With each new film, Abhishek Bachchan tries to take on a new character, one you have never seen from him before. In Ashutosh Gowariker’s Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey, Abhishek is Surjya Sen, a calm, simple school teacher who became one of India’s greatest freedom fighters. Surjya Sen is not well known, but Abhishek is proud and very passionate about bringing his story and the story of the 1930 Chittagong Uprising to audiences. Beginning in a rather serious avatar but with a bit of the fun Abhi showing through by the end, the actor talked to me about why he feels that audiences must see this very important film; that they must know the story of this man, the young boys, the revolutionaries, and two women and what they did for their country.
What made you decide to say yes to this film?
It was quite a no brainer actually, for me. It’s also the shortest pitch I’ve ever had in my life. Ashutosh came to me and said, ‘Look, I’m thinking of making a film’. I said okay and we carried on talking about whatever things we do when we meet socially and then he said, ‘By the way, I want to ask you… what were you doing when you were 13?’ I said, ‘Nothing much. I was being a 13-year-old, you know. Going to school, being busy with my extracurricular activities, playing. I was just a normal 13-year-old, having fun, enjoying my life… a carefree life.’ He said, ‘I want to make a movie on a group of children that at that age had decided to overthrow the British Government and fight for Indian Independence.’ I said, ‘That’s it – I’m on! I’m doing it.’ Then he said, ‘This whole group was led by a school teacher named Surjya Sen and I want you to be that character’. I said, ‘Yeah, definitely, I’m on.’ It was as simple as that. When you hear a story like that, of a school teacher who puts together 58 students to take on the British Raj, to overthrow them and take over the government of Chittagong in 1930 – you know that it has the making of a very dramatic, powerful film. That was it. I decided then.
What did you like most about playing this character?
I think for an actor there was a lot of drama involved in the character. There was a huge struggle within the character, which I really enjoyed. At the end of the day, he is a school teacher who teaches the children the path of non-violence and correct morals and principles and at the same time Maths and English. Then he goes away in the evening and plots what possibly might be the largest revolution in the Indian Freedom struggle history. There was a wonderful dichotomy to that character. I enjoyed that. Another thing I enjoyed was when we did all the research we got to know that Surjya Sen was very calm, very collected, very controlled. Traditionally when you look at freedom fighters, you look at them as very fiery characters that had this great amount of passion. Although he was very passionate, there was something very calm about him, because at the end of the day he was a schoolteacher. I liked that. It was something, which we haven’t shown on film before, a freedom fighter with these characteristics.
How did you get yourself in the mind frame to play him? To play somebody in the 1930’s that was a schoolteacher that had to show passion, but calm at the same time?
When you do a period piece there is a lot of research that needs to be done. This film is based on a book which is an account of the uprising called Do and Die, written by Manani Chatterjee. It makes it slightly simpler actually, because you don’t need to fabricate the character from scratch, as you would have to with a fictional character. Here’s a real live person, so you know how they were, there are accounts of people talking about them… in a sense there is a very firm skeleton in place, you didn’t have to flesh it out after that. Although in our case, Surjya Sen is a freedom fighter and although great, not much has been documented about him. Even in our history books there is little reference to the Chittagong uprising. Although there is information there isn’t much as you would want. There is never enough. You always want more. For example, there aren’t very many photographs or film proof of him. I think there are only one or two photographs of him ever taken and they were taken after he was arrested by the British, which is a good two to three years after the uprising. So, we had our research and we had all the information we could get on him. That coupled with a little bit of your own contribution is how we went about to getting into the mindset and create this character.
So, how was it working with Mr. Gowariker as a director?
Wonderful. Ashutosh is one of the most celebrated directors of our generation. He’s a very old friend also. I knew him when he used to be an actor and before he became a director. So, I’ve known him for over 20 years. We’ve always had a desire to work with each other. I am so happy that the first film we do together is such an important film – a film that we both feel passionately and very strongly about. I hope I get opportunity to make many more films with him in the future.
What do you think he brought out in you as an actor during the process of making this film?
I think he brought out a lot of calm in me, which I am not really renowned for (laughs). He brought out a certain maturity and calm about me, which I think is very interesting because it’s one of the first times I am doing that.
