Sunday, December 12, 2010

History or 'His'tory... ?? (Part-I)

The 1930 Chittagong Youth Revolt, which the British colonialists used to denigrate as the loot of the Chittagong Armoury, was one of the glorious chapters of the anti-colonial movement of the subcontinent and a valiant example of armed struggle. The exploits of the revolutionaries, whom the British denounced, brutally tortured, tried and hanged as "terrorists", have entered our folklore of people's struggle for independence from colonial oppression. The legendary 'Masterda' Surjo Sen, the leader of the revolt, has ever remained an icon of revolution and patriotism... in Bengal. The rest of India barely knows this heroic revolutionary... whom the British sought to portray as a midnight terrorist.

Recently... a film curiously titled "Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey" (KHJJS) hit the theatres. Helmed by the acclaimed Indian Bollywood movie director Ashutosh Gowarikar... there was reason for hope that Gowarikar, a film-maker of substantial intelligence and senstivity, will not simply make another kitschy Bollywood Hindi Musical film out of Masterda's life. His previous movies - Lagaan, Swadesh and Jodhaa Akbar have received positive critical acclaim and he has won several National Awards, and been nominated for an Academy Award as well. Infact... Gowarikar has, over the years, marked out the 'Historical' as his preferred territory. He has sung his eulogy to Mughal India in Jodhaa Akbar (2008) and expressed his patriotic fervor in Lagaan (2001) and Swades (2004).

Also... according to reports, Gowarikar was adapting the movie from the 1999 book 'Do and Die: The Chittagong Uprising 1930-34' by veteran journalist Manini Chatterjee, (published by Penguin Books Australia).

But that was clearly not to be. With 'KHJJS' he made his grand return to the genre of the Historical after his brief stint at a potboiler... an epic 200-minute-long documentary on arranged marriage called 'What's Your Raashee?'... that managed to boil one thing for sure - your blood. With his latest film... Ashutosh seems to have lost all sense of time, and possibly the plot too. The patriotic fire fails to touch the souls.

Even the 'Bachchan Bahu'...
Aishwarya Rai Bachchan making an appearance for the 'KHJJS' music launch with mother-in-law in tow... couldn't save the film from tanking at the box office. She had come donning a cream and gold sari, with a dash of red in the borders... draped in the traditional Bengali style... looking every bit the traditional 'Bou-ma' (daughter-in-law... in Bengali). Perhaps she is already getting ready to portray the legendary Debi Chaudhurani... in the screen adaptation of Rishi Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay's novel 'Debi Chaudhurani'... to be helmed by Rituparno Ghosh. What say?? Nevertheless... 'KHJJS' has laid a massive turkey at the box office... and has all but moved out of the halls in its second week... barely managing to make just Rs.10 crore against the Rs.45 crore spent on it (according to industry estimates). Ummm... methinks... this being the X-mas season... a massive turkey isn't such a bad idea. What??

Getting back to 'KHJJS'... history morphs into 'his'tory and the self-styled expert on Indian history... makes a hash nay massacres one of the most inspiring stories (the Chattogram uprising) of our freedom struggle and successfully reduces it to a dull, painful 165-minute-long abomination... proving the dictum that history is never boring, only the teacher is. First... he doesn't seem to believe in editing, and then his treatment is so banal and dull, that it puts you to sleep... albeit a disturbed sleep complete with nightmares.

We forgave him for re-writing history with 'Jodhaa Akbar'... for casting the dishy Hrithik Roshan as the Mughal Emperor Akbar... who at 5 feet 7 inches, stout, with mongoloid features and a very loud voice was far from eye candy material. We even overlooked/excused the title of that movie itself - 'Jodhaa Akbar'. For (according to several accounts) Jodhabai (a Rajput princess) and the daughter of King Bharmal of Amer was one of the many wives of Akbar's son Prince Salim aka Emperor Jahangir and the mother of Prince Khurram aka Emperor Shah Jahan. Akbar maintained a harem of 33 wives... one of whom was the Rajput princess Harka Bai - the mother of Prince Salim aka Emperor Jahangir. Nevertheless... we managed to digest Gowarikar's 'theory of relativity'. We loved 'Lagaan' too... but then it was faux history.

