Ashutosh Gowariker’s return to period filmmaking comes with such heavy baggage in the form of Lagaan (storytelling) and Jodhaa Akbar (scale) that KHJJS, given it’s relatively low budget (at least it seems so), is on the back foot even before it starts. The trailers failed to impress, and unfortunately the film doesn’t do any better. At a mighty 3 hours, it’s too much paddling through still, heavy water.
Gowariker, as usual, takes his time to set things up. And even though the Chittagong Uprising is an event relegated to serious history books and certainly not on the minds of most Indians, so much detailing and setting up seems unnecessary. The screenplay spells out every last detail to the point of being patronizing. Several true historical events are not fully known to the general public, but that doesn’t mean you make it a primary class history lesson. Take Clint Eastwood’s Iwo Jima for example. Or Hotel Rwanda or Charlie Wilson’s War. In laying bare the plot, Gowariker misses out allowing himself to be inspired cinematically. Perhaps the audiences themselves are to blame.
Sure, there are a couple of good sequences – like the recruitment interviews of the teenagers and the bit when they’re resting under a tree and rolling the words ‘Vande Mataram’ on their tongues, feeling its taste for the first time. However, almost everything else seems functional and shot like individual pages of the script. There is no real spunk as events unfold one after the other. The length of the film begins to tell after it exhausts itself of its highpoints a little after midway when the actual action of April 18 – the date of the Chittagong Uprising – is done with. The film flounders and meanders as the remaining revolutionaries are caught one by one. Even the budding love story comes to a grinding halt in the first half, undone by the ‘true story’.
As usual, the biggest challenge period films face is that of production design. Here Goa replaces the port city of Chittagong and well, since no one really knows what Chittagong looked like in the 1930’s, the beaches and general setting could pass of as authentic. Gowariker’s favorite trick (adopted by most filmmakers while attempting a period drama) is to use real locations, where the real star is set dressing and corrective art direction. While this may have been effective up until 10 years ago, the dynamic of production design has changed too much. Just ‘cheating’ locations, setting scenes on hills or jungles, and avoiding anachronistic objects in the frame doesn’t work to convince an audience. Recreating the period does. And this involves constructing quality sets and using a combination of live action and computer-generated special effects. Forget Hollywood films; even the folks in international television have achieved this perfect balance. Shows such as Rome and Boardwalk Empire are testament to this.
It’s interesting that Gowariker would choose to make a film on this subject. It takes from Lagaan (a sports incident, period drama employing a unique technique to show them Brits down), Swades (self-reflective journey of a man named Mohan, clearly inspired by that other Mohan: Gandhi), and Jodhaa Akbar (a good man who loves his land but has no qualms of using force to kill the enemy), and yet fails to peak like any of the other films did at any level.
Technically, Gowariker needs to reinvent himself. Dull, set frames, clinical taking, overt sound design, unnecessary and OTT background score, are all the same techniques he used in Lagaan and repeated himself in his other films. Style has evolved in cinema and he’d do well to catch up. Would love to see scale not through sweeping, wide-angle lenses, but intimate hand-held shots that don’t focus on production design alone. Also, costume design – yes the research is there but surely not everyone wore squeaky clean white dhotis and white kurtas all the time. Where is the blood, sweat, and grime that goes with the word ‘revolution’? If someone from the 1930’s time-machined onto the set of KHJJS, they would feel as alien as they might in a nightclub of today. Anyway, designing a scene that doesn’t rely on trying-to-stir-your-emotions background score would be a good place to start.
There is nothing much to be said about performances as none are exceptional. But neither are they incompetent. Music is unmemorable save for the title track.
Above all, the big complaint against KHJJS is that it is downright boring. You come out appreciating and educated about the Chittagong Uprising, a significant chapter in Indian independence, but totally miss out on a good movie experience.