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Chittagong death sentence

Masterda Surjo Sen’s legend fired up some of our imaginations while growing up. But in the cascade of history, his story could well be obliviated. Analysing Ashutosh Gowariker’s Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Se offers a singular dilemma: should one credit him for implanting the story in pop-culture for safekeeping or judge him for compromising it with his shoddy execution.

Gowariker sets up the stage for the audacious Chittagong uprising of 1930 led by Sen and his guerrilla army (a lot of whom were minors) with awkward, clumsy scenes. He writes for the amateur stage, wasting the tools cinema has to offer in shaping a story. Following in line, his ensemble cast acts like it is in a bad play. They gesticulate with choreographed unnatural hand-and-body movement for every cringe-worthy dialogue. And there is a lot of that in the film. In parts, the exchanges between characters are so artificial you suspect they are autistic.

Add to this the writer’s determination to make his characters lace their dialogue with token Bengali words and accent — and you have the kind of mishap that makes it difficult to access whatever merits the film might have had otherwise. Not one character gets their Bengali diction right and as the Shane’s (Sen) call out to the PriteeLotta’s (PreetiLata), you wonder why those, who are too lazy to authenticate, bother with authenticity.

Abhishek Bachchan’s interpretation of Sen is a solemn man. He looks solemn for all occasions and solemnly terminates the complexities of this most interesting icon. Deepika Padukone’s interpretation of Kalpana Dutta is a class monitor — she looks earnest and preppy and falls by the wayside when there is a call to emote. Gowariker’s direction is uniformly insipid, except when it so clichéd it begins to parody the story unintentionally.


But the story itself is so powerful, it survives the onslaught of tedious mediocrity, especially when you bear in mind the first frame of the film — white letters on a black backdrop that read “This is a true story.” It is not easy to palate the events in the times we live in. As the ruling Brits torture and discipline the revolutionaries, branding them terrorists, they reflect the difficult position of the Indian State in Kashmir and Maoist hinterlands today. The irony of the country Sen envisioned being represented more by the forces that brutalised him is not accommodated in Gowariker’s narrative. Nor are the larger moral conundrums of violence and leadership.

Like with every ‘true’ story, Sen’s saga has its critics and its versions. Gowariker only manages to tell it like the simplistic hero’s fable we grew up on. That version is an invitation to shed our cynicism and taste the heady brew of idealism and sacrifice that consolidated our identity and took on an empire for the idea of freedom. Sure, the primitive craftsmanship makes the terrain of this film difficult to negotiate, but if you are still willing to engage, you might find yourself at a point in history from where the meaning of every current debate begs serious reassessment.

Originally published in Tehelka.

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