What we cannot and will not forgive and forget is this drivel called "Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey" - passing off as a well-researched saga of our freedom struggle. Where the main protagonist... the fearless 'Masterda' Surjo Sen (played by the insipid and listless Abhishek Bachchan) cannot even pronounce "Chattogram" properly calling it "Chotto" gram instead. Where the perfectly made-up (17 year old, fiery revolutionary and bomb expert) Kalpana Datta, essayed in all her plastic glory by Deepika Padukone (with her flawed Bengali accent and clad mostly in a saffron coloured saree)... who even when caught in the blast of a bomb still looks as clean as she is in her Liril ad. (Errr... was liril one of the sponsors?? Oof Yu Maa!!!) Incidentally... Kalpana Dutta (1913-1995) was a member of the armed resistance movement led by Surjo Sen, which carried out the 'Chattogram Astragar Lunthan' aka the 'Chittagong armoury raid' on April 18, 1930. ('Chittagong' being the anglicized version of 'Chattogram'). In the film... you can never forget you are watching Deepika Padukone trying her best to portray Kalpana Dutta as Deepika Padukone!

Where Ashutosh and his team has made a total hash of Pritilata Waddedar's (essayed by Vishakha Singh) radical feminism and heroic martyrdom, with the depiction of her as a love-lorn woman who commits suicide, with no pressure of death, just because she wants to join her dead love (a romantic story I personally am hearing for the first time here) a total subversion of what she stood for?? They even insinuate a romantic angle between Surjo Sen and Kalpana Dutta... yet another product of the fertile imagination (creative license?) of the esteemed director and his team. Methinks... the viewers should have a license to silence the misuse of creative license. (Note: Also known as artistic license, dramatic license, poetic license [not to be confused with poetic justice], or narrative license, and so on, Creative License refers to a creator's freedom to ignore the conventions or rules that normally govern the art in which he or she works. It does not excuse shoddy work).

At the start of a sequence where Pritilala (Vishakha Singh) goes on a crusade of bloody revenge on the British for her (supposed) lover's death, there is a scene of her in a dark room with her shadowy but emblazoned face and the picture of goddess Durga in the background visible. Gowarikar's use of the stereotypical, formulaic evocation in Hindi cinema of the goddess to denote a wronged angry and vengeful woman is not only garish in its aesthetic taste but also seems like the revolutionary was lead more by personal revenge than wrath against the colonizers. Must say... it was Gowarikar's script tease! Perhaps he was under pressure by Bollywood culture, etc to 'conform' and depict any Indian woman as the weak, long suffering, forever sacrificing, 'sati-savitri bharatiya nari'... which actually is a result of the joint venture between vested interests and a horde of marauding conquerors who came in from the east and the west... in the last 800 years or so. This happened after the misunderstanding or misinterpretation (advertently or inadvertently) of Buddhism and its message of peace... weakened our spines. And we all know... that a weak spine cannot support a strong and righteous mind. The female revolutionaries of colonial Bengal pushed the envelope and actually broke several barriers sending this 'society created' carefully and painstakingly built up 'sati-savitri bharatiya nari' image flying out of the window. These 'society created' images, social evils, etc also masquerades under the pseudonym - 'our ancient culture and traditions' - which (mind you) we all must uphold at any cost. And which our ever-increasing legions of 'sons of the soil' vow to do... at regular intervals. This also includes 'women wearing jeans'... while men wearing jeans are conveniently excluded. 'Coz they are under no obligation to uphold 'our ancient culture and traditions' by switching to dhotis/mundu. After all... what's chilly powder for the goose is sauce nay ambrosial nectar for the gander! Plus... the 'ancient culture and traditions of India' began at the very moment Levy Strauss 'invented' the blue jeans in 1873. Wonder why the history of the revolutionaries (especially the female ones) hailing from colonial Bengal - the seat of British power - is unknown to the rest of India... and why only the name of Rani Lakshmibai... the fiery Queen of Jhansi is bandied about... ???

