Eighty years after the Chittagong Uprising, an almost forgotten chapter in the Indian freedom struggle comes to the big screen in Ashutosh Gowariker’s Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey (KHJJS). An adaptation of Manini Chatterjee’s book Do and Die, Gowariker’s film stars Abhishek Bachchan as Surjya Sen, or Masterda, who led a group of 64 revolutionaries in the Chittagong Armoury raid on 18 April 1930.
Masterclass: Bachchan as the legendary leader of the Chittagong Armoury raid; and (right) Gowariker. Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Known for his earlier period films Lagaan and Jodhaa Akbar, Gowariker admits that he didn’t know much about the Chittagong Uprising until he read Chatterjee’s award-winning book. “I stumbled upon the book while browsing in a book store. I was attracted to the title Do and Die as opposed to ‘do or die’,” says Gowariker. “Though I recalled reading about the Chittagong Uprising in school, I discovered Surjya Sen and the impact of the Armoury raids of 1930 only when I read the book. I felt that if I don’t know anything about it, and if it fits into the mould of converting it into a film, then why not make it into a movie and share it with everyone?”
He proceeded to acquire the adaptation rights and approached Chatterjee for her consent and involvement. On her part, having seen Gowariker’s Lagaan, Swades and Jodhaa Akbar, Chatterjee says she was “confident that he would not trivialize or sensationalize anything and do justice to the spirit of the book even though cinema is a different medium and has its own logic and compulsions.” While some might say that films cannot do justice to the effort and depth in a book, Chatterjee admits that though Do and Die first came out 11 years ago, it had a limited reach. “A mainstream Hindi film will take the story to a much wider audience. It has also renewed interest in the book and a new edition has come out, a Hindi translation is out too and a Malayalam one will be out soon,” she says.
Coincidentally, film-maker Shonali Bose and her husband Bedabrata Pain have also made a film on the same subject, called Chittagong starring Manoj Bajpayee. Gowariker believes there is space for both the films as they will be “very different in their respective approaches. I know she made a lovely film called Amu, so I know her sensibility is different,” he adds.
The writer-director-producer says that the age of the participants in the daring raid should strike a chord with today’s India. “I find these revolution very youthful—55 teens from the age of 13 and above also participated,” he says. He found it fascinating that young people were willing to give their lives for the freedom movement. “Their slogan was ‘do and die’ and the element of ‘to do’ is very contemporary. Today, youth can come together and make a change.”
Chatterjee also feels the episode has a relevance that transcends time. “I think it is important to know our own history, and knowledge of the past informs our future in subtle ways,” she says. “As for contemporary relevance, I think at a time when India is all gung-ho about becoming an emerging power and the world’s largest democracy, it is important to realize the sacrifices of forgotten heroes and martyrs who gave their lives for the freedom we now enjoy and take so much for granted.”
While Do and Die forms the basis of KHJJS, in order to translate the text for screen, Gowariker engaged a team of technicians who provided their own research and vision. “Manini’s research was vast. Everything you wanted to know about the revolution— what time, where and which officer was representing at that time—has been accounted for,” he says. “The other aspects of research in a period film are related to art, costumes, light design and cinematography, for which I have a very reliable team that I work with. Nitin Desai, Neeta Lulla and Kiran Deohans read the book and then went on to do their own research.” The bigger challenge was recreating the era in terms of behavioural patterns based on the manners and morals of that society. For this, Gowariker relied on imagination, visits to Kolkata and Shantiniketan and reference books.
This is Gowariker’s first period thriller and his first biopic. “This film is based on real-life characters and an incident that is just 80 years old. Jodhaa Akbar was 450 years ago and there weren’t any photographic references, only paintings, the Akbarnama and grandiose texts to draw from. We still have a connection with the 1930s, so with KHJJS the sense of responsibility to keep intact the spirit of the revolution was much more. So now you can know about the Chittagong Uprising of 1930 in two ways: from Do and Die and from the film,” he says.
Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey released in theatres on Friday.
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