As the Chittagong uprising returns to national conscience this week, Manoj Bajpayee says playing Surya Sen came with its share of moral dilemmas
“Don’t expect anything big from me. I will keep experimenting.” Every time you praise Manoj Bajpayee his modesty comes in the way.
From Bhikhu Mhatre to Sardar Khan, Manoj has crafted many a cult character and this week is no different. The much awaited “Chittagong” is finally here, where Manoj brings alive Surya Sen from the footnote of popular imagination to the headline of the day. Unlike Bhikhu or Sardar, here he is a hero who didn’t lead from the front but was the backbone, the mastermind of a movement where 50 teenagers shook the British Empire when they drove the colonial masters out of Chittagong on the night of April 18, 1930.
Sporting a lean look, Manoj affirms he is “greedy about good roles” and Masterda was one he didn’t want to let go. “You know there is a dearth of good roles in our industry and not all of them come to me. Here the challenge was while studying the character I could not come to terms with the fact that a teacher pushed 13-14-year-olds into a battle where they could die or be tortured. He must have gone through a lot of ethical dilemmas and depression. I didn’t find it explicitly in the script but I wanted to bring it into the character.” The reason, Manoj says, was all of Sen’s comrades were marked by the British government. “They were under surveillance and could not move. That’s why he was left with no choice but to inspire his students, but still there must have been a lot of pressure on him.”
Manoj found the approval from his director Bedabrata Pain, the erstwhile NASA scientist who is making his directorial debut with the film. “This is the first thing I look for after my performance. The rest of the world doesn’t matter to me that much,” says Manoj adding that he had full faith in the first-time director from the moment he narrated the script. “The script answers most questions about the credibility of the director. The only problem was, Bedabrata shot in locations in North Bengal where flights usually carry only 10 people and shake a lot,” he quips.
Manoj says the idea was to bring the story of these revolutionaries out of Bengal and Bangladesh to the whole country. “That’s why Bedabrata insisted that I should not speak with a Bengali accent.” Manoj feels Gandhi and his non-violent struggle took over the national sentiment so much that the other revolutionaries lost out in public memory. “The film tries to correct it by giving us insight into one uprising that shook the British government and laid the path for the future.” However, in the same vein, he adds that it should not be seen as an attempt to undermine Gandhiji’s contribution. “It is just that the director got an idea on a part of forgotten history and he made a film.”
On comparisons with “Khelen Hum Jee Jaan Sey”, the Ashutosh Gowarikar film which dealt with the same subject but failed to find favour both from critics and audiences, Manoj says there is 100-degree difference between the two. “I have great regard for Ashutosh for giving us films like ‘Lagaan’ and ‘Swades’ but sometimes experiments don’t work and it was one of those.” Unlike Ashutosh, avers Manoj, Bedabrata is telling the story from the point of view of Jhunku, the youngest revolutionary whom we know as comrade Subodh Roy. “The film will inspire young minds. That pizza, burger is okay but one should also stand up for the nation as well.”
This could well be the year of Sardar Khan and “Gangs of Wasseypur” at award functions. Manoj doesn’t like to intellectualise the nuances of the character as some writers of cinema have done. “There is no need to emphasise the religion of the character. To me the biggest challenge in playing Sardar Khan was to make a pitch black character lovable. I could not find anything about him in my personality.”
It seems to be sunshine time for actors, but once again Manoj comes with a pragmatic reply. “Stars will always be there. What actors like me are looking forward to is coexistence and I think that time has come.” Manoj believes that actors need a platform and unlike the past, the new age directors won’t conform to commercial trappings. “Directors like Dibakar Banerjee, Neeraj Pandey and Anurag Kashyap will be the last people to succumb to market pressure.”
In two weeks from now he will be seen as a Naxalite leader Rajan in Prakash Jha’s “Chakravyuh”. When his career was going through a lull, it was Jha’s “Raajneeti” that put Manoj back on track. A product of Delhi University, Manoj says he has “hobnobbed” a lot with the students of Marxist ideology in Jawaharlal Nehru University. “We all agree on the idea of equality and equitable distribution of natural wealth, but the question is whether the means adopted by the Naxalites to put their point across are right? The film debates it.”
In a commercial way, as the promos suggest? “If you intellectualise it too much only you and I would be seen in the theatre. Prakashaji has a reputation for striking the right balance and I believe he has managed it again.”
At the press conference in Delhi, Anurag Kashyap, who is presenting the film, talked about integrity in production and how his kind of cinema is sustained by young India, but unfortunately Jhunku (Subodh Roy), the 13-year-old revolutionary from whose perspective the story of “Chittagong” is told, was missing both from the conference and the posters. “You can’t blame us. You should put this question to the distributors and theatre owners who told us that they were ready to give space to the film only because it has faces (Manoj Bajpayee, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Jaideep Ahlawat and Raj Kumar Yadav) which featured in “Gangs of Wasseypur”. We have to find ways within the system.”
Talking about the ethical question of children participating in the freedom struggle and the contemporary zing that comes with it, director Bedabrata Pain says a small portion of the film deals with this dilemma. “I am okay if it leads to a debate on the issue because in Palestine and South Africa we have seen teenagers fighting for independence. In the U.K. you can get into a consensual physical relationship at 16. Then why can’t you fight for your country? And the socio-political climate of the country is once again ripe for the young minds to take charge of the situation. I hope the 50 children of Chittagong will prove an inspiration.”