Srinivasan Ramani is a member of the editorial team of Economic & Political Weekly.
In the film, Pratidwandi, directed by Satyajit Ray and made in 1971, the protagonist Siddhartha is asked, in a job interview, as to what he believed was the most important incident in the past decade. The protagonist argues that it is the Vietnam War and how the peasants and volunteer army of North Vietnam had resisted the American led forces in that country. When asked as to why he felt so, despite the more spectacular moon landing the same year, the protagonist argues that the moon landing was not unexpected, but the fact that poor peasants with minimal resources had taken up cudgels against the most powerful military force in the world and had shaken them, was astonishing. Needless to say, the protagonist is deemed a communist and is refused the job.
I recall this anecdote from that iconic film made years ago because there seems to be an uncanny similarity between the above and the motivations for director Bedabrata Pain to make the recent film, Chittagong. Pain, a former NASA scientist specialising in image sensors and camera technology – although as a former scientist at NASA’s jet propulsion laboratory, he knew more than a thing about space exploration and rocket science- quit his job in 2008 to later embark upon the project of directing a film on India’s nearly forgotten “revolutionary terrorists”. It was all about recognising the daredevilry and commitment of a bunch of teenaged rebels and their youthful leaders who showed immense courage to take on the might of the British empire by capturing the Chittagong armoury early in 1932. It was as if Pain (or Bedo as he is affectionately known) was channeling his inner Siddartha in making the tribute to the Chittagong rebels.
But the film is not just a biopic on Masterda’s “merry men”. It is a poignant look at the heady revolutionary days from the eyes of young Jhunku – who later became Comrade Subodh Roy – about the vulnerabilities, indignance, confusion, idealism, pain and courage that the young teenaged revolutionaries experienced as they embarked upon a most dangerous mission. It is also a story of how young Jhunku matured from teenage to the wizened twenties, having spent his time in the toughest conditions in prison at such a tender age, and transformed into a communist activist.
To that extent, Pain’s launch as a director is a resounding success. Picturised aesthetically, Pain’s background in image technology comes out successfuly in the excellent camerawork for the film, with the exteriors of Chittagong’s hills and backwaters shown exquisitely. Featuring a cast of heralded and unheralded names in Indian cinema, Chittagongis an apt homage to “Masterda” Surya Sen and his motley band of young “revolutionary terrorists” belonging to the Jugantar group.
Too compact a film
I am not a cinema specialist and in holding true to the fictional food critic Anton Ego from Ratatouille who says,
In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things, [any creative work] is more meaningful than our criticism..
I will not comment on the finer aspects of cinema. But quickly, just to get some critical takes out of the way, Pain could have shown a bit more emphasis on story telling – transitions are a little too abrupt, character development but for the young Jhunku is a bit lean and too much is packed into a 90 minute film. For those who don’t know a thing about the Chittagong uprising or have never heard about Masterda and his band of revolutionaries, the sequence of events could be a bit confusing – for example, the reasons for Surya Sen’s associates Ganesh Ghosh and Ananta Singh to leave for Calcutta a day after the capture of the Chittagong armoury and the police station are not laid out well enough. Neither are the revolutionaries’ aims vis-a-vis the European Club, depicted clearly. While actors such as Manoj Bajpai (as Surya Sen), Nawazuddin Siddiqui (as Nirmal da), Delzaad Hilwale (brilliant as Jhunku) and the ebullient Vega Tomatia1 (as Pritilata Waddedar) play their roles to a T, some of the others especially the British actors barring Barry John (as the district magistrate Wilkinson) come across a bit too one-dimensional and stereotypical. But these nitpicks apart, the attempt by the director to shed light on the reasons for the “ordinary” kids to do “extraordinary” things in East Bengal is noteworthy.
The Chittagong uprising was among the most prominent “terrorist” attacks on the Britishers’ Bengal establishment, launched by the “revolutionary terrorists” belonging to the Jugantar (one among the two such groups, the other being the Anushilan Samiti). They were motivated by Bengal nationalists and thinkers of the 19th century apart from others such as Giuseppe Garibaldi. Their belief was that the Britishers had to be hounded out of the country by targetting select representatives of the Raj – police officials, administrators and others – and that the spirit of patriotism among the people could be kindled through acts of daredevilry exposing the soft underside of the British Raj.
All these come out in the dialogue and words spoken by Masterda and his associates as a wide eyed Jhunku is impressed upon the need to join the young revolutionaries. The conversion of the upper-middle class boy with prospects to go to Oxford for higher studies, into one of Masterda’s “merry men” is brought about poignantly. Jhunku shows all the vulnerabilities of a physically frail, young teenaged boy who is kicked out of his Weltschmerz, when he whisks a pistol away from his father’s desk and offers to join Masterda’s group to avenge the death of a friend at a British police officer’s hands. Surya Sen’s tender affection for the boy prevents him from giving an immediate affirmation, but sensing Jhunku’s resolve – who threatens to sit on hunger strike unless he is accepted as a new entrant – he proudly takes him under his wing.
