Surjya Sen and his cohorts deserved a much better movie, but perhaps we should be grateful that they got at least this one.
DEC 5, 2010 – IN HIS LATEST ENDEAVOUR to hallow our history, Ashutosh Gowariker orchestrates an uprising on par with the one he puts up on screen. Instead of pallid Brits twirling their waxed moustaches, consider the increasingly westernised multiplex audiences holding our country’s mainstream cinema hostage, demanding little more than brain-dead comedies and the newly cool masala movie. Consider, too, the prickly reality that different, difficult, big-canvas films are no longer allowed to find their feet with time, and are instead declared hits or flops during the first weekend (and sometimes the first day). In this climate of oppression, telling the practically unknown story of a revolt against the British – and based on a book, Manini Chatterjee’s Do & Die: The Chittagong Uprising 1930-34 – is nothing short of rebellion. In the closing credits, the names and photographs of these revolutionaries appear alongside the names and photographs of their on-screen counterparts, and in one instance, there is no picture – only a blank frame bearing the inscription “No photographic evidence.” Even history has forgotten this man. Gowariker deserves a salute for resurrecting him and remembering him.
If only his skills as filmmaker were half as commendable. Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey opens with a troop of teenagers kicking around a football. The dusty-brown visuals transport us back to the 1930s – the boys are in dhotis, and their resonant names are enunciated with what I presume is an authentic Bengali accent. (The characters played by Abhishek Bachchan and Deepika Padukone, Surjya and Kalpana, answer to cries of Shoor-joe and Call-poe-nah.) This scene of play quickly turns into a metaphor for the era when the ground is seized by the British. When one of the boys suggests that they head to Surjya – the local schoolmaster, as likely to instruct his students about mathematics as martyrs – for a solution, another wonders if this patriot, fighting against the commandeering of the nation, would interest himself in the commandeering of this tiny tract of land. He gets his reply: “Hai to isi desh ka hissa.” This patch of countryside is but a part of the country.
This opening stretch infuses the film’s title with a teasing ambiguity – of playing one’s heart out (in sport) as well as playing with one’s life (in revolt) – and that’s the closest we get to any kind of nuance. To borrow an acronym from a few decades into the future, Gowariker is a WYSIWIG director – what you see is what you get. There are no layers in his films, no subtext, nothing left unsaid or even half-said. He is at once liberal-hearted and literal-minded, a Stanley Kramer making deeply earnest, deeply reverential telefilms for Doordarshan – only with bigger budgets. When the legend “This is a true story” appears at the beginning, a dull boom echoes on the soundtrack, as if a cannon went off in the distance. This is not just a true story but that kind of true story. You have to wonder, sometimes, about Gowariker on his sets. Does he bookend his shot-taking with cries of “Action” and “Cut?’ Or does he light incense and blow into a conch shell?
The problem with Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey isn’t its simple-minded straightforwardness. Mainstream cinema, after all, is driven by storytelling, not subtleties. The problem is that not a single character in this story is brought to three-dimensional life – we get a parade of names and faces, and we could be staring into an illustrated history book. When the swan-necked Kalpana enlists in Surjya’s cause, she donates her jewellery. But what do these jewels mean to her? Before this noble act, she’s never shown wearing these jewels, nor do we get a scene with, say, Kalpana badgering her wealthy parents for birthday presents made of gold or diamonds. Without this sense, we do not register the extent of her sacrifice. She’s just someone who hands in a handful of shiny stuff and makes way for the donor next in line. Like everyone else, Kalpana isn’t a character but a construct used to illustrate the film’s allusions, like when she reads out to an enthralled audience about Éamon de Valera, or when she picks up a red-covered book titled The Russian Revolution. Gowariker doesn’t so much stage scenes as state their reason for being and move on.
But more frustratingly, we never get a hold of Surjya. It’s a terrific idea, in theory, to not lionise the man as a leader. He’s just a part of the cast – a significant part, but (except in the closing sections) no more heroic or important to the proceedings than his lieutenants and the ball-playing teenagers he recruits. But perhaps this should have been his story, narrated from his point of view. Gowariker wants us to get involved in his historical tableau, but he doesn’t want any single player to hold our hand through the spectacle – and he isn’t enough of a filmmaker to make us invest in a sprawling event movie with no central figure tying the various story threads together. Why not tell us how this seemingly serene schoolteacher (Bachchan purses his lips and pitches his voice a couple of notches lower than usual) turned into a fiery patriot? How did he justify, if only to himself, the recruiting of baby-faced teenagers into a struggle that could result in bloody death?
Gowariker never allows us inside Surjya’s head – unlike Rajkumar Santoshi, who made a smashing mainstream hero of his protagonist in The Legend of Bhagat Singh; we saw a proud, flawed man, not an embalmed embodiment of virtue – and he doesn’t allow his young cast to cut loose either. Do these barely pubescent boys ever question the enormity of what they’ve signed up for? (After all, when they approached Surjya, they just wanted their football ground back.) Without these answers, we just witness hurried reenactment after hurried reenactment. When four boys kill themselves to avoid being captured, I kept trying to remember who they were and if I’d seen them earlier. As Rang De Basanti proved so powerfully, the key to making us care about the deaths of people on screen is to make them register, first, as people. Where Gowariker might have pruned his cast of characters – giving us a general sense of the uprising, not a literal restaging – he chooses to tell every single story of every single soldier. By the time the Brits arrive bearing captions like “JR Johnson, SP, Chittagong District,” they’re just more names to keep track of, and they don’t even do much to warrant these scraps of identification.
The first half of the film is a tedious maze of people and plotting, and it’s only when the revolution gets going – in the second half – that the story slaps itself to life, even if the staging of shootouts is routine and repetitive, and dramatic trajectories are abandoned for highlights. This leads to the feeling that the really interesting bits are being left out. We are told that Kalpana is under surveillance, but we never see how she shakes off her watchers and snakes her way to Surjya. (Or did the Brits let her go so she would lead them to Surjya’s hideout?) But at least, in these latter portions, we get scenes with characters who paint a bigger picture – the revolutionary who loses his mind because he blames himself for the death of a young rebel, or the elderly Muslim who, in the film’s finest line, endorses the shedding of blood for one’s rights: “Woh lahoo hi kya jo haq ki ladaai mein na bahe.” It’s a nice touch, harking back to older mainstream cinema, that this good Muslim is allowed to alleviate the atrocities of an evil Muslim, employed by the British.
Gowariker need have done little more than emulate his Lagaan example, and several stretches here do hark back to his most famous, most accomplished film – the ragtag band of underachievers fighting against a common (and far more powerful) enemy, or the title song employed (like Baar baar haan) over a training montage. That was a film that ran nearly four hours and yet the time simply flew by. But over the years, Gowariker has become a flabbier filmmaker who won’t settle for one reaction shot when he can give us four, and who won’t simply show when he can show and tell. You have to roll your eyes when a senior revolutionary instructs the teenagers about arms, holding up a musket and a bullet and intoning, “Ise musket gun kehte hain aur ise musket ki goli.” There’s a scene that’s even worse, when a bottle of chloroform is held up with the explanation, “Ise chloroform kehte hain” – exactly the thing that dulls a willing audience into a stupor.
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