The film was initially to be shot in West Bengal as it is nearest to Bangladesh (Chittagong is now part of BD) but the esteemed director chose Goa as he felt Goa was more similar to Chittagong than any place in West Bengal...!!! Wonder where he learnt his geography. Akkebare bhugolete gol (difficult to translate... kinda means: total zero in geography).

'KHJJS' assumes its audience's familiarity with the general history of British rule in India. The camera pans over lush green landscape and pans up to make visible a military plane, cut to a scene in a ground with young barefoot lads playing a game of football in spotlessly clean white 'dhotis' (called 'dhutis'... in Bengali) and khadi 'kurtas' (called 'punjabis'... in Bengali. Yes... Bengalis wear punjabis!) The boys look up to see the same plane pass by. Their game is interrupted when an ominous looking truck enters the frame and the football hits it. The British troops tell the kids to buzz off, as they are going to set up camp there... thus usurping the play-ground from the bunch of teenagers. They decide to seek the help of Abhishek Bachchan oops 'Masterda' Surjo Sen, a known revolutionary (and a school teacher) in those parts and offer him a deal. They say to him - "aap desh le lijiye hume hamara maidaan de dijiye" (tr: you can pursue your nationalist cause and free us our play ground). So Abhishek recruits the football kids into a grand plan - to simultaneously attack the British armory, cantonment, telegraph office and European club, where Indians and dogs were not allowed.

The very same children, who wanted nothing more than their football ground to be returned to them, appalled by the repressive colonial rule and inspired by 'Masterda' and other revolutionaries later become valiant soldiers in the 'Chittagong uprising'. What is amiss is the representation of the transformation process, forming an unbridgeable void in the narrative.

... And all the while the dhotis remain miraculously spotless throughout the game... untouched by the grime of the play ground. This "historical" could have done with some dirt, a touch of daily reality of colonial India (or even colonial Bengal) and editing that does not just cut and paste the events together in a teleological narrative... but create conflict of perspectives as the events unfold. The claim of authenticity is made through the proclaimation - "This is a true story", which appears written onscreen before the film plunges into its narrative. It is accompanied by the non-diegetic sound of a canon shot in the background - the sound of battle sets the film rolling. Plus this close to three hour 'epic' is mostly narrated in a uniform tone and pitch.

The pathos of the drama is lost in its rather coarse handling - with the background score of "Vande Mataram" where the camera zooms into grim faces quite often and holds the close-up shot longer than required. The narrative style is flat, completely lacking nuances in either the characterization or the drawing of the background of colonial Bengal. The British officers are all flat characters-painted pitch black, their sole role is to inflict violence on the innocent teenagers and the other revolutionaries. In the simplistic scheme of things a noble muslim couple are introduced to nullify the damage caused by the muslim officer who ruthlessly slaughters the young revolutionaries. It reminds one of the mandatory presence of 'Karim Chacha' - with a heart of gold - like character... found in Bollywood potboilers of the 60's, 70's, 80's and 90's.

In 'KHJJS'... the dialogues are stilted and wordy... even preachy, the screenplay is needlessly repetitive and laborious, the music is average and the background score is poor (and to think they still had a music launch!) The production design is too neat and tidy, while all the clothes look recently stitched. There is no sweat or passion in the narration, which is told like a manual on freedom fighters. Gowarikar attempts an event film but the key elements of the genre, tension and crescendo are absent from his work. Totally.

