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No pain, no gain
A NASA scientist turns filmmaker to bring us the tale of a valiant nationalist uprising in 1930s Bengal.
Dedabrata Pain is a man of science who does not buy into the left-brain and rightbrain theory. He does not see why logic and art can't co-exist in the same head in equal measure. It may be tempting to dismiss this as a typical Bengali argument, but when Pain says, "NASA is easier than filmmaking", it is an inference, not a hypothesis.
In 2008, when the scientist decided to quit NASA, where he had worked for 18 years, to make a film called Chittagong, he did not foresee that one day he would have to sit on a road in North Bengal with his crew for over an hour, waiting for a herd of elephants to pass. That Ashutosh Gowariker will choose to make a film on the same subject around the same time. That the hard drive bearing the entire one and a half TB footage of his film would be damaged and that he would be singing a song in memory of his son - a song so poignant he would never be able to sing it again. "I have experienced some very deep hurts while making this film, " says the scientist-turned-filmmaker, who lost his 16-year-old son, Ishan, to an accident two years ago.
In 2007, however, it seemed like a natural transition. At that point, an innocent conversation with a friend - a history graduate in the US who did not know about the Bengali freedom fighter Suriya Sen (" a household name in Bengal" ) - had led Pain to think of the script. Had the 1930 armoury raid where Sen - a teacher led a group of rebellious schoolboys to capture two armouries of the Raj in Chittagong - occurred somewhere in Europe, "a film would have been made there and then", says Pain, who decided to use this as a cue to quit his job at NASA (where he was researching the uses of the CMOS technology - a digital imaging technology, which he had invented along with four others) and appease his quintessential Bengali urge to "not be one-track-minded".
Pain, who enjoys both Karan Johar and Satyajit Ray films, however, did not want his historical story to smack of defeat. That's why instead of talking about the freedom fighters who died, he decided to focus on Jhunku Roy, a 13-year-old boy, who was sentenced to confinement in the Andamans jail.
He even met Roy at a hospital in Kolkatta - a meeting that further validated his vision. "Roy was 92 and was on his deathbed when I met him, " says Pain, who along with his wife videotaped a half-hour interview with the man who was barely audible. "What he said about the feeling of sitting in a corner one night before the battle and thinking, 'Shit I might die!' just hit home, " says Pain, who was excited about telling the story from the point of view of the frail, diffident yet studious 14-year-old revolutionary. "His journey mirrors my journey with filmmaking in a way".
When Pain visited Chittagong for a recce though, he found that most people did not know about the historical location of Dhaulghat where the incident took place. Here, he even met 102-year-old Binod Bihari Chowdhury (whom Pain fondly calls 99 as he was 99 when they met) who, in lucid Bengali, threw some important nuggets of oral history his way. This revolutionary, who was 20 at the time of the raid, told Pain about how the boys would be asked to go and stand outside designated houses in the night. As soon as they did so, their food would appear clandestinely through a window.
Pain, who wanted the film to be raw and authentic, specifically asked his assistant director to cast boys from the local villages. In fact, budget constraints too, in a way, added realism to the film. Though Bollywood financiers were ready to fund his film, the economic downturn of 2008 changed its fate. Pain was forced to use the payment from the CMOS technology he invented and the film was made at a modest production cost of Rs 4. 5 crore. It was this lack of resources, however, that led him to discover that walls in that era had bevelled edges, and not sharp ones like the modern ones. That's because instead of erecting sets to recreate the era, the crew took over old school buildings built in 1910 in North Bengal.
Besides, "we shot in a jungle, where we were constantly threatened by the possibility of a leopard crossing behind". Also, periodically, Pain would ask the cast to take off their clothes and rub them against the ground, "ensuring that the continuity person had many nervous breakdowns. "
Pain himself came close to one when he realised that Ashutosh Gowariker was making a film on the same subject. But when they met, they decided to go ahead with their respective films. "His was a story of defeat and mine, a story of victory, " says Pain.
Despite all the pitfalls that punctuated the release of his film, Pain - the eternal fan of underdog victories - says he is happy now his film has come at a time when Bollywood does not really differentiate between "art and formula". They can both co-exist, just like the left-brain and the right-brain.
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