Bollywood’s Nasa Guy

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Bedabrata Pain was up to hi-tech wizardry at a Nasa lab in the US before he quit the job to make a film on the Chittagong uprising of 1930

Every way you look at it, Bedabrata Pain is the sort of boy who makes Bengali parents beam. For a man who left India in 1986, he still speaks English with a robust Bengali accent. He topped his class in IIT. He holds a PhD in the sciences. He worked with Nasa for 18 years, opting to be a modestly-paid researcher even when his adviser and collaborator left to cash in on a groundbreaking project in 1995. He hasn’t abridged his full-bodied Bengali name. But then in 2008, he did something that upset his parents: he quit his job at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Lab to make a film, though he had never even been on a film set or handled a film camera before this.

“They didn’t say anything directly to me, because I was, after all, an adult man in my forties,” says Pain. “The funniest thing is that after confirming many times with me that I had indeed quit Nasa, my dad said, ‘Please go and ask your boss to write a letter saying that you used to work in Nasa. Make sure it says that you worked there for 18 years.’ The sub-text was that now that I was jumping into this not-so-kosher line of work and would obviously lose everything, I could do with a character certificate and consolation letter when I go begging for work elsewhere.”

Pain’s debut film, Chittagong, which he has directed, produced and co-scripted, opened the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles on 10 April, with an audience of 600 giving him a standing ovation. Next, on 23 May, the film travels to the New York Indian Film Festival, where it is again the opening film.

Here in India, the film is being presented by director-producer Anurag Kashyap, who loved it so much that he felt he had to get involved in one way or another. Kashyap helped Pain find distributors across India.

Chittagong is based on the incidents of 18 April 1930, when school teacher Surjya Sen, popularly known as Masterda, led a band of schoolboys to capture two armouries of the Raj in Chittagong, apart from a club meant for Europeans; the young revolutionaries also cut off telegraph and telephone lines, disrupting phone services. Later, many of them were captured, tortured and executed; Sen himself was hanged in 1934. The youngest revolutionary, Subodh Roy, a 13-year-old boy, was sentenced to confinement in the infamous Andamans jail. Roy is the hero of Pain’s film. But this film chooses to focus only on the raid, interpreting it as a marvellous underdog victory. “I wanted a happy end,” he says, sounding decidedly un-Bengali. 

He started writing the film in 2007, and quit his job the next year without experiencing any great epiphany or inner conflict. “There wasn’t that one dramatic moment you are looking for. Or two,” he says, apologetically. “It was simple, it felt natural. I was convinced that it was time to move on. The thing is that by then, I was tiring of my job. I felt that I had done what I had to do. Only the nuts and bolts remained. For that, my team could take over.”

In 1993, Pain along with his adviser Eric Fossum had devised CMOS, the digital imaging technology that ignited the instant photography explosion. This technology is at the heart of every sort of imaging device from consumer products like cameras to mobile phones to the satellite cameras used in space missions. It also made digital filmmaking possible. Pain owns 87 patents, and has been inducted into the US Space Technology Hall of Fame. In 1995, Fossum left Nasa to cash in on his work, inviting Pain to come along. But Pain stayed back at Nasa, leading a research group of 20 people to explore the possibilities of CMOS. By 2007, the explorations felt less like an adventure, more like logging hours.

But when Pain finally quit his job, the timing turned out to be not so great. In the summer of 2008, when he landed with his script in Mumbai, Reliance Entertainment, NDTV Imagine and Mumbai Mantra, a film unit of the Mahindras, wanted to fund his film. “When I saw Bedo’s script, I felt that potentially it is a very good film,” says lyricist Prasoon Joshi, who is also a member of the board of Reliance Entertainment . “At that time, I did not know that somebody else was thinking of converting it into a film.”