What 'inspired' the casting for the main protagonists - Abhishek Bachchan as Biplobi Surjo Sen and Deepika Padukone as Kalpana Dutta... is the 8th wonder of the world. While some were doubting Abhishek's casting for Surjo Sen... Ashutosh had no qualms about signing him in, especially, after he saw Abhishek's ease at handling the traditional Bengali dress of 'dhuti'. While most of the modern day actors are very uncomfortable in handling a 'dhuti' (dhoti), Abhishek was deft at it and dealt with it like a pro; something that pleased the director. Therefore... the humble 'dhuti' is the culprit... and must be the reason behind the knowing beatific look that Abhishek carries... throughout the film! *Wink* The only positive that this "casting coup" achieved was... both AB junior and DP were able to look eye to eye!

However, Sikander Kher as Nirmal Sen and Maninder Singh as Anant Singh manage to create a few layers in the flat narrative by way of their performance of a psychological build up in their characters and don't assume that simply chanting "kranti amar rahe" (long live the revolution) with a fiery eyed look will pass them off as revolutionaries.

Ashutosh Gowarikar is married to a Bengali. His wife, Sunita, is the sister of Ayan Mukherjee of 'Wake Up Sid' fame... whose cousins are Kajol and Rani Mukherjee. While Abhishek's mother is Jaya Bachchan (née Bhaduri)... a Bengali. Having some Bengali connection... however obscure... is not enough to portray history and/or stories of our freedom struggle... set in Bengal... or more precisely colonial Bengal.

Finally... Gowarikar had this to say about his latest offering... supposedly based on Manini Chatterjee's book, "From the detailed accounts in the book I had to execute the script keeping the spirit intact and it was okayed by Manini." Gulp!

(More later...)

Note: Some info gathered courtesy wikipedia.

P.S. After "bringing alive" the exploits of 'Masterda' Surjo Sen (alternatively: Surjya Sen or Surya Sen) during the 'Chittagong Armoury Raid' of 1930s in 'Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey', Ashutosh Gowariker is thinking of turning the lens on a social reformer from Bengal. Though the venture is hypothetical as of now, Gowariker, reeled off the names on his wishlist like social reformer Raja Rammohan Roy, key figure of the Bengal Renaissance Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar and Kabiguru Rabindranath Thakur (Tagore). Apparently... he has read up on them. "I have been intrigued by these people. Who knows if I can make a film on any of these great men 10 years from now," Gowariker told PTI after a special screening of 'KHJJS'.

Asked what could be the reference point in the event of him making a film on 19th century or early 20th century personalities, Gowariker said, "When I work on any subject, my understanding and reading, my research work are my reference points."

God help us!

Ummm... on second thoughts... let me be more generous to him and say that his intention is good... but his understanding and execution aren't.


Pic courtesy link.


  1. well my gut feeling said not 2 watch d movie.. guess ws correct :P tho i did like his work in jodha akhbar , lagaan m swadesh.. HI but den again i aint no history expert to find d flaws ,, jodha was his bahu?? hahahahaha mast yar...

    hey byt the way some international bengali week going on kya :P... just kidding.. nice read like always...

    n hi i leanrd a new words SUCCINCTLY , al thnx to u :P :P.. had 2 look up wikipedia to knw wot u meant by using dat :P..

  2. I liked the movie. But it is slow sometimes in between.

    Nice review. :)

  3. "200-minute-long documentary on arranged marriage" - Absolutely bang on description of What's Your RAshee!!
    I haven't seen KHJJS, but I had guessed it would not do justice to the story! From what I had heard about the Chittagong Revolution, I knew for a fact that a pathetic actress like Deepika could never pull it off. Your review just helped prove the point! Nice review.
    And seriously? Shot in Goa? :o

  4. @ Sobhit: :D

    Lets hope 'Chittagong' starring Manoj Bajpai releasing next year will do justice...

    ... About the 'Jodhaa Akbar' bit... that was Gowarikar's own little 'theory of relativity'...!!

    And no there is no international bengali week going on anywhere. I'm just trying to highlight some of our unsung and forgotten heros... and highlight events from our own glorious history. Read paragraph 10 of this post to get the pic... to some extent, that is.

