It’s rare for a work of historical research to form the basis of a mass market movie. But that happened recently in India, where a study of the Chittagong Uprising of the 1930s led to a star studded Bollywood film. Madhu Singh – associate professor at the University of Lucknow in northern India – explores the anti-colonial episode which Bollywood has brought back into the spotlight:

In December 2010, a big budget Bollywood film Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Se [We Play with Our Lives] starring popular romantic actors Abhishek Bachchan and Deepika Padukone opened in cinemas all over India. While its success at the box office was modest, it had one notable achievement – reviving the story of one of the most serious but lesser known episodes of colonial history, the Chittagong Uprising (1930-34).

image of the do and die front cover
Do and Die Front Cover

Directed by Ashutosh Gowariker, the film was based on Manini Chatterjee’s book Do and Die: The Chittagong Uprising 1930-34 (New Delhi: 1999) – a remarkable case of Bollywood turning to a well researched work of history for its subject matter. It recreated the exploits of a school teacher turned rebel leader Surjya Sen and his band of armed revolutionaries fighting the British Empire. And so, after eighty long years of amnesia, the icons of the Uprising – Surjya Sen and his fiery recruits – stepped out of the dusty pages of history onto the silver screen.

History Recreated /Reclaimed

Popular Hindi cinema, ‘the dominant cultural institution and product in India’, has often provided rich and fascinating accounts of social history and cultural politics within the topography of postcolonial culture. As national cinema that transcends boundaries of language and region, it has ‘produc(ed) new representations of the nation and construct(ed) a collective consciousness of nationhood through special cultural referents’ (quoted in Virdi 2007: 7). Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Se, a tribute to the freedom fighters, is an important landmark in film history – it has re-imagined and re-figured India’s colonial history by documenting the revolutionaries’ attempt to ‘write back to the Empire’. Secondly, it has privileged (and not subsumed) the ‘little known’ / ‘unofficial’ history over the mainstream nationalist discourse of anticolonial struggle. And, lastly, it has restored the ‘elusive’ and unknown patriots, who have been almost forgotten by the post-Independence historiography, to national consciousness.

film poster for the film khelein hum jee sey
Theatrical release poster for the film Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey. The copyrights of this image belongs to the producers of the film in question, Ajay Bijli, Sanjeev Bijli (PVR Pictures) & Sunita A. Gowariker (AGPPL).

Set in 1930s colonial Bengal, the film opens with a close shot of the British police usurping a playground from a group of teenagers to set up their camp. ‘The camera pans over lush green landscape of the countryside where a group of young barefoot boys are playing a game of football and then it pans up to focus on a military plane soaring in the sky. The game is interrupted by an ominous looking police truck entering the frame and the football hits the truck’ (Kaul 2010). The imperial design ‘to capture and appropriate free open spaces- symbolic of the larger workings of colonial powers” is at work.

Dismayed by the loss of their playground, the youngsters meet Surjya Sen – their first encounter with the well known revolutionary- and ask him to get their playground restored to them. Later, inspired by their ‘Master Da’, these youngsters, who had only wanted their football ground to be returned to them, became the co-architects of the Chittagong uprising.

The initial slow pace of the film gives way to action scenes in the second half which recreate the key stages of the Uprising: the armoury raids, the massacre at Jalalabad Hills, the capture and killing of Surjya Sen. Though the film ends on a sad note with the defeat of the revolutionaries, it powerfully establishes the legitimate right of the masses in every oppressed country to resist imperialist occupation.

Often criticized for showing little regard for authenticity or realism, popular Hindi cinema is not always about ‘hackneyed plots, unchanging themes and trite messages’ as this film shows. In an interview, the director, Ashutosh Gowariker, admitted that as the film was based on a well researched work, it was a challenge to re-create the era. The choice of locale was important. Chattagram, now in Bangladesh (and better known by the Anglicised name of Chittagong), had changed a lot since the 1930s with ‘little of the past preserved’ (Chatterjee 1999). So, to replicate the period look of rural Bengal , Gowariker shot the film almost entirely in the countryside of Goa with its palm fringed seacoast and green paddy fields. He and his art director, Nitin Chandrakant Desai, also worked on a lot of period detailing – colonial style bungalows and buildings, costumes, vintage cars, arms and ammunition of the British period and other relics of the British Raj such as the .303 rifles, square-edge badminton rackets and picturesque calendars to keep the historical accuracy intact. When the film was, finally, screened in cinemas across India, the footfalls of the ‘Chittagong uprising’ once again echoed in national consciousness, reminding us of the heady days of patriotism.

