Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey -- Film Review

Top Indian filmmaker offers a stirring depiction of heroic freedom fighters

EMERYVILLE, Calif. -- Ashutosh Gowariker, director of the Oscar-nominated "Lagaan" (2001), has taken a true, but little-known, story from India’s independence struggle and transformed it into a film of uncommon power and pride. The topic is so fraught with emotion — and just 60-some years later, still such a fresh memory — that it’s a tempting topic for filmmakers to tackle, though with mixed artistic and commercial success. Despite a few missteps, "Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey (We Play with our Lives)" packs a patriotic punch that will resonate with audiences of any nationality (except, perhaps, the British, who are largely portrayed as goons).

The film’s heavy-hitting subject matter may misfire during what is customarily a season for light fare, but Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Seyoffers rich rewards to the viewer willing to sit through its three-hour running time.

The Chittagong Uprising of 1930, in which a few dozen teenagers and a handful of local revolutionaries helped to blast a hole in British dominance in a violent, one-night strike of five key British military targets, was instrumental in driving the Imperial rulers out of India. The tiny but potent revolution was masterminded by a rural schoolteacher, Surjya Sen (Abhishek Bachchan), who became impatient with Mahatma Gandhi’s policy of nonviolence.

The look of the film is authentic, down to the sweat on the young men’s kurtas (shirts), and Sohail Sen’s music fits the mood and the period. Deepika Padukone and Vishakha Singh impress as two unusually brave young women eager to join the revolution, while Sikander Kher steals every scene he shares with Bachchan as Nirmal Sen, a charismatic revolutionary ready to die in a blaze of gunfire. Bachchan doesn’t fare as well; it’s hard to imagine his brooding persona inspiring any followers to fight to their deaths. Indeed his character’s motivation isn’t fully sketched out despite Gowariker’s famous attention to detail.

The talky first half of the film suffers from the same woodenness that plagued another of Gowariker’s historical films, Jodhaa-Akbar. And it isn’t explained how the team is able to procure guns and bomb-making materials or engage in jungle shooting practice, without detection.

But the fireworks in the second half make it worth the wait. Gowariker unforgivingly depicts of the brutality of the British, the deaths of the young fighters and the panic of the small, minimally trained battalion with no Plan B in sight. And the violent deaths of some of Khelein’s key characters are all the more moving for their willingness to cry out “Vande Mataram” (Hail to the Motherland) with their final breaths.

Opened Dec. 3 (PVR Pictures)
Cast: Abhishek Bachchan, Deepika Padukone, Sikander Kher, Vishakha Singh, Feroze Wahid Khan
Director: Ashutosh Gowariker
Screenwriters: Ashutosh Gowariker, Raoul V. Randolph
Producers: Sunita Gowariker, Ajay Bijli, Sanjeev Bijli
Executive producer: Lawrence D’Souza
Director of photography: Kiiran Deohans, Seetha Sandhiri
Production designer: Nitin Chandrakant Desai
Music: Sohail Sen
Lyrics: Javed Akhtar
Costume designer: Neeta Lulla
Editor: Dilip Deo
Not rated, 168 minutes