How was it working with the young actors?
It was wonderful, educational, actually because most of them were first time actors. A lot of them were not even trained actors. They were just children who came for an audition and were put through a little bit of training. What I really, really enjoyed was that they had a very unbiased, unpolluted approach to performing. When you’ve been performing in films, I mean I’ve made close to 40 films, you do tend to get influenced by a lot of things, by a performance style. Here are kids who came in with completely virgin thoughts about how to go out there and perform. They were so spontaneous with whatever they did. I found that very educational, because suddenly you get a completely new perspective, something, which you would have never thought of.
In this film you’ve also worked with Deepika Padukone for the first time…
Yes, it is. It was wonderful. Deepika is a wonderful actor. She’s been around not very long and it’s nice that she decided to take on a role like this. It’s a challenging role. It’s the role of one of two of the first female revolutionaries in the Indian history. In that day and age women weren’t allowed to partake in the revolution at all. They were allowed to show support by joining in the congress party, but they weren’t actively allowed to take part in the revolution. Deepika’s character Kalpana with her friend Pritilata were the first two women who took part in the Indian struggle at the revolution. She’s a wonderful actor, very professional. I enjoyed working with her.
What’s it like to do the battle scenes?
Well, I’m pretty used to it, we do it almost every day. Unfortunately, fighting comes very naturally to us. But, it was like any other film, only this time the weapons were older and you had to keep those small, small things in mind; like your body language, thing obviously like the clothes that you wear were slightly different and the weapons you are using are different. All these factors come into play.
The music is being praised; especially how perfect it seems for the essence of the film. What are your thoughts about the music?
Well, like you said the music is perfectly suited for the subject. I really think it essays and captures the era very well. It captures the passion of the characters and their entire attitude towards their country very well. It’s very invigorating when you see the music in the film. It does move you.
What do you hope audiences are going to love about this film?
It will move them. It will awake a certain patriotic fervor within them. It did to me when I saw the final product. It does shake you up a bit. It makes you respect what these individuals did so much more. It really does awaken a certain emotion towards your country. What they really did back in 1930 and how they went about it, it is truly something you need to just bow down to and give them utmost amount of thanks and respect for. I really feel that people will be truly moved when they see this film and realize that what these school children and a teacher did was really fantastic. Unfortunately, a freedom fighter like Surjya Sen is not spoken about as openly and as frequently as some our great freedom fighters like Bhagat Singh and Chandrashekhar Azad. But, I really hope that after this film releases, people start giving him his due and speak about him in the same sentence as the rest of the great freedom fighters.
What is coming up next?
My next film is going to be a film called Game, which releases early next year followed by Dum Maro Dum. We have finished our principal photography and they are both in post-production now. I’m shooting for Players right now. It’s wonderful. We’ve finished our first schedule. The star cast is a huge ensemble. It’s wonderful to be part of the Italian Job, finally and hopefully get some really cool lines like Michael Cain has (laughs).
What do you love about being an actor?
The fact that I get to wake up and be someone else and nobody calls you clinically insane (laughs). It’s fun. You get to go out and play different characters, experience different things from a different point of view and above all you get to entertain the audience. I think that’s the genesis of why people become actors, they want to entertain, they want to put a smile on someone’s face.
You are also quite active on Twitter. Do you like that experience of being in contact with your fans?
Oh thoroughly. Yeah, I really enjoy Twitter. I really like Twitter and it’s been really good fun for me. I’ve really grown a lot as a person. It’s nice, as actors we don’t really have direct contact to our audiences and through these social networking platforms you get that opportunity to have an one-on-one conversation with your audience – to hear what they have to say, their opinions. It’s really a lot of fun.
Do you have a message for your fans?
I’ve always said will never get to say this enough – thank you for giving me the opportunity to entertain you all and thank you for watching our films. Thank you for all your love and support always. I mean we’ll never get the opportunity to thank you all enough, but this is our little way of saying that.
You can see Abhishek Bachchan’s turn as Surjya Sen when Khelien Hum Jee Jan Sey opens in theaters on Friday, December 3rd. I think this is a performance and a film not to be missed!