History (Great Britain), New Interventions (Great Britain), Canadian Dimension, Revolution Magazine (New Zealand), Swans and Green Left Weekly (Australia). He is also a proud member of the NY Film Critics Online. He also run a blog. He can be reached at lnp3@panix.com.

Louis Proyect

On Wednesday May 23rd, New Yorkers have the unprecedented opportunity to see what amounts to India’s “The Battle of Algiers”. Bedabrata Pain’s Chittagong has been selected as the opening night feature of the 2012 New York Indian Film Festival shown simultaneously in 3 theaters (for location, click here). Like Gillo Pontecorvo’s masterpiece, this is political film at its most magnificent.

One could easily imagine that Pain might have made the film without ever having seen “The Battle of Algiers”. The parallels are not so much a function of imitation but a faithful rendering of Indian history—the story of a heroic but ultimately doomed armed struggle in colonial India that lasted 4 days in 1930 and that evokes the fitful ups and downs of resistance to French colonialism in Algeria. And as is the case with “The Battle of Algiers”, the colonized eventually triumph against the colonizers in a way that will leave the audience standing on its feet and cheering.

I met Bedabrata (his friends call him Bedo) in 2007 after he read my review of Amu”, a powerful narrative film about the anti-Sikh pogroms in 1984 directed by Shonali Bose that he produced. As a highly skilled engineer, who had a patent on the world’s smallest camera used by NASA, he provided the seed money for a most worthy film. The CMOS technology used in that camera provided the basis for consumer digital cameras, so the next time you are on vacation taking pictures of your loved ones remember to tip your hat to Bedo!

Although he was an engineer by vocation, his greatest passion was making film himself, and more specifically films that took up the cause of India’s common people. When C.P. Snow decried the gulf between science and art, he surely had never met the likes of Bedo Pain.

In 2008 Bedo gave up a lucrative career at NASA and became a full-time director, with “Chittagong” as his first project. He told The National, an Abu Dhabi newspaper:

My PhD advisor told me that by the time you are 45, you should be absolutely settled in what you are doing, you have your roots planted so deep that you just build upon that, you concentrate on making the leaves of your tree rather than the trunk. And as it turns out, that was exactly the age where I said ‘screw the tree’.

I have vivid memories of my meeting with Bedo as he recounted his desire to make a film about the Chittagong events. Since I was under the impression, like many who had little detailed knowledge about Indian history, that the freedom struggle was completely identified with Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance, I was spellbound by his tale of the armed struggle that took place in 1930.

For the next few years, Bedo became a specialist on the Chittagong events. As a serious filmmaker, his intention was clearly to both do justice to the actual history and make cinematic art. Beyond my wildest expectations, Bedo Pain took material out of the dust-covered historical archives and breathed new life into it, so much so that you feel like you have been transported to British-ruled India in 1930.

All of the major characters in “Chittagong” are the historical figures who either died in battle, were subsequently executed by the British, or sent to Andaman prison for long and debilitating sentences, including Subodh “Jhunku” Bose—the sole surviving Chittagong combatant who was interviewed by the director at the age of 92 during the course of the film’s making (he died 2 weeks after its completion.)

Jhunku was 14 years old when he joined Surya Sen’s militia. His followers knew Sen, a high school teacher and ardent nationalist, as Masterda, an honorific that meant “teacher-brother”. When we first meet Jhunku (Delzad Hiwale), he is in a lavish home taking piano lessons from the wife of Wilkinson (Barry John), the British magistrate who runs Chittagong. Wilkinson is the classic paternalistic liberal colonizer who feels that he is there to civilize the natives, especially Jhunku, the son of a lawyer and a political moderate, who he hopes to get into Oxford.

Since Jhunku knows the identity of the classmates who have joined up with Masterda, he is pressured by Wilkinson to name names—assuring him that they are just wanted for questioning and nothing else. As “soft cop”, Wilkinson turns the names over to Charles Johnson, the chief of police, who is the clenched fist in the velvet glove. Wasting no time, Johnson (Alexx O’Nell) and his goons raid a festival celebration and kill one of those named in cold blood. Johnson is also a torturer who we see clipping off two of Surya Sen’s forefingers with wire-cutters during an interrogation. Johnson is to his Indian captives as the brutal Colonel Mathieu is to the Algerians in Pontecorvo’s film.