Chittagong Armoury Raid or Uprising?

The revolutionary episode which prompted Manini Chatterjee book, and so Ashutosh’s Gowariker’s film, is a remarkable story. On the night of 18th April 1930, a gang of young armed insurgents attacked the armouries of the police and the auxiliary force in the small, sleepy port town of Chattagram/Chittagong. Their plan was to lay siege to the European Club and to hold the town, free from British control, for a week by destroying the railway and telegraph lines. The Government would then call the army and they would fight to the finish. Spearheaded by Surjya Sen, popularly known as ‘Master Da’, and his five committed comrades-in-arms all from the Jugantar party, the revolutionaries proclaimed themselves to be “The Chattagram Branch of Indian National Army”. All the important British outposts were attacked and set aflame. Chattagram was cut off from the outside world for a while. An unprepared administration, led by the District Magistrate and a few British officials, tried to salvage the situation by firing on the revolutionaries but had to beat a hasty retreat after a fierce counter attack.

map indicating the location of chittagong in the 1930's
Chittagong in 1930's

After the raids, the revolutionary group gathered outside the police armoury where Surjya Sen took a military salute, hoisted the National Flag and proclaimed a Provisional Revolutionary Government amid cries of Bande mataram [Hail Motherland] and Inquilab zindabad [Long Live the Revolution]. Though the liberation of Chattagram lasted only a few hours, it set out to prove that the British were not invincible and to provide a revolutionary example for the country to follow.

The revolutionaries left Chattagram town before dawn with a large quantity of arms and ammunition and marched towards the nearby Jalalabad hills, seeking shelter in its forests. On the fourth day, 22nd April 1930, British army battalions surrounded the spot where they were hiding. There ensued a hugely unequal battle. The young rebels, mostly teenagers, fought desperately with only police muskets to hand against well-trained troops with superior weapons. Attacks and counter attacks followed with casualties on both sides – the British army had not suffered losses on such a scale for many years.

The survivors later split into smaller groups and spread out to nearby villages in search of refuge. In time, this ‘failed insurrection was transformed into a successful insurgency’ in Bengal. Chattogram, once a remote rural area ‘too sparsely populated to merit the attention of the British’, became ‘a hot bed of anti –British activity’ and came to acquire mythical proportions in Bengali nationalist lore.

The gallows in Chittagong Central Jail, Bangladesh, where Surjya Sen was hanged. The Government of Bangladesh designated it as a monument.

A massive government crackdown followed. Many rebels and sympathizers were detained, tortured and hanged. Eventually on 17th February 1933, following a tip off, Surjya Sen was arrested from his hideout near Chattagram. The British administration had put an award of ten thousand rupees – a huge sum then – on his head. Surjya Sen was charged with treason and sentenced to death. Due to well founded fears of mass revolt, the time of his execution was kept a closely guarded secret. Contrary to the customary practice of execution taking place early in the morning, the administration hanged ‘Master Da’ at midnight of January 12th 1934 and his body was disposed off in the Bay of Bengal.

an image of master da
Master Da

Despite successful repression of the Uprising, the imperial powers had to admit that the ‘Chittagong outbreak was the most striking demonstration that the Bengal revolutionary organization has ever given of its organization and audacity’ and had ‘no parallel in Bengal since the Mutiny of 1857.’ (quoted in Chatterjee 1999)

Why Chittagong?

The 1930s was a period of great radicalisation in India with little ideological consensus within the nationalist movement. A ‘disaffection with Gandhism’ was gradually building up and the activists amongst the intelligentsia began to see ‘the need of a forthright approach’and ‘consequently began to question the viability and effectiveness of Gandhi’s strategey’ of ‘constantly igniting and reining in of mass protest’ (Ahmad 2009). For these nationalists disillusioned by the Gandhian policy of appeasement especially during the Civil Disobedience movement, Irish resistance to the British Empire provided a heroic model to emulate. Surjya Sen and his team were deeply influenced by Dan Breen’s book My Fight for Irish Freedom and also by the popular novelist Saratchandra Chattopadhyaya’s Pather Dabi. Saratchandra ‘approved of the revolutionists’ unrelenting determination, strict discipline and the fearless attitude towards bloodshed as the indispensable realistic for defeating the enemy and achieving the country’s freedom’ (Gohain 2010: ix) .

