What do a group of teenage boys do when their soccer pitch is unapologetically taken over by the British-controlled Indian Army? They join a local group of revolutionaries determined to take their colonial oppressors down. Freedom, after all, includes the freedom to play soccer wherever you want. Ashutosh Gowariker's latest, Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey (KHJJS), marks his return to the theme of national pride. After his very forgettable last venture, What's Your Raashee, I breathed a sigh of relief that Gowariker returned to his “love-thy-motherland” epics that he is so obviously comfortable with. While Gowariker is back in his element, KHJJS is still strictly a decent film, a fascinating, relatively unknown story and commendable acting held back by prolonged pacing, an overdose of characters and patchy emotional attachment to the goings-on.
KHJJS is based on Manini Chatterjee’s book ‘Do and Die: The Chittagong Uprising 1930-1934,’ and tells a freedom struggle story that is not widely known. A group of five political deviants from the local branch of Indian Congress hatch a plan to attack all the major British outposts in Chittagong on a single day, hoping to at least shake the colonial government, if not completely remove it. The revolutionaries are led by Surjya Sen (Abhishek Bachchan, in a somber performance), a schoolteacher by day and freedom fighter by night. Surjya and his men recruit dozens of teenage boys and two eager young women – Kalpana Dutta (Deepika Padukone, looking constantly concerned) and Pritilata Waddedar (a winning act by Vishakha Singh) – and work towards their master plan. The best part about the film is getting to know these historical characters and about this event that is simply not highlighted in the history books. But how I wish Kalpana and Pritilata weren’t introduced through a saccharine “let’s gossip about boys” singsong with ‘Naiyn Tere Jhuke Jhuke.’ It made their desire to join the revolutionaries seem sudden and out of place.
I still have mixed feelings about the music in the film. Composed by Sohail Sen, the songs and background score sound too close to comfort to A.R. Rahman’s style, almost as if that was the brief given to Sen when composing the music. Knowing very well Rahman wasn’t behind the music, constant similarities to his music made me uneasy. Most of the songs hindered the story, even though they aren’t entirely bad songs in themselves. The title track, however, was the only one that left an impact, being used as an anthem reminiscent of ‘Chale Chalo’ from Lagaan.
The film is shot entirely in Goa, which is made to look like pre-independence Chittagong (now in Bangladesh). Visually, the film definitely does not disappoint. Production designer Nitin Chandrakant Desai and directors of photography Kiran Deohans & Seetha Sandhir make KHJJS grand in scale with strong earth tones combined with effective use of beautiful colonial architecture and the natural landscape. Also, with the sheer rate at which the narrative cycles through locations, the research done by Gowariker and his team is very visible.
Unfortunately, that same attention to detail doesn’t go into narrative pacing and fleshing out characters. The film takes some time to find itself, and one of its biggest hindrances is the bombardment of characters. Besides the five core revolutionaries, the two women and close to a dozen teenage recruits, the viewer also has to keep track of an ever-expanding array of British army officers (unnecessarily introduced by title cards), family members of the teens, and other random faces who flit in and out of the story whenever it’s convenient. Soon enough, it’s hard to care about any one of them.
Gowariker, however, continues to exhibit his trademark restraint in dealing with heavy topics. The romantic angles are thankfully not exploited too much (there simply isn’t time for love when you’re fighting for independence), and the camaraderie between the five men is maturely tight yet understated. In the film’s most memorable scene, the band of teenage boys, sitting under a tree, discuss the meaning of ‘Vande Mataram,’ with most of them being unaware of its significance. The discussion flows naturally from ignorance to sharing of knowledge, the boys eventually realizing the hypnotic quality of the phrase. The infrequency of such sequences, in a film that is just shy of three hours long, leaves a lot to be desired from a story with such potential.
KHJJS is not a bad film. But it’s also not the kind of film that leaves an emotional impact. It tells an unknown story that is engaging but an over-ambitious script – lengthy, leisurely paced and overflowing with half-baked characters – make it a sincere effort gone overboard. While I welcome Gowariker back to his niche, I also challenge him to make a shorter and less crowded film for his next venture. Now thatwould be revolutionary.