…Masterly tribute to Masterda

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 (‘Masterda’), the schoolteacher who planned the daring raid on the Chittagong armoury with an army of mostly schoolboys. Their Indian Revolutionary Army (IRA) took over the town for a day as the British fled.
The film ends with the peasants’ rebellion, the Tebagha Movement of 1945. “Masterda’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 Bachchan’s Kaun BanegaGa 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 West Bengal, grew up hearing tales about Masterda 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 a 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.

Unlike most accounts of the time, Pain’s film does not end with the 1934 execution of Surya Sen (‘Masterda’)

“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.

Pain said that many of the film’s fascinating details come from interviews with BinodBihariChowdhury, 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 an 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.

In the film, the attack aims to target and kill (successfully) two particularly brutal members of the British colonial forces—an Englishman, Major Johnson, and an Indian, Ahsanullah, a CID officer the British brought in to rupture the Hindu-Muslim unity that allowed 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, NetraSen, 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 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, which continues to resonate into the present and the future.

 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: DECEMBER 2013