‘The cult of blood and sacrifice’ and ‘heroic martyrdom’ epitomized by the famous ‘Easter Rising’ in Dublin (1916), too, held a strong appeal for them. Even their leaflet proclaiming India’s freedom reads very much like Padraig Pearse’s Proclamation of Independence. Thousands of copies of the ‘Red Pamphlets’ distributed among the youth appealed for their participation in the struggle and often ended with Tagore’s inspiring verse:

Udoyer pother shuni kar bani
Bhoi nai ore koribe dan
Nihsheshe pran je korbe dan
Kshay nai ore kshay nai
Yonder in the realm of sunrise whose voice rings out, what is there to fear?
He who offers his whole life as a libation shall overcome mortality
(Gohain 2010:98)

The Chattagram Uprising saw the participation of young women in action for the first time in the revolutionary history of Bengal. In an official report submitted in 1933, the British officials noted this as a particularly alarming phenomenon. Despite a ban on women members in underground revolutionary organizations, two women in particular – Pritilata Waddedar and Kalpana Datta – became frontline fighters in numerous hit-and-run attacks on British targets.

Kalpana’s family was affluent and loyalist – her grandfather had received the title of Rai Bahadur for his services to the Raj. A student of chemistry, she would secretly make bombs at her workshop in her Chittagong home. She was arrested but escaped the tragic fate that others met and was sentenced to transportation for life. Pritilata Waddedar, on the other hand, was a student of literature, and came from a humble background. She acted as a courier and messenger and regularly wrote pamphlets that were periodically issued by the Indian Revolutionary army (IRA). On 22nd September 1932, Surjya Sen assigned Pritilata to lead a team of twelve men for an attack on the Pahartali Railway Institute, a club meant exclusively for Europeans, where ‘Dogs and Indians (were) not allowed’. The raid was successful but Pritilata was badly wounded. She swallowed potassium cyanide capsule to evade arrest and died a martyr. A hand written note found on her body after the raid declared: ‘Long Live the Revolution!’

an image of kalpana datta
Kalpana Datta

After the martyrdom of Surjya Sen and other revolutionary leaders such as Bhagat Singh and Chandrashekhar Azad, the prolonged saga of revolutionary terrorism came to an end but the spirit of revolution continued to live on albeit in a new avatar. Once the Chattagram revolutionaries had been transported to the notorious Cellular Jail in the Andaman islands, ‘their indomitable spirit searched for new ways and means of struggle and this eventually led them to the communist movement’. Historian Sumit Sarkar points out that ‘the real spread of Communism into the districts came with the large scale conversion of terrorists to Marxism in detention camps and in the Andamans during the 1930s through intense ideological debates and heroic self-searching’ (Sarkar 1998). After her release from imprisonment in 1939, Kalpana Datta joined the Communist Party of India and later married the party’s Secretary, P.C. Joshi.

In spite of this remarkable subject matter, the film Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Se drew a muted response from the audience. The renowned Abhishek Bachchan as ‘Master Da’ was perhaps unable to communicate the fiery passion and angst of the revolutionary – though Sikander Kher, in the role of another of the rebels, delivered a stand-out performance. Deepika Padukone and Vishkha Singh as Kalpana and Pritilata respectively did justice to their roles to some extent but as some film critics pointed out, the film missed out on ‘passion, conflict and outrage’. In comparison, an early Bengali film Chattagram Astragar Lunthan [Chattagram Armoury Raid] made in 1949 was perhaps more successful. In a review, the Bengali journal Rangalay praised the film: ‘Every scene of the film is adorned with the electrifying atmosphere of the glorious days of the revolution…’ (Gooptu. 2010:88) Yet, both films resurrected these iconic figures and the spirit of the revolution into public memory.

