Fascination with Historical Bengali Episode Develops into a Poignant Movie, True to Life

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At the Houston screening of the movie “Chittagong”, local organizers Partha Chatterjee (left) and Raja Banga (right) with supporter Sanchali Basu with the movie’s director Bedabrata Pain (second from right). Photos: Jawahar Malhotra

By Jawahar Malhotra

KATY: Even among Indians in the Old Country, there is no widespread knowledge of the events of the 1930s that accelerated the unraveling of the British Colonial rule in the eastern part of the country and ultimately led to its retreat and the sad and damaging partition of Bengal that followed just 15 years later.

“But for the average Bengali school kid, this is a most revered and well known part of pre-Independent Indian history”, said Bedabrata Pain, who was in town this past weekend to attend the screening of his movie, “Chittagong” to a select audience. For them, the story of Masterda Surya Sen and his group of revolutionaries who fought to get the British out of the port city of Chittagong is steeped in nationalistic fervor and pride. “But, this is not a documentary”, Pain is quick to point out, “rather a flight of my imagination, fed by some years of research into the Chittagong Uprising of 1930”.

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The capacity crowd of 250 lined up at the Katy Mills AMC 20 last Saturday, November 8 for the movie’s only screening in the Metroplex.

And, he also admits, a stroke of luck that brought him face-to-face with one of the chief protagonists in the movie, Subodh “Jhanku” Roy who was a 14 year-old recruit into the Indian Republican Army, Chittagong Branch. As word got around in Kolkata that Pain was interested in making a movie about the event, an acquaintance told him about an old man who was lying on his deathbed in the P.G. Hospital. Pain hurried to his bedside and was able to meet the 91 year-old Jhanku and get his life story and video tape a few moments with him. “The movie is told through the eyes of the 14 year-old Jhanku, and not that of the leader, and so is more exciting. Most movies of leaders end in failure”, he added, “but not this one”. Jhanku died two weeks after telling his tale.

Pain was also lucky enough to meet Jhanku’s younger brother Subas Roy who gave him most of the details, and also met the last man of the revolutionary boys squad, Behari Chaudhury, who was 99 then and died at 103. As the movie ends, video clips of the elderly Jhanku and Chaudhury and other characters in the film roll by with captions about what they subsequently became and achieved, which added to the audience’s acceptance of the authenticity and accuracy of the movie.

The low-budget movie was presented by the Tagore Society of Houston and was screened on Saturday, November 8 at 2 pm at the AMC Katy Mills 20. The 250 capacity audience got a chance to mingle with the director Bedabrata Pain prior to the screening and then immediately afterwards for a question and answer session at which he described how he got interested in the subject and the making of the movie.

An award-winning NASA scientist, an inductee to the US Space Technology Hall of Fame and an inventor of the digital camera technologies and holder of 87 patents, Dr. Bedabrata Pain quit NASA after 16 years to follow his passion film-making. “I had no movie making experience and this was my first time on a set”, quipped Pain with a chuckle before the screening. “In fact, the waterboy had more time on a set than I did”! He wrote the story, then hired someone to make the screenplay and started scouting around in Bengal for a location.

“I got the film fully funded and was ready to start when I discovered that someone else had copied my idea and made the Bollywood movie Khelein Hum Jee Jahan Se (in 2010 by the producer Ashutosh Gowariker, based on Manini Chatterjee’s book Do or Die) so I shelved it”. He turned, instead, to the royalties from his patents to invest $800,000 of his own money into making the film and started again. “Most of the actors took really low payments and even the musical team of Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy took next to nothing”, Pain recalled.

After 42 days of shooting in Lataguri (at the foothills of the Himalayas) to recall the hills of Jalalabad (on the outskirts of Chittagong, the scene of the real-life 1932 siege of the revolutionaries), the movie was edited in Los Angeles. Pain wanted the movie to play across many audiences, so he made the movie in the more widely understood Hindi, with English subtitles, and had the well-known script writer Piyush Mishra translate the dialogues from English into Hindi. He then chose an American, Eric Zimmerman, to be in charge of cinematography and editing. “I wanted a different perspective on the filming and how the material flowed”, Pain said. “Indian movies still have a lot to learn about screenplay, photography and editing”. He then turned to Anurag Khesap to fund the publicity campaign and got Mountain River Films to handle distribution in the US.

The result is the 1 hour 45 minute movie that engrosses you from the first scene and then captivates you till the end. Filmed in sepia-toned colors that evoke movies of a bygone era, Pain and Zimmerman have used simple, ordinary surroundings to unfold the events that led to the Uprising and have created this award-winning film.

Chittagong is an uplifting action-drama of an improbable triumph, told through the life of the reluctant hero, a teenager Jhanku (Delzad Hiwale in his debut role). This Indian historical war drama film stars Manoj Bajpai in the lead role of Masterda Surya Sen and is based upon actual events of British India’s Chittagong Uprising. The cast includes three national-award winning actors Nawazuddin Siddique (as Nirmal Sen), Rajkumar Rao (Loknath Bal) and Vega Tamotia (Pritilata Waddedar). The film features music by trio Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, lyrics by Prasoon Joshi, sound by Oscar winner Resul Pookutty and cinematography by Eric Zimmerman.

This film was released in India in October 2012, with many Bollywood actors like Shah Rukh Khan at the premiere. It is the winner of Golden Lotus in the Indian National Award, 2013, winner of several international film festivals including Florence Film Festival 2012, Sedona International Film Festival 2013, Jaipur International Film Festival 2014 (best film, best screenplay) and Washington DC Film Festival 2014 (best film, best director).

The film has had limited release so far in the US, with screenings in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco and now Houston. Pain plans to have screenings in San Diego, Chicago and Atlanta soon and was already besieged by people who had heard about the Houston screening at the IIT picnic (see page 06) for more shows in Houston. A fellow IITan, the Los Angeles based Pain was delighted at the appeal to various cross-sections of the Indian diaspora and vowed he’d be back in the Bayou City for more shows.