 Bollywood opened its doors, Pain met a bunch of people eager to work with him, and went back to the US, all charged up. He quit Nasa soon after, but later that year, the Great Recession set in, with Lehman Brothers going belly up. Rattled by aftershocks, corporate film units froze new projects. The uncertainty of it all unnerved Pain a bit. He regretted quitting, perhaps the only time he harboured a second thought about his decision. And then, he had a lucky turn, the sort that makes for the kind of happy endings Pain himself is partial to. The second set of royalty payments for his work on CMOS came in, and after taxes, he found it amounted to pretty much the budget he had drawn up for his film.

Pain put in the money without too many pangs and plunged into work, but in the summer of 2009, there was news that Ashutosh Gowariker was also making a film on the Chittagong uprising. As it happened, Gowariker was in LA that summer and Pain met him. “He said, ‘You make your film, and I’ll make mine,’” says Pain. “I knew then that I had to do it on my own, that I had no chance of getting any funding from Bollywood.” But one consolation was that Gowariker’s hero was Surjya Sen, so the story could be told in different ways. 

By September that year, Pain was in India, finalising his actors and scouting for locations, while his mother took off for LA to look after his two boys. Prasoon, who couldn’t get the film funded, offered his services as lyricist and set up a number of introductions, including a particularly fruitful one with composers Shankar, Ehsan and Loy, whose uncharacteristically Indian soundtrack is believed to be one of the high points of the film. Pain himself has sung one of the songs. Oscar winner Resul Pookutty is the sound designer. Manoj Bajpai agreed to take on the role of Surjya Sen. And, there was a casting coup of sorts with noted theatre teacher Barry John signing on for one of the main roles. Pain’s casting director was Honey Trehan, who is Vishal Bhardwaj’s assistant director. All in all, he had quite a Bollywood-centric crew. But for his 13-year-old lead, the Chittagong team auditioned thousands of young boys till Dilzad Hiwale turned up. Pain took one look at him and decided he’d found his ‘Jhunku’.

As it happens, he also chanced upon the real ‘Jhunku’ Roy in the winter of 2007, at Kolkata’s PG Hospital; the man was on his deathbed. Jhunku could barely speak then, but Pain’s co-writer and wife Shonali Bose managed to record him on video.

This encounter, of which Pain is uncharacteristically reticent, convinced him that his hero was Jhunku, a boy from a privileged background whose father worked for the British administration and had plans to send his son to University of Oxford. In 1934, Jhunku became the youngest political prisoner at the Cellular Jail in the Andamans, and is believed to be the last to be released from it in 1940.

For shooting, the team travelled to the actual Chittagong in Bangladesh, but settled on a place called Lataguri in north Bengal, for reasons of budget and time. Shooting began late January 2010. The first day, when he walked in to take his first shot, was the scariest moment of his life, says Pain. “Here were 150-odd people looking to me to tell them what to do, and I was like, ‘I don’t know. I’ve never done this thing before.’ In fact, learning to trust himself, his voice, is what Pain says was the hardest thing about making this film, though he faced more than a usual share of shooting-related difficulties: the sound of a generator intruding on the 1930s period set, and trams rattling past noisily in the Kolkata leg of the shoot. But they wrapped up in 42 days, not because they had everything they needed, but because they were out of money and time. They’d shot possibly 70 per cent of the scenes.

And yet, Chittagong has found major admirers. “It’s very bare, which is how I believe cinema should be,” says Anurag Kashyap. “It touches you. And it tells you the story from the point of view of a young boy, which gives it freshness, innocence and  holds together the events well. Bedo is completely untaught, but somehow he’s got the grammar of filmmaking right.”

In December 2010, Gowariker’s version of the Chittagong uprising starring Abhishek Bachchan and Deepika Padukone released and tanked. Pain worried that the lack of interest in the Chittagong events of 1930 might extend to his film. But as he and his post-production team worked on finishing the film, the Arab Spring began in the Middle East in late 2010. Later in 2011, there was the Occupy Wall Street protests in the US, turmoil in European countries such as Greece, and anti-corruption clamour in India. Pain was thrilled. “My story of underdogs will find a resonance at this time. Because I have a happy ending,” says Pain.