I was 6 years old when Kaalapani came out, so it was the first movie that I saw about the Indian Independence Movement. At an age when I could barely grasp the concept of “country”, I was introduced to the horrors of the Cellular Jail. My young mind was so shaken that I remember naively declaring to one of my teachers that I would invade Britain when I grew up, in revenge for what they’ve done.
If you sit down and think about it, Kaalapani is like any other tragedy. Like most tragic heroes, Govardhan is pulled into a life of misery for no real fault of his own, tries to stay inert and righteous, but inevitably succumbs to the call of destiny. But what sets Kaalpani apart, and what makes it dear to our hearts is how the treatment of the inmates of the Cellular Jail was shown to us. Let’s be honest, the movie had its flaws. It had a flashback within a flashback! And the romance and portrayal of Tabu’s character could’ve been better. Yet, it is on television every Independence Day to remind us that people sacrificed quite a lot to get us here.
But did the movie overplay the torture and treatment of the inmates? Did you notice the people hanging off the chains on the walls of the jail, something right off a medieval dungeon set? What about the force-feeding of inmates who were on hunger strikes? Or executions carried out after the prison court passes death sentences? I thought that some of it had to be fiction. But to my horror, the reality was much worse.
To begin with, there did exist a David Barry, and he did give an “I am God on Earth” speech to the inmates who arrived at the jail. But there was no Mirza Khan. However, there was an equivalent figure – Dr Major James Pattison Walker. Though the movie shows an infirmary, what it doesn’t show is the number of doctors who were at the facility. These doctors were not present for the wellbeing of the inmates, they were there to conduct medical experiments. They tested new drugs and conducted experiments on the inmates. For example, the doctors tested for the adequate dosage of quinine, an anti-malarial distilled from the bark of the Cinchona tree, on the inmates of Cellular Jail. Quinine was also a depressant, so high dosages led to depression and suicides. At one point in Kaalapani’s history, three suicides a month had become common.
Why were these poor souls depressed? Kaalapani was a penal colony, and the inmates were made to do hard labour. They had to beat coconut husks to make choir or grind mustard seeds to make oil. They were tied down to their workplaces like animals and made to work hours on end. And like they say in the movie, they were given impossible targets. If they failed to meet their targets, they would be beaten or whipped. There were cases where people were whipped and left in the chained up position for days (hence the people chained to the walls in the movie).
After working all day long, they would return to their cells – all prisoners in Kaalapani were in solitary confinement. The Cellular Jail was constructed in such a manner that the prisoners could not interact with each other. There was even a case of brothers – Babarao Savarkar and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar – not being aware of each other’s presence in the jail for two years. These men and women were treated like slaves and devoid of company for years on end, separated from their homes by an impassable stretch of water.
But this did not stop them from trying to escape. There were scores of escape attempts. In the movie, Mukund talk of how he had the misfortune of swimming up to a British ship. Prisoners 12819, Mehtab, and 10817, Choitun, made rafts and rowed their way into the Bay of Bengal on March 26, 1872. After rowing 750 miles, they were picked up by a British ship. They convinced the crew that they were shipwrecked fishermen and made their way to London. They were finally free and boarded at the Strangers Home for Asiatics in London. But the home’s proprietor, Colonel Hughes, took photos of them while they slept and circulated it around the Empire. Their real identities were revealed, and they were shackled and sent back to India.
The movie also shows another plot where 40 prisoners tried to escape with German aid. Barry and Mirza Khan mow them down with machine guns. In the real version of the story, more than 200 of the first inmates of the penal colony made a run for it in April 1868. 87 of them returned to the prison, unable to fight the elements. Dr Walker hanged all 87 in a day. When news of these summary executions reached Calcutta, instead of reprimanding Dr Walker, a law was passed to have the inmates who were capable of escaping locked into an iron collar.
The inmates did not take this punishment without rebellion though. They went on multiple hunger strikes to demand an improvement in conditions. And some of the saddest stories are of these hunger strikes that were crushed without mercy. The movie shows Ram Lakhan who goes on a hunger strike because he is not allowed to wear his sacred thread. In real life, Ram Raksha starved himself to death for the same cause.
In 1933, the inmates went on a 45-day hunger strike. A few days in, the British had had enough and decided to force-feed the inmates. The inmates would be forcibly taken from their cells, held down on a bed, with a pillow propping up their heads. And while they were held down by several attendants, a doctor would insert a catheter into their nose, and push it down into their stomach pipe. Sounds brutal? It must’ve been. The catheter would be used to pour a mixture of milk, sugar and eggs into the inmate’s stomach. In all this chaos, three men – Mahavir Singh, Mohit Maitra, and Manakrishna Nabadas – had the tubes going into the wrong tract and the mixture was pumped into their lungs. They drowned in milk.
But the end of the prison too came about as a result of a hunger strike. In 1937, a hunger strike garnered attention from leaders in India and Gandhi stepped in. He and Rabindranath Tagore made an agreement with the head of the British administration, Lord Linlithgow. And this paved the way to the shutting down of the prison in 1939.
While researching this piece, I realised the horror that these men were put through. They were kidnapped from their homeland, made to work as slaves, and denied all human rights, all for one crime – the desire to live in a free India. Something to think about given the current socio-political climate, isn’t it?