Bedabrata Pain’s debut film Chittagong tells the story of the 1930 uprising involving a group of teenagers in the East Bengal (now Bangladesh) city who teamed up to fight the British empire. Chittagong is unlike other period films made on India’s Independence struggle. It doesn’t have any over-the-top performances, it doesn’t shout patriotism from the rooftops and doesn’t even show the dark side of the British Raj. In fact, it tries to portray the humane side of the British.
Chittagong is a story told through the eyes of 14-year-old Jhunku (played by Delzad Hiwale), a teenager who doesn’t understand why revolutionaries can’t live a simple life but later becomes an integral part of the Chittagong uprising. Pain has a talented cast which includes Manoj Bajpayee (Surjo Sen or Masterda), Nawazuddin Siddiqui (Nirmal Sen) and Jaideep Ahlawat (Anant Ghosh) at his disposal. It’s like a reunion of the mean characters of Gangs of Wasseypur.
While Pain tells the story in a simple, honest and earnest manner, the problem is the script which at times is too simplistic. The film unravels and tells you how Masterda forms an army of teenagers to fight the British in Chittagong — it all happens too matter-of-factly. The Chittagong uprising is a story of great courage but in the film, it all feels very restrained. You don’t feel the passion in the eyes of either the revolutionaries or the young children who blindly support Masterda.
Bajpayee is surprisingly restrained and, despite his best efforts, doesn’t seem to be a man who can inspire the band of boys. Siddiqui delivers another good performance after his brilliant performance in GoW but doesn’t have too much screen time. In the scene where he awkwardly tries to express his romantic feelings towards another martyr, Pritilata Waddekar, he proves that even in a small role he can leave an impact.
The star of the movie, however, is Hiwale who delivers a powerful performance as Jhunku. From someone who learns piano at the British magistrate’s house to a hardcore revolutionary, Hiwale’s Jhunku literally comes of age in the film. As a director, Pain has taken a mellower approach to a subject which has conventionally been portrayed with loud and in-your-face patriotism. In Chittagong, officers of the British Raj aren’t always menacing. Barry John, who essays the role of Magistrate Wilkinson, is shown to be considerate towards the freedom fighters.
While it is set in the 1930s, Chittagong doesn’t look like a period film. Period films in general try too hard to recreate the look and feel of the era; Pain doesn’t take that approach and focuses on the story. There’s no drama or outpouring of emotions throughout the film. Clearly, Pain is a director who wanted to tell the story on his own terms. Unlike Ashutosh Gowariker’s Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey(2010), Chittagong isn’t based on Manini Chatterjee’s book on the same subject. Pain doesn’t give his characters too much of a Bengali flavour either — they could be from anywhere in India.
For a debut film on a difficult subject, Chittagong is certainly a commendable film and breaks the stereotype of how period films on the Independence struggle are made. Is it a must-watch? Certainly, if you don’t know much about the Chittagong uprising. Though restrained and at times a bit flat, the film tells a story that should go out to the audience and Pain tells it in an unusual but effective manner.