    History is very imp. For a nation and for the psyche of its people. Folks who are repeadedly told that they were conquered by outsiders and subjugated for centuries grow up with a different psyche/psychology compared to folks who learn that 'they' had ruled and 'civilized the world'.

    ... I wonder why we are strangers to our own glorious history. Wonder why the history of our country or the ‘extinct’ civilizations are usually written by folks… belonging to nations whose own history is but a few hundred years!

    And somehow… our history never goes beyond the British and the Mughals, with a smattering of French and Portuguese thrown in here and there. Probably the Dutch... for garnishing.

    The greatest of Emperors… Chandragupta Vikramaditya… whose kingdom extended from Bali to Turkministan (modern Bactria)... has been successfully reduced to ‘Vikram and Betal’ while the Emperor Ashok is hurriedly papered over… as someone who embraced Buddhism and ‘non-violence’. No word is ever written… that inspite of having ‘embraced non-violence’… no invader/conqueror could capture even an inch of the land he ruled...

    ... Despite enough proofs to the contrary... our great epics are dubbed as ‘mythology’. Wonder why though...

    Is it 'coz they do not propagate our 'ancient culture and traditions'. E.g.: jeans, ghunghat, that a woman's place is inside the house, widows should live a miserable life and in penury, sati-daha, women should not have the benefit of education... and so on and so forth... ???

    The misunderstanding or misinterpretation (advertently or inadvertently) of Buddhism and its message of peace... weakened our spines. And we all know... that a weak spine cannot support a strong and righteous mind.

  5. @ Chandrika Shubham: Thanks much... and welcome to my blog :)

    P.S. The movie is nothing but Gowarikar's script tease! Lets hope 'Chittagong' starring Manoj Bajpai releasing next year will do justice...

  6. @ Preeti: Bang on!

    The movie is nothing but Gowarikar's script tease! Lets hope 'Chittagong' starring Manoj Bajpai releasing next year will do justice...

    P.S. Please refer to my response above to Sobhit... to get what I mean... when I say that history is very important and should not be tampered with... and that 'creative license' is no excuse for shoddy work...

  7. DUDE!!!! i mean seriously DUDE.. ahh now u'ill say western influence :P.. well guess u got offended by my comnnt kya? ya senti ho gaye aap zyada hi.. theek hai yar.. i totally agree 2 wot ur sayin... but am of d belief... past is gone.. yes we shud embrace it.. but look forward to d future.. having said dat am not asking 4 no debate or argument wid u.. for i stnad no ground in dat :P... my fact n knwldge is dat of a 5 yr old.. (hope d 5yr olds take no offense :P).. but u sure have ur potli full of fact n figures it seems.. n d bengali week ws jst for fun.. aise hi keh diya.. bura kyun mann gaye yar.. THAND.. :P ... aap toh gyan ka bhandar ho.. dats y like raeding ur roshmipedia here ... for otherwise am one f dos who wil never google our glorious history... for we are too tired njying d independence n country dat we hv rite now.. tho its nice to know all des facrs.. but to be honest none it it affects in our daily lives , n i talk of my own self here.. hope u dnt mind... :P

    so keep on sharing d knwlgde.. as for d british raj n all.. i somehow say it hapnd 4d gud f d country... else like d poor interiors n villages which r at d dispossal f few politicians.. d whole country wud hv been like dat... for d internal issues f our country.. kabhi online miloge toh aram se debate karenge :P i mite not hv my facts n figures.. but den again.. will gv it a try :P :P

  8. @ Sobhit: The British Raj was not good... and so were the influence of the other marauding conquerors - arabs, pathans, mughals, etc. Infact... the latter were even worse.

    India was a much bigger nation before that... and much advanced. But the misunderstanding or misinterpretation (advertently or inadvertently) of Buddhism and its message of peace... broke our back. And we have never recovered...

    History is never 'past'. When we celebrate new year... is it really a new year?? Or is it history carried forward?? History is always work-in-progress.

