From calling the shots at NASA to starting from scratch, making of ‘Chittagong’ was a humbling experience says Bedabrata Pain

One would have expected a former NASA scientist and a director of a film set in pre-Independence era to be reticent. Bedabrata Pain is anything but that. On the eve of Chittagong’s release in Hyderabad, we found the filmmaker to be a picture of optimism. He had to wait two years for the film to release and in between, his son Ishaan’s death came as a blow. Bedabrata and his wife Shonali Bose (director of the film Amu) took it all in their stride and are glad that the worst is over.

Chittagong, in an indirect way, has a strong connection with Andhra Pradesh, says Bedabrata. The first book he read about the Chittagong movement was Easter Rebellion in India, The Chittagong Uprising by I. Mallikarjuna Sharma. “I haven’t had a chance to meet the author but the book gave me insights into the movement,” says the filmmaker.

The film is not a historical that stops at paying homage to martyrs, says Bedabrata: “Almost all historical sagas end with the demise of the protagonist. Chittagong, told from the point of view of 14-year-old Jhunku Roy, is a story of triumph that’s relevant today.” It’s not a larger than life story and Chittagong uprising, for most of us, is a small, forgotten chapter in history textbooks. “The idea was to narrate it in a simple, forthright manner like a Jataka tale. The battle of Jalalabad and taking over of the British armoury are all in the background. I met Jhinku Roy when he was 92, before he passed away,” says Bedabrata.

For those not familiar with the premise of the story, Chittagong is the story of a group of teenage boys and girls defeating the British, led by a school teacher in British occupied India in 1930s. The teacher or masterda is Manoj Bajpayee and the film also stars Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Veda Tamotia in significant roles.

Bedabrata met Nawazuddin in 2008 at National School of Drama. Back then, Nawaz had done minuscule roles in Sarfarosh and Munnabhai MBBS. “After the first meeting, I knew he had to be in my film. Nawaz is the kind of person who, at first sight, might be anyone in the crew… a camera assistant for example. When he emotes in front of the camera, the transformation is immense,” Bedabrata says with a smile. The teenagers in the film are all non-actors. “I was looking for actors, not stars,” says Bedabrata.

Chittagong was originally scheduled to release in October 2010. Days before the release, he lost his son Ishaan due to a freak accident caused by an electric razor. “I had to rush back to the US. And then a lot of things happened. Perhaps it was for the best that the film is releasing now,” says Bedabrata.

Meanwhile, there was Ashutosh Gowarikar’s Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Se was also based on Chittagong uprising and the buzz was that Bedabrata’s film was pushed as a result. “Much water has flown under the bridge,” laughs Bedabrata, not wanting to look back.

The transition from science to filmmaking was not drastic, says Bedabrata. As a senior scientist at NASA, he and his team have 87 invention patents to their credit. Active pixel sensor technology, now used in most DSLR cameras, cell phone cameras and RED film cameras, was invented by his team. Bedabrata was politically aware and had a keen interest in painting and music. “I used to write papers for Shonali at Columbia University. So cinema was not alien to me,” he adds.

When he left NASA in 2008, the real test was in starting from scratch. “I was heading a team of 25-30 people in NASA, the projects we were working on involved $ 8 to 10 million. I was recognised by the US Technology Hall of Fame and doors opened if I wanted to meet people and discuss projects. From there, I was moving to a zone where I was scraping the bottom of the barrel,” he explains.

Chittagong releases today in Hyderabad and the filmmaker was in town as part of an event organised by Moving Images film club.