Bogged down by tedious talk and a dull hero, pic peps up slightly after intermission with decently executed scenes of sabotage and sacrifice.
Indian helmer Ashutosh Gowariker returns to patriotic period filmmaking with “Khelein hum jee jaan sey,” a pedestrian account of the 1930 Chittagong Uprising. Bogged down by tedious talk and a dull hero, pic peps up slightly after intermission with decently executed scenes of sabotage and sacrifice. Lacking the emotional impact of Gowariker’s international breakthrough, “Lagaan,” or his classy costume romancer “Jodhaa Akbar,” pic tanked locally on Dec. 3 wide release with an opening-day gross barely nudging $250,000. Simultaneous multi-territory rollout includes an optimistic 57 Stateside screens.
Source material by journalist Manini Chatterjee highlighted the exploits of Surjya Sen, a largely forgotten resistance fighter in 1920s and ’30s Chittagong (now part of Bangladesh). Adaptation by Vijay Maurya, Raoul V. Randolf and Gowariker provides little historical context and fails to produce excitement or complexity in its central figure.
Opening reel echoes sports-themed “Lagaan,” with British forces evicting teenage boys from a village soccer field and setting up base camp. Upshot is more than 50 lads joining a rebel faction led by Sen (Abhishek Bachchan), a high-school teacher and well-known political agitator.
Juggling a phone book’s worth of characters, the screenplay opts for almost subliminal portraits of Sen’s teenage followers and slightly more substantial snapshots of adult allies including close buddy Nirmal Sen (Sikander Kher), cocky Anant Singh (Maninder Singh), super-serious Ganesh Ghosh (Samrat Mukherjee) and bespectacled bookkeeper Ambika Chakraborty (Shreyas Pandit).
Better served, by virtue of an appealing introductory musical number, are young femme fighters Kalpana Dutta (Deepika Padukone), who’s attracted to Sen, and Pritilata (Vishakha Singh), whose passionate relationship with Nirmal Sen easily outshines the bland Sen-Kalpana romance.
Auds ought to be absorbed by Sen’s daring plan to stage simultaneous attacks on the British armory at Chittagong and four other colonial installations. Instead, many will have their patience tested by dreary discussions and the absence of any real conflict or danger during preparations. Not helping matters are scenes of teenage recruits being put through training drills to bouncy music more appropriate to a holiday camp comedy.
Proceedings post-intermission at least deliver a reasonable quota of pyrotechnics as the mission commences like clockwork before hitting serious snags. Struggling at all times for emotional heft, pic hits the mark only with a moving scene of teenage rebels choosing suicide over capture, and the playing out of Pritala and Nirmal’s flight from authorities.
Given little to do other than look deeply serious, Bachchan delivers a one-note perf that fails to make Sen the inspiring leader the story demands. Less damaging, but more jarring, are the almost uniformly wooden perfs of English-speaking actors playing British military and government types.
Widescreen visuals by co-lensers Seetha Sandhiri and Kiran Deohans are clean and nicely composed. Production design by “Lagaan” and “Devdas” ace Nitin Chandrakant Desai is the standout contribution to a pro tech package. Title translates roughly as, “We shall play with our souls.”