    It is not for nothing that both yesterday (past) and tomorrow (future) are referred as 'kal'. And 'kal', 'aaj' aur 'kal' are strung together. It is important to know and understand our 'kal' to have a better 'aaj' and 'kal'...

    P.S. And no... I was not offended by your comment. Why should I be? I was only trying to put forth my views...

  9. buddhism n peace broke our back?? interesting.. what exactly is d history ur talking abt behind dis?? wud like 2 knw... as 4 being offended.. putting point forth is onw thing... u seem 2hv went all guns blazing :P.. so jst thot.. maybe dats ur way f putting forth.. maybe my facts r wrong.. well dey r none in d 1st place.. but i still blv d ammagamation f n influence f british raj sure hurt d country but it had its up sides as well...but dats only my personal view..

  10. @ Sobhit: I re-read my earlier response... and did not find anything offensive there :)

    ... I was only trying to put forth my views... as best as I can. Not coming out... all guns blazing :D

    I have said earlier: "The misunderstanding or misinterpretation (advertently or inadvertently) of Buddhism and its message of peace... weakened our spines. And we all know... that a weak spine cannot support a strong and righteous mind."

    Buddhism and peace did not break our backs.

    It was the "misunderstanding or misinterpretation (advertently or inadvertently) of Buddhism and its message of peace... that broke our back. And we have never recovered."

    Here's how...

    Buddha appeared... to put back some compassion into Hinduism... which was never envisaged as a 'religion' as we understand today. It was an accumulation of the wisdom of the ancients over the ages. This faith was a 'way of life' and the stress was on 'dharm'... meaning 'the path of righteousness and doing one's duty no matter what obstacles appear'. Today 'dharm' has become 'dharma' and means 'religion'.

    Buddha's teachings were misunderstood and/or misinterpreted (advertently or inadvertently)... resulting in a large number of able bodied, intelligent and thinking individuals renouncing the world... over a period of time... over many years/decades.

    They did not get married and/or renounced family life. Their lineage died with them. Not only that... a large amount of knowledge/crafts/thoughts died with them... permanently.

    People who 'renounced the world' are usually folks coming from an educated background... people who are knowledgeable, right thinking. Largely, that is.

    Folks belonging to the strata of society... who are less educated/knowledgeable, with a different kind of thinking and 'way of life'... rarely 'renounce the world'.

    The result was that able bodied, educated and right thinking people (men, that is) were in short supply. Whether for the army, administrative functions, as teachers, priests.... etc. Even for the purpose of marriage. 'Lesser' men were available in large numbers... and they filled in the gap.

    'Lesser' thinking and 'way of life' creeped in. Military might crumbled. Their progeny continued the trend... and the rot went deeper and deeper... both for society and for this faith. A slew of marauding conquerors that came in from the east and the west lit the pyres even more brightly... hand-in-glove with vested interests.

    ... A weak spine cannot support a strong and righteous mind.

    P.S. 'Buddhism'... today has become a different religion. It was not meant to be so. Ditto Jainism and Sikhism. The purpose of the Sikh gurus was to put the spine back into Hinduism. This group came up to protect this great land, its people and this faith from the rampaging muslim invaders.

    P.P.S. About the British Raj... we will continue to agree to disagree :)

  11. ok.. i'll again go PHEW... too much info to handle for me yar... like i said aap likhte raho.. i'll try to cope up :P.. as 2 agree n disagree.. dats d best part f dis ;p... n religion n power is somthng i find synomous .. tho it shudnt be dis way... i guess d mis interpretations n wrong conception r only for ppl seek power by renouncung demsleves more pure by some faith or other... tho by d end of d day its all abt power hussle n d real meaing.. lets me say dharm is lost... again my perception.. widout any facts tho :P...

  12. @ Sobhit: Yes... 'dharm' as it was meant to be is lost... or perhaps only a smattering remains. Thats why this is called 'kali yug'...