On a warm and humid morning in 1998, I had climbed a hill near Chittagong and paid my tributes at a memorial to honour the fallen at the Battle of Jalalabad. It was here, on April 22, 1930, that 55 members of the Indian Republican Army, most of them teenagers, had taken on the might and the machine guns of the British empire. Later, as the Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh, I had the privilege of felicitating surviving revolutionaries from that forgotten age.
As a Bengali, it was natural that from early childhood I had known of the legend of Masterda and the 'Chittagong Armoury Raid', as the event was popularly known. Decades later, I understood them in greater detail through Manini Chatterjee's acclaimed book on the event, Do and Die, with its meticulous research on the uprising and its aftermath. And recently I saw Ashutosh Gowarikar's Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey, vividly bringing to life the ordinary people with extraordinary courage who had taken over Chittagong for a few brief hours and sent ripples of uncertainty and apprehension through the colonial administration.
Based on Chatterjee's book, the film tells us of the story of Masterda Surya Sen, the man most hated and feared by the British whom they would torture before executing and casting his body into the sea so that no one could mourn him. Inspired by his vision, teenaged boys and girls from humble and elite backgrounds trained to become dreaded adversaries of the colonial police forces and their British officers.
We go step by step, watching fun-loving young people transform into fearsome revolutionaries, contemptuous of death itself. It is an extraordinary and moving tale of patriotism, courage under fire and profound personal loyalties.
Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey is not, of course, a story with an unravelling theme or an eagerly awaited ending. We all know how that tragic episode ended nearly 80 years ago. But the movie takes a slice of our forgotten history and illuminates it brilliantly under contemporary lights. In the process, it perhaps makes us ask ourselves if the India of today has lived up to the dreams and aspirations of these young people who had staked their all in winning freedom for their motherland. It may even encourage some to question the prescribed values of the marketplace dominant today.
The mosaic of resistance to British colonial rule in different parts of India, and the harshness and iniquities of that period, are often forgotten in the smooth transfer of power, to the extent that voices are heard extolling the benefits of that rule. Nationalist historiography has revolved around Mahatma Gandhi and those closely associated with him. The sacrifices of many others have received but grudging recognition. Bhagat Singh may be an exception, but one may wonder how much we know today of the Ghadar movement or the uprising led by Birsa Munda, to address the forced migration of his tribe from their native land.
As years pass and fresh documents become available, it is increasingly clear that while non-violence may have been the pre-dominant guiding principle in India's national movement, many other events had made it clear to the British rulers that continuation of their rule was no longer feasible. In those calculations, the Chittagong uprising would undoubtedly have played a part.
Deb Mukharji is former Indian high commissioner to Bangladesh and former ambassador to Nepal.The views expressed by the author are personal.