From daredevil to revolutionary
Jhunku alias Subodh Roy, who later on penned these memories as part of his book, Jalalabader Shopoth (the oath made at Jalalabad)2, is still hesitant as he enters into then unchartered territory of being an underage revolutionary terrorist. Masterda and his associates had little choice – most of the other members of the Jugantar were under surveillance or under arrest – and had to rely upon the “white card” wildcards in the young teens to go about their plan. The director attempts to bring these anxieties out vis-a-vis Jhunku and Masterda as well as Lokenath Bal and his young teenage brother Harigopal “Tegra” Bal – but perhaps a shot or two about the decisions to take these young conscripts on board would have been great in hindsight. The scenes that one remember the most include the inspirational speeches by Masterda before the attacks and during them, as he enjoins the youngsters to courageously go about their mission. Other scenes featuring Pritilata Waddedar are equally well done. Jhunku firmly becomes one among the group as they prepare to resist a British siege on their hideout in the Jalalabad Hills and his resolve endures even as he is tortured during interrogation by the police after his apprehension later on. Soon the boy who was a protege of the liberal hearted Wilkinson becomes a most dangerous rebel for the British, worth incarceration in the dark dungeons of the Kala Paani.
Child conscription into revolutionary or insurgent forces is a difficult issue these days, when insurgents such as the Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam and many others (such as the Nepali Maoists) have relied upon it to swell their ranks. In many cases, such conscription is unpardonable – if it was done in a barbarous manner by the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone for example, childen were used more or less as cannon fodder in the case of the LTTE – and as one looks back at the Chittagong uprising, it must be said that the youngsters deserved better than having to die for a “lost” cause of martyrdom. But tell that to Jhunku (and others) who later on became stalwart communists or republicans – utilising their early induction into a patriotic even if dangerous struggle – to position themselves as builders of the modern post-colonial nation!
Chittagong also shows as to how the Muslim peasants in the area were moved by the exploits of the young revolutionaries and provided them with shelter and food when they were on the run from the British police. It did however make me curious as to why there weren’t many (any?) Muslims in Masterda’s group, but I learnt later on (after seeing the film) that the Anushilan and the Jugantar did not quite have many Muslim members because most of its groups had oath ceremonies and rituals with volunteers placing their solemnities in prayers to the goddess Kali. Apparently that put off some Muslim volunteers from these groups which were predominantly comprised of Hindus.
To Pain’s credit, the best aspect of his story is the way he portrays Jhunku embarking upon his second revolutionary project – his role in the evolving Tebhaga uprising by peasants. The director does a great job of seguing Jhunku – this time a fatigued looking and unsure prison returnee – into a wizened peasant leader of the ongoing Tebhaga movement. Egged on by his muse Aparna – a fictional character introduced by Pain exercising his creative liberties – Jhunku organises a peasant revolt against a British blockade against them. That the film therefore ends not in pathos, but on a triumphant note – the Tebhaga set the stage for the end of colonial rule in Bengal – also adds to the director’s credit.
One grouse I have with Pain is that he does not show the years that Jhunku spent in prison in the Andamans in the late 1930s (and later in Dhaka). It could have aided him even more in his portrayal of Jhunku’s transition into a peasant leader, for Jhunku really became Com. Subodh Roy in the Kaala Pani. Many of the revolutionaries who were in gaol in the Cellular Jail were trained in Marxist thought by detainees such as Dr. Narayan Roy (imprisoned for his role in a bomb blast in Calcutta and who had been in touch with the Communist Party even as he was involved in “revolutionary terrorism”) and Satish Pakrashi. Most3 of the Jugantar group including Ambika Chakraborty, Ganesh Ghosh, Ananta Singh and Subodh Roy later on became communists. So did many from the Anushilan as well, who joined Harekrishna Konar and Bhagat Singh’s associate Shiv Verma in joining the Communist Consolidation in the Andaman Jails.
We see very few – if not any – films in the mainstream today which have communist revolutionaries as their protagonists4. It is a tragedy that these valiant revolutionaries, who endured extremely harsh prison conditions and gave up the best phases of their life for the cause of an independent (and liberated) India have been nearly forgotten or remain unknown these days. The hope is that, other film directors, or atleast aspiring ones, take Bedabrata Pain’s cue and add to the burgeoning works on India’s freedom fighting revolutionaries.