Based upon the book Do and Die: The Chittagong Uprising 1930-34 by Manini Chatterjee, director Ashutosh Gowariker tackles the true story of the Indian revolutionary Masterda Surjya Sen, the Chittagong Armoury Raid and its aftermath. It's an ambitious period piece which isn't out of Gowariker's league, having done sprawling epics like Jodhaa Akbar and nationalistic ones such as Swades and Lagaan, the latter which is also somewhat of an Indian versus English battle of wills, albeit on a makeshift cricket game in the finale.
The intermission of this nearly three hour film serves as an automatic marker at how Gowariker planned the narrative, the first half being the introduction, characterization and planning stage that we get to witness going behind any schemes of this nature of an armed struggle, where the definition of whether one is a terrorist or freedom fighter, is naturally decided in context by the victor in history. A lot of time goes into establishing the character of Masterda Surya Sen, played by Abhishek Bachchan as the school teacher who indoctrinates his class, and other followers of his exploits, into the need to drive the British out and to attain freedom for India, starting with Chittagong (present day located in Bangladesh).
In some ways this film has shed some light that those who persist in armed struggles, never really changed the essence of their modus operandi much. It starts off with a charismatic leader and his ideology, a band of faithful followers, and a mass recruitment of those who have faced the wrong end of oppression, eager to join the cause to exact some form of revenge, now elevated to a greater struggle for something way above the petty personal objectives. We observe how resources get assembled, from the raising of funds through whatever means possible, even if it means in kind instead of cash.
Target surveillance becomes the must do as well in order to prepare for that strategic attacks, and from what we can learn from history, simultaneous attacks on key targets isn't something that's conceived in the new era, but has been used a long time back, with the revolutionaries keeping in mind the importance of timing, and to hit places controlling communications, weapons depot, and of course the places where the foreigners congregate. There's this sense of chill when watching the film, because these are lessons obviously not learnt, and it's about time we wise up to see that the jungle too serves as an attractive training ground away from prying eyes and ears either to train on weapon handling, or to assemble explosives.
But for the gripping set up, the second half turned out to be somewhat of a letdown, and I do not mean what had actually happened in history, which of course cannot be changed lest this film becomes a farce. There were enough elements here that made it the action packed second half it was meant to be, with the firing of weapons and the proverbial Murphy paying the revolutionaries a visit and really screwing up their plans. All these translated to edge of your seat excitement worthy of any thriller, and we see how the execution of the plan turn the perpetrators from hunters into prey.
A lot of things got muted in the movie, which is something not quite typical of an Ashutosh Gowariker film. Known for the opulence and grandeur of his productions, this one seemed a little bit toned down and stripped down to reflect the state of the revolutionaries, being required to work with bare minimum resources, and with faulty intelligence as well, being caught off guard in their plans, especially the more critical factors in ammunition and prisoners / hostages. It's quite back to basics for Gowariker, whom I felt if given the allowance for a longer runtime like almost all his previous works, could have told a more complete and robust story.
Abishek Bachchan performed credibly as the legendary historical character, although the storyline, in having a number of notable revolutionaries to focus on, tended to dilute the importance of his character, and hence an opportunity for him to shine. Deepika Padukone plays Kalpana Dutta, also another historical character, and the much talked about scene is of her character playing badminton in her introduction was relatively short to begin with. The actress continues to be paired opposite big name counterparts, but is able to hold her own without being awed. There's some romantic tension between the two lead characters here, though it served more as a distraction and soon got canned before it even had the chance to start.
As it stands, most of the last act turned out to be quite rushed, with fairly little being given to characterization, opting instead for quick resolution often through action sequences which do get tired after a while. Englishmen all play the token bad guys, and we don't see a lot as to how nasty they actually are, as compared to the oppression dished out by those portrayed in Lagaan. The courtroom drama also seemed to be cursory rather than to provide for a platform, and lacked the usual legalese oomph to have made an impact to an audience, having everything seem a little bit routine, well, even if it may be true in real life. Music by Sohail Sen, who had worked on the previous Gowariker film What's Your Rashee, is commendable, especially its rousing themes that will get to grow on you.
This is Ashutosh Gowariker's equivalent of Braveheart or any other freedom fighters' struggle to gain freedom for their motherland, but we could all have benefitted from a little bit more of walking around inside Masterda Surjya Sen and going deeper into his beliefs and motivation. While it's still an epic scale and its presentation of the opening credits mimics that of epic greats, it somehow didn't manage to live up to its potential that we know Gowariker is capable of, and this is coming from a fan.