Here’s a snap quiz… Who is Surjya Sen? Chances are most have heard the name vaguely mentioned in the context of the freedom struggle but no more. A hidden chapter of history, a largely overlooked hero who went to the gallows for his fight against the British in Chittagong and the man who went on to inspire the architects of the Indian nation.
The irony is that Surjya Sen is also the protagonist of Ashutosh Gowariker’s lavishly mounted ‘Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Se’, the film that no one is really making an effort to watch.
His is the name missing from the glorious line-up of Bhagat Singh, Nehru and Gandhi, and it could have been hoped that a mainstream Bollywood film with top stars such as Abhishek Bachchan and Deepika Padukone would have helped overcome that anomaly.
But that is clearly not to be.
The film, based on journalist Manini Chatterjee’s book ‘Do and Die: The Chittagong Uprising 1930-34’, reconstructs the raids on the British armoury and other installations in Chittagong, now in Bangladesh. It details the build-up to the raids by a band of 64 revolutionaries.
The movement met a tragic end, with Surjya Sen and Tarakeshwar Dastidar being hung to death, their woman comrade committing suicide, several of the leaders and many of the boy revolutionaries being killed.
The film has its problems, but then which one doesn’t. It is a bit too long, gets into unnecessary details and occasionally tries your patience.
But sometimes the movie experience goes beyond cinematic flaws. This is a film that tells a story desperately needing to be heard in these times of numbing cynicism and corruption scams.
When a deep rooted scepticism is stretching the fabric of nationhood, it is time perhaps to remember the ideals and sacrifices of people like Surjya Sen who laid the foundation of modern-day India.
So, the lump in your throat as you watch prison guards batter Surjya Sen – breaking his teeth and his legs – before taking him to the gallows is welcome. When the heart soars as a bloodied Surjya looks at the empty flag pole visualising the Indian tricolour flying just before he is hung, it is something to be cherished. The sight of the bullet-ridden bodies of 13- and 14-year olds lying sprawled in a field on the giant screen turns the popcorn into tasteless mush.
It all happened, to give us the India of today when we fly the tricolour with pride, celebrate India’s growing economic clout by watching a movie in an upscale mall that would beat any abroad and dream of a more prosperous tomorrow.
Films like ‘Khelein…’ go beyond just fleeting gooseflesh patriotic moments in trying to evoke a certain value system, one that hits home so forcefully when the titles roll out and the film character’s image is juxtaposed with the grainy, sepia tinted photograph of the real person.
So, just why is nobody watching it? Why has it all but moved out of the halls in its second week and why did it barely manage to make just Rs.10 crore against the Rs.45 crore spent on it (according to industry estimates)?
Curiously, a film like ‘Rang De Basanti’ that cynically recalled Bhagat Singh only to advocate the cause of a bunch of youths who don’t think twice about killing, including a corrupt father who is knifed by his son just as he is hugging him, was a hit.
The contrast with the boy band in ‘Khelein…’ who tearfully remember their parents when they are hiding in the forest couldn’t be greater.
In this age of instant gratification, it perhaps should not surprise that a warped sense of idealism finds such resonance but there are no takers for the real slice of history.
‘The world of cinema is like that of literature. It is the mediocre that becomes popular,’ is how filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan put it in a conversation with The Hindu.
Sure, cinema is about entertainment, about making you laugh and cry. But cinema has another role too: it must inform, it must add to the public discourse. Shouldn’t all parents and schools be asking their children to see the film?
If reams of newsprint and cyberspace can be spent on debating whether Munni (of ‘Munni badnaam hui….’) is better or Sheila (of ‘Sheila ki jawaani…’), then surely some effort can also be made to back films such as ‘Khelein…’
As an Indian and a cine buff, I fear the day when the Ashutosh Gowarikers of Bollywood stop making films like this or when financiers shy away from backing such projects.
The empty halls jeer them all even today.
(11.12.2010 – Minu Jain is editor (news) at IANS. The views expressed are personal. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)