‘Chittagong’: ordinary people, extraordinary courage

chittagong My column ‘Personal Political’  in The News, Pakistan last week, also for monthly Hard News, India 

“Chitta-kya?” A masterly tribute to Master-Da

By Beena Sarwar         

I want to thank the Indian scientist-turned-filmmaker Bedabrata Pain for his powerful feature film about the 1930 uprising against the British in Chittagong in the part of Bengal that is now Bangladesh.

Beautifully shot and filmed, with stellar acting by a largely amateur cast, and music by Shankar Ehsan Loy, “Chittagong” (2012) has a gripping, non-linear narrative (with nary an item number). Unlike most accounts of the time, Pain’s film does not end with the 1934 execution of Surya Sen (“Master-da”) the schoolteacher who planned the daring raid on Chittagong armory with an army of mostly schoolboys. Their Indian Revolutionary Army (IRA) took over the town for a day as the British fled.

Dr Bedabrata Pain at MIT, Nov 9, 2013: Scientist turned filmmaker

Dr Bedabrata Pain at MIT, Nov 9, 2013: Scientist turned filmmaker

The film ends with peasants’ rebellion, the Tebagha Movement of 1945. “Master-da’s movement became the main force behind it,” said Pain, speaking to a full house after a screening at MIT recently.

Scrolling text at the end lists the political careers of the surviving schoolboys of the IRA. Many went on to become leaders and parliamentarians, including several with the Communist Party. “I wanted to show the continuity of movements”.

One of the questions in Amitabh Bacchan’s Kaun Baney Ga Crorepati some years ago was about the 1930 uprising, recalls Pain. The participant used his ‘lifeline’ to call for help. Flummoxed by the answer, he burst out, “Chitta… kya?” (Chitta… what?).

“I wanted to make sure no one would ever again ask ‘Chitta… kya?’” says Pain, adding that even a historian friend of his at Delhi University had never heard of the Chittagong uprising. He himself, like many others in Bengal, grew up hearing tales about Master-da and his heroic rebellion.

MIT’s Dr Subrata Ghoshroy, introducing the screening (which poignantly began with a minute’s silence in tribute to the late Pakistani singer Reshma), also recalls his grandmother talking about “this act of incredible daring against the British”.

In discussion afterwards, many Bengalis spoke with pride about relatives – grandfather, father, mother, uncle, aunt – who had been involved, either openly or covertly in helping the rebels.

“This happens at every screening,” said Pain. Bengalis from across the divide, Muslims and Hindus, keep adding layers and details to his narrative.

“Chittagong” revolves around the youngest IRA revolutionary Subodh Roy (“Jhunku”), 13-years old at that time. Roy was 90 years old and in hospital when Pain interviewed him in 2006 – the film includes a short clip of the interview at the end. Roy died two weeks later.

Paid said that much of the film’s fascinating details come from interviews with Binod Bihari Chowdhury, who passed away last year. “He was 99 years old when I met him in Bangladesh, and on a hunger strike against the proposed demolition of the school where Pritilata had been headmistress”.

One of the heroines of the Chittagong rebellion, Pritilata Waddedar is a main character in Pain’s film. Probably the first female martyr of this uprising against the British (the Rani of Jhansi being an earlier one), she swallowed cyanide rather than be captured by the British after being wounded in the audacious attack she led on the European Club.

At the MIT screening: A prolonged and well-deserved standing ovation

At the MIT screening: A prolonged and well-deserved standing ovation

In the film, the attack aims to target and kill (successfully) two particularly brutal members of the British colonial forces – the Englishman Major Johnson, and the Indian Ahsanullah, a CID officer whom the British brought in to rupture the Hindu-Muslim unity that allowed Surya Sen to elude capture. In one of the most poignant scenes (based on Roy’s own experience, related to Pain), an old Muslim shopkeeper provides free food to IRA members, saying it’s the least he can do.

It speaks for Hindu-Muslim relations that Muslim villagers sheltered Sen and his companions at the risk of their own lives for years. It was his own relative Netra Sen who betrayed him (the revolutionaries killed him for his treachery before he could collect the reward money).

“The British beat Sen so severely that he may not even have been alive when hanged,” says Pain. His film shows Sen walking calmly to the gallows.  “That is how Jhunku remembers him after returning from prison in the Andaman Islands.”

At a special screening in Mumbai: Dr Prannoy Roy, Jaya Bachchan, Amitabh Bachchan with Bedabrata Pain. Rediff photo

At a special screening in Mumbai: Dr Prannoy Roy, Jaya Bachchan, Amitabh Bachchan with Bedabrata Pain. Rediff photo

At age 14, Jhunku was the youngest prisoner to be sent to that notorious British penal colony.

Pain’s nuanced account of the Chittagong uprising is a must see for anyone interested in the history of the region, that continues to resonate with the present and the future.

Postscript: The Bollywood film about the Chittagong uprising, starring Abhishek Bachchan, one hears, bombed at the box office. One also hears it was not nearly as good as Pain’s, the completion of which was delayed until after the Bollywood release (although he had started work on his film much earlier), due to a main financial backer pulling out. No comment.

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