Director: Bedabrata Pain
Cast: Manoj Bajpai, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Rajkumar Yadav, Vega Tamotia, Delzad Hilwale
Running time: 105 minutes
How many of us are aware of the part played by Surjya Sen in the freedom struggle? How many of us know of Nirmal Sen or Loknath Bal? How many of us have even heard of Ganesh Ghosh, Anant Singh or Pritilata Wadeddar?
The Chittagong Uprising of the 1930s and the story of a patriotic teacher Surjya Sen — known as the legendary Masterda — and the band of passionate teenaged revolutionaries he galvanised to take on the British over a period of four years is a slice of history that has rarely made it to the mainstream. Lost somewhere in the Bhagat Singh biopics and the films eager to tell and retell the role of Netaji in the freedom struggle.
So, it is to the credit of NASA scientist Bedabrata Pain that he delves into history and honestly tells the story of Surjya Sen and his men, a fight for freedom that was spurred more by strength of mind than the power of machine guns.
Chittagong begins in 1929, a time when India, oppressed by British rule, was struggling to break free. In the year when Jawaharlal Nehru passed a resolution in the Congress demanding independence within a year and Mother Teresa arrived to work for the poor in Calcutta, a young schoolteacher and his band of loyalists were preparing to strike at the British in a series of protracted but planned attacks, with children between the ages of 12 and 14 leading the charge.
Told from the confused and often scared eyes of a teenager Jhunku Roy (Delzad Hiwale), the one-line plot of Chittagong is enough to hold attention. Surjya Sen (Manoj Bajpai) trains his students to take up guns and plans attacks on five British bastions in Chittagong in a single night. Their intention to strike is further fuelled by the cold-blooded murder of comrade Sukhendu (Shaheb Bhattacherjee in a cameo). Surjya Sen entrusts loyalists Nirmal (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), Loknath (Rajkumar Yadav), Pritilata (Vega Tamotia) and Anant (Jaideep Ahlawat) with the task of leading the charge as they break into the local police station, hit the telephone exchange, tamper with the train tracks and storm the European Club.
The British, taken by surprise, are unable to fight back, thus marking one night in which a small corner of Bengal was free from colonial rule, 18 years before India finally walked into the dawn of freedom.
Chittagong, Pain’s passion project, is all heart. Unlike Ashutosh Gowariker’s Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey, which told the same story with Abhishek Bachchan in the role of Surjya Sen, Pain keeps it simple, giving us a film that is less melodramatic and at one hour and forty five minutes, far tighter. The passion shines through enough for one to ignore the frequent lapses in the detailing of history — most significantly, the modern haircuts that some of its protagonists sport.
Chittagong predominantly works because it gets its casting spot-on, with each actor slipping into his character like second skin. Surjya Sen’s role may have been more behind-the-scenes, but Manoj Bajpai infuses the role with a rare dignity and grace. Among his comrades, his Wasseypur co-star Nawazuddin Siddiqui is a stand-out, the Kahaani man showing us with every film what Indian cinema has missed by ignoring him for a decade. A special mention goes out to Vega Tamotia who displays some real spark while Delzad Hiwale is the find of the film with eyes that speak with pain, perplexity and passion.
Another winner is Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s music that brings alive Prasoon Joshi’s lyrics while Eric Zimmerman’s brilliant camera-work tells a story of its own, skilfully exploring the length and breadth of the Lataguri landscape.
Pain, who was present at the special screening of his debut at Priya cinema on a rainy Friday evening, implored the audience to help give Surjya Sen his due: “Surjya Sen is a forgotten hero who deserves more.”
Yes, much more than just a Metro stop to his name.