Veteran Indian actor Manoj Bajpai who I first saw in the 1994 “Bandit Queen”, another deeply political Indian film, plays Surya Sen. While Masterda is revered by everybody, he is modest to a fault. When Jhunku becomes radicalized by British treachery, Masterda only accepts him into the ranks reluctantly. He and Jhunku as well understand that they are facing a well-trained and superior-armed imperial army.

The goal was never to launch a general uprising. Instead, they hoped to raise the morale of the Indian people by demonstrating that the British were not invincible. Even if every last fighter died, they would be martyrs to a greater cause, namely the freedom of their people.

The young men who train with Masterda and his chief lieutenants Ganesh Ghosh (Vishal Vijay) and Anant Singh (Jaideep Ahlawat) come to the forest at night or in early morning to take target practice with the few firearms they have absconded from the British, in the same manner as the Algerians.

The goal is to seize the armory and steal firearms that can be used to hold off the British for as long as possible in a liberated Chittagong. By destroying a section of the railroad tracks that connect the city to Calcutta, they hope to maximize that time. When the British eventually regrouped and attacked the several dozen young rebels occupying higher ground in Jalalabad hills on the afternoon of April 22, 1930, they were forced to retreat from the highly motivated fighters even though they had machine guns and over a thousand troops. Jalalabad is one of the great victories of revolutionary fighters in the 20th century and well deserves the commemoration it gets in  “Chittagong”.

As is the case in “Battle of Algiers”, the arrest, torture, and death of the anti-colonial movement does not mark the end of the struggle. It rises Phoenix-like in the final moments of the film in a way that will stir you in a way that no other political film in memory has done. Just after that scene finishes, we see the closing credits and learn that some of Masterda’s fighters became Communist members of parliament, including Ghosh and Singh.

This marks a logical progression from the strategy and tactics of the Chittagong fighters who were organized as the Indian Republican Army into what would become a movement based more on mass struggle than martyrdom.

When we see Masterda and his followers at a meeting in the forest on one occasion, they conclude their business by chanting, “Long Live the Indian Republican Army”. It is more than a coincidence that they share the same initials as the Irish Republican Army, as Suniti Qanungo, the nephew of a 14-year-old Chittagong martyr, indicates:

The influence of the Irish revolution was so deep on the mind of the Chittagong revolutionaries that the volunteer corps of Chittagong was organized after the manner of the Irish forces of volunteers  which  were  provided  with   militant instructors. The revolutionary army was formed after the manner of Irish Republican Army (IRA) and named Indian Republican Army.20 Irish Republican Army was created in January 1919 as successor to the   Irish  volunteers,  a  militant  nationalist organization founded in 1913. The day of Chittagong rebellion was selected Easter Friday in remembrance of the Easter Rebellion, a sudden rising by less than 2000 men in Dublin. The rebels seized some government establishments and proclaimed an Irish republic. They held out for six days. The rebellion was cruelly suppressed by British army.

Kalpana Dutt, one of the female combatants of the Indian Republican Army, eventually found her way to communism as well. In the final chapter of her Reminiscences, she explains how she became a Communist:

Three or four years later it was decided to keep all the women political prisoners together. Many of them had the opportunity to learn about happenings in the world outside through long periods of stay with the rest of the detainees, and a few periodicals and journals of a progressive type like the Parichaya also began to trickle through the prison bars. From there I could hear about communism from time to time and from them too came to me books of socialism and communism by Joad, Cole and Shaw.

The arguments and the approach of these books began to stir the mind and forced me to ponder over the difference that these have with the revolutionary literature in which I had been steeped so long. The narratives of revolutionary deeds, the lives of Khudiram, Kanailal, Bhagat Singh no doubt stirred us to the very core, teaching us to defy death: but these writings on socialism and communism could not be set aside as irrelevant, and so the faint rumblings of a new battle could be heard within myself.