Che Guevera, once said: ‘In a revolution, one triumphs or dies (if it is a true revolution)’. Yet Surjya Sen and his band of young recruits triumphed over their deaths and films such as these will continue to stoke the fire of remembrance for a long time to come.

Further reading on the Chittagong Uprising

Ahmad, Talat. Literature and Politics in the Age of Nationalism: The Progressive Writers’ Movement in South Asia, 1932-56  New Delhi: Routledge, 2009.

Bairathi, Shashi. Communism and Nationalism in India: A Study in Interrelationship 1919-1947   New Delhi: Anamika Prakashan, 2000.

Chatterjee, Manini . Do and Die: The Chittagong Uprising 1930-34  New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1999.
– – – . “1930: Turning Point in the Participation of Women in the Freedom Struggle’. Social Scientist, July -August 2001.
– – – . Interview by Sourav Bhattacherjee. The Independent, Friday, 26 Nov. 2010.

Gohain, Hiren . The Contribution of the Revolutionists in India’s Freedom Struggle  New Delhi: National Book Trust, 2010.

Gooptu, Sharmishtha. Bengali Cinema: An Other Nation  Francis & Taylor. 2010.

Kaul, Manjari. ‘Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Se’. Indian Auteur Weekly .Monday, December 6th, 2010.

Mukherjee, Ishanee. ‘Scaling the Barrier: Women, Revolution and Abscondence in Late Colonial Bengal.’ Indian Journal of Gender Studies March 1999 vol. 6 no. 1 61-78.

Nandy, Ashis .The Illegitimacy of Nationalism  New Delhi: Sage India, 1994.

Sarkar, Sumit. Modern India 1885-1947   New Delhi: Macmillan, 1983.

Sarkar, Tanika. Bengal 1928-1934: The Politics of Protest  New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Sharma, I. Mallikarjuna. Easter Rebellion in India: The Chittagong Uprising   Hyderabad: Marxist Study Forum, 1993.

Silvestri, Michael. “Sinn Fein: Irish Nationalism and the Policing of Revolutionary Terrorism in Bengal .The Journal of British Studies, vol 39, No 4, Oct, 2000.

Verdi, Jyotika . The cinematic imagiNation: Indian Popular Films as Social History. New Delhi:Permanent Black,2007.

6 Comments

  1. Hello Prof. Singh. This is one of the finest pieces I have read on the Chittogong uprising.I believe this area has not been explored too much. It is through people like you that i keep getting such wonderful things on India even though i am miles away.  I had a short query: Would it not be apt to translate ‘Khelein ham je jaan se’ as ‘we played with our lives’ or as ‘we played with all our might’ instead of the one used you use.
    One of my ancestors was a native commander fighting with the revolutioneries. I have myself done some reseach on the uprising in Meerut and Lucknow. Would be interested in touching base with you.
    Rudy, New York, USA.

    • Thanks for your interest in the the piece.’We Play with our Lives’ was the English subtitle given to the film which appropriately conveyed the intensity of their commitment to the cause , and so i preferred to go with it— although i had some reservations about the Hindi title! A radically historicl  moment  located in past, recreated in the  present and having implications for the future —  a good enough reason to gloss over smaller details, i guess!

  2. Pingback: History Workshop: Bollywood & Indian Nationalism « Ashbourne College History Blog

  3. Hello Dr. Singh. Thanks for throwing light and thereby reviving our memories on the Chittagong uprising and the sacrifices made by the revolutionaries/freedom fighters about whom many of us have almost forgotten. Although the means adopted by the revolutionaries to achieve their goals were critcised by some at that time but the uprising  provided impetus and momentum to our freedom movement. The article also highlights the active participation of women in the uprising/freedom movement.  A well researched and documented article.
    Amit Rathor,Allahabad,India

  4. A true Indian

    This is so interesting, Madhu. Regards, Rajiv, Ohio,USA.

  5. Rajput son

    There are many contemporary newspaper articles, police reports and Hansard parliamentary references to what official accounts claimed happened. These don’t seem to have been referred to in the reading list. That is a pity as it erodes the credibility of the Professor’s research. Rather like the false populist story behind the Boston Tea Party, it serves little purpose to either history, or the lessons we can draw from it, if we lose balance and accuracy. All a jolly good tale but it doesn’t serve history.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *