Film theorist, Andre Bazin, in his essay, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” notes that if cinema was ‘put under psychoanalysis, the practice of embalming the dead might turn out to be a fundamental factor in [its] creation’. Cinema’s preoccupation with history, the spirit and achievements of a particular age, its heroes and its villains, the glory and shame are never a pointer simply to an era gone by but also to a continuum that the filmmakers wish to evoke between the past and the present. The historical film in Hindi cinema has been a genre devoid of imagination for it seems that the only times in the country’s past that seem to get evoked time and again are- the vibrancy of the Mughal era, the heroic freedom struggle and the holocaust of the partition of the Indian subcontinent. Ashutosh Gowariker 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).
Ashutosh Gowariker makes his grand return to the genre of the Historical after his brief stint at a potboiler called What’s Your Raashee that managed to boil one thing for sure- your blood. Watching Priyanka Chopra cast in 12 excruciatingly painful roles in one film, one wondered why Gowariker was playing such a pathetic joke on his audience. Hoping to obliterate the memory of his previous film, Gowariker tries to find recourse in his tried and tested formula of the patriotic History film. He turns to a marginalized chapter of the Indian freedom struggle, the Chittagong uprising, to valorize “individuals… at the center of the historical process—…worth studying as exemplars of lives, actions, and individual value systems…”(Robert Rosenstone, Lights, Camera, History: Portraying the Past in Film). Gowariker’s Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey is noble in its intent for it breaks away from the tradition of adding yet one more song sung for heroes like Gandhi, Subhas Chandra Bose, Bhagat or Mangal Singh. He wishes to explore, through the teenage revolutionaries who are at the center of his film, the spirit of a battle against injustice. Lamentably, good intentions don’t necessarily guarantee a good product. Thus Gowariker’s latest is at best a moral tale and at worst a sketchy history lesson.
An adaptation of Manini Chatterjee’s book Do and Die (1999), set in 1930s colonial Bengal, the film 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 and khadi kurtas. They look up to see the same plane pass by. Their game is interrupted when an ominous looking police truck enters the frame and the football hits the truck. These introductory few minutes of the film, if viewed in isolation of the film, aptly set up the mise en scene in earthy tones that evoke a sense of viewing the past. The plane and the truck seize and appropriate free open spaces- symbolic of the larger workings of colonial powers. However, the opening few minutes are misleading because the rest of the film is devoid of the subtlety that the former possess. The close to three hour event film is mostly narrated in a uniform tone and pitch. Gowariker attempts an event film but the key elements of the genre, tension and crescendo are absent from his work. He gets the costume, the architecture, the hues right but makes them too pristine and fault free to be convincing like the spotless white dhotis of the teenagers playing football in the field, untouched by the grime of the play ground. The historical could have done with some dirt, a touch of daily reality of colonial India and editing that does not just paste the events together in a teleological narrative but create conflict of perspectives as the events unfold.
The claim of authenticity is made through— “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. The narrative starts with the British usurping the play-ground from a bunch of teenagers. They decide to go to seek the help of Surjyo Sen (Abhishek Bachchan), a known revolutionary in those parts and offer him a deal. They say to him— “aap desh le lijiye hume hamara maidaan de dijiye” (you can pursue your nationalist cause and free us our play ground). 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 Surjyo Sen and other revolutionaries later become valiant soldiers in the Chittagong uprising. What is amiss is the representation of the transformation process, forming a void in the narrative. Khelein…is reminiscent of Rang De Basanti (Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, 2006) in its address to the youth both within the diegetic frame work (Surjyo Sen, who is also a school teacher, inspires his students and the youngsters who are willing to enter his militant group) and outside it, to its audience (in terms of a value system and the patriotic fervor of the heroes of the film an idol to be emulated). However, the parallel stops there.
The numerous frontal shots, tableau like positioning of crowds and almost hyperbolic performances by some actors makes one wonder if Gowarikar was attempting an Expressionistic mode. The pathos of the drama is lost in its rather coarse handling— with the background score of “vande mataram” the camera zooms into grim faces quite often and holds the close up shot longer than required. At the start of a sequence where Pritilala (Vishakha Singh) goes on a crusade of bloody revenge on the British for her lover’s death, there is a scene of her in a dark room with her shadowy but emblazoned face and the picture of Durga in the background visible. Gowarikar’s use of the stereotypical, formulaic evocation in Hindi cinema of the Hindu 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.
In a particular training sequence if one mutes the background score of drumbeats, the long shot of the revolutionaries running on a beach towards the camera in slow motion is akin to an advertisement for a holiday in Goa (where the film was shot). The scene in which the escaped revolutionaries, with the British soldiers on their trail, mourn the loss of their fellow rebels, uses hackneyed elements of the genre of melodrama- a high pitched melody plays on the sitar as background score as the camera zooms into individual dejected, crying faces while the rest form a sort of still tableau image in the background of despondent, injured and grieving bodies. In its use of untactful camera work and stereotypical background score, the scene fails to evoke the sympathy it should and falls flat on its face.
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. There is no introspection within the militant group that gathers up impressionable teenagers to be made foot soldiers of a battle that kills most of them. 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. The numerous meetings, the chase and repetitive battle sequences and the prosaic dialogues are unable to stir the audience’s minds. Deepika Padukone’s Bengali accent is flawed and awkward. Her performance of the role of the fiery revolutionary and bomb expert, Kalpana Dutta, is uninspired and bland. Abhishek Bachchan hasn’t performed any feat worth a mention. 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.
The promotional posters of the film declaim, “Revolution begins December 3”. Gowariker is not simply pointing out the values of the dead revolutionaries but seems to sincerely hope his film triggers off a revolution. He is far from even starting a revolution in cinema, leave alone society. Simply sentimentalizing about the nation does not stir up critical thinking about a country whose democratic ideals have collapsed and which is neck deep in corruption. Those who still remember the riveting quality of Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan will be disappointed with the insipid nature of Khelien Hum Je Jaan Sey.
Director: Ashutosh Gowariker
Writers: Javed Akhtar (lyrics), Ashutosh Gowariker (screenplay)
Cast: Abhishek Bachchan, Deepika Padukone, Sikander Kher, Maninder Singh