“Chittagong” is committed to showing the role of women fighters like Kalpana Dutt. One such historical figure is Pritilata Waddedar (Vega Tamotia) who died in combat against the British in the aftermath of a raid on the European Club in Chittagong (graced by the sign at the front door “No dogs or Indians allowed”) that killed Charles Johnson in the middle of a speech about the great victory he had led against the rebels.

Bedabrata Pain

If it is almost impossible not to think of “Battle of Algiers” when watching “Chittagong”, it is also nearly impossible not to consider contemporary India, especially the controversy over the Maoists that Arundhati Roy wrote about in her 2010 essay Walking with the Comrades”. To those who believe that India became free after national independence and under long-time Congress Party rule, nothing might seem more irrational than armed struggle. Unfortunately, the world capitalist system has a way of undermining true national independence through its control of markets and capital investment, even in places where armed struggle rather than nonviolence was the principal mode of struggle, or at least a major component. Algeria itself comes to mind, as does post-Apartheid South Africa.

Arundhati Roy takes this question head-on:

This legacy of rebellion has left behind a furious people who have been deliberately isolated and marginalised by the Indian government. The Indian Constitution, the moral underpinning of Indian democracy, was adopted by Parliament in 1950. It was a tragic day for tribal people. The Constitution ratified colonial policy and made the State custodian of tribal homelands. Overnight, it turned the entire tribal population into squatters on their own land. It denied them their traditional rights to forest produce, it criminalised a whole way of life. In exchange for the right to vote, it snatched away their right to livelihood and dignity.

Having dispossessed them and pushed them into a downward spiral of indigence, in a cruel sleight of hand, the government began to use their own penury against them. Each time it needed to displace a large population—for dams, irrigation projects, mines—it talked of “bringing tribals into the mainstream” or of giving them “the fruits of modern development”. Of the tens of millions of internally displaced people (more than 30 million by big dams alone), refugees of India’s ‘progress’, the great majority are tribal people. When the government begins to talk of tribal welfare, it’s time to worry.

Although I am not a Maoist ideologically, I heartily concur with the helmsman’s statement that it is right to rebel. India, like China, is a society that is deeply divided by class. While peasants commit suicide in record numbers, Mumbai businessman Mukesh Ambani erects a 27-story mansion that cost $1 billion, the most expensive home ever built.

Surya Sen built a movement specifically against British colonialism but it is not hard imaging him as a Maoist guerrilla in 2012. What use is national independence if you are condemned to economic suffering? Indeed, the class contradictions that were submerged during the fight for independence become much more obvious when the ruled become the new rulers, the subject of another film by Gillo Pontecorvo: “Burn”.

Although this review focuses more on the politics of “Chittagong” than the craft (what else would you expect from the unrepentant Marxist), a few words might be added in summation. Unlike some recent Indian movies that were targeted to Western audiences, “Chittagong” is distinctly Indian, even going as far as to include Bollywood style songs (but no dancing!) that serve as a kind of Greek chorus to the events seen on the screen. Ever the Renaissance man, Bedo Pain is lead singer in one of them.

The sure hand of the director is also seen in the way that he draws out the most convincing performances from his actors, especially Barry John as Wilkinson, the well-meaning imperialist magistrate. John is utterly convincing as a man who is torn between sympathy for the people under the British boot and his elevated role in the Empire that wears it. In real life, John is anything but a colonizer. Born in 1944, John was deeply influenced by the spiritual side of Indian culture and studied the Upanishads, just as I did as a freshman at Bard in the early 60s. John eventually moved to India and became deeply involved with the Indian theater. If the British had come to India in the 18th century on the same terms, much suffering could have been avoided. That, of course, is the key question of our epoch—how patterns of domination can finally be superseded and how peoples can live together peacefully and in economic security. “Chittagong” is exactly the kind of film that captures the spirit of that quest.

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