Diaries of Life, Death and Life Anew – Enduring Legacy of Bangladesh Liberation Cinema

stop genocide

(This essay is in commemoration of the birth centenary this year of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s Father of the Nation; and the fiftieth anniversary of the making of Zahir Raihan’s Stop Genocide, with which the history of short filmmaking in Bangladesh begins.)

A road accident on August 19, 2011, robbed Bangladesh of its most exceptional filmmaker, and this writer of a dear friend, Tareque Masud.  With his death at the age of fifty-four, the secular and democratic forces in that country suffered a huge loss. The many recognitions he received at home and abroad, including Cannes and Karachi, speak their own story of Tareque as an artist, but what still haunts me, nine years after his passing on, is the thought that I will never again come across that wonderful smile of his, his comradely greeting, and that firm handshake that told you that you mattered to him.

My mind goes back to a session of films from Bangladesh held in 1991 at Nandan, the West Bengal Film Centre in Calcutta, in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the War of Liberation. The session, entitled Bangladesher Hridoy Hotey (From Bangladesh, Heartfelt), consisted of short fiction, documentaries and an animation film. To enliven the screenings and the discussions that followed, came the then young trio of the ever-youthful Tareque Masud, the scholarly-looking Tanvir Mokammel, and the strikingly-quiet Morshedul Islam.

From that session the film that impressed my friends and me the most was Tareque’s hour-long colour documentary, Adam Surat (The Inner Strength). This biopic, which was anything but a biopic, has the same special place in my heart today as it did when I first saw it. Tareque started on his filmmaking career with this engaging essay on the life, times and art of the maverick painting genius, Sheikh Muhammad Sultan(1923-1994), a household name in Bangladesh. If the film records with considerable control over the medium, the many dimensions of the artist and the many directions he travelled only to return to the strength and vitality of his grassroot moorings, it reflects no less the unshakeable faith of a young documentarian in the greatness and usefulness of such a life complete with a tenaciously held belief in a composite culture and society.

Having set out to do a ‘quickie’ (by the director’s own admission) on an artist looked upon by some as an exotic being or an extreme eccentric, and by still others as a playful, innocent child, Tareque found himself increasingly drawn into the irresistible labyrinth of Sultan’s world. Started in 1982, the documentary ultimately took seven years to complete. Financial difficulties were partly to explain for the inordinate time it took to complete the film, but that was only a part of the story. As day after day of shooting passed, the curiosity of the vicarious onlooker came to be emphatically replaced by a firm involvement in Sultan’s sense of time, space, rhythm, structure and comradeship. The deep respect that Tareque gradually came to have for his lofty yet down-to-earth subject was reflected in many decisions regarding what to include in the film and what to leave out.

For instance, initially, the androgynous aspect to Sultan’s persona asked to be included. There was a period in the painter’s life when he was given to roaming his ancestral village of Narail in Jessore district of Bangladesh dressed as Radha. He would wear a sari, put ghoongroos on his feet and feathers in his long hair. After prolonged mental wrestling, Tareque decided against including this in his film, fearing that it might turn this eclectic spirit into a market commodity to be lapped up by ignorant and impressionable audiences, particularly in the West.

Tareque: “I also felt that there were far more important things to show and tell viewers about Sultan, such as his quiet but intense nationalist spirit, his empathy for the poor farmer and his family, his secularism which comes to him as easily as his breathing and, of course, his robust and colourful canvases which are almost always about his country’s brave and hardworking yet desperately poor farming brothers and sisters.”

There is an epic quality as much about Sultan the man as about his paintings. Son of a poor mason, Sultan lacked formal schooling. However, thanks to the active interest shown in his welfare by the scholar and art critic Shaheed Suhrawardy, Sultan gained admission to Government Art College in Calcutta. After three years he left studies to explore the vastness of (undivided) India and spent a few years in Kashmir. Later, he travelled through the United States and Europe, and earned fame as a painter. He was at the height of his reputation in Europe when suddenly, Sultan decided to return to his native village in what had by then become East Pakistan, as far away from the glamour of the international art world as one can think of. A fresh period of meditation began in Sultan’s reclusive life. He isolated himself in the dilapidated remains of a deserted temple surrounded by thick weeds and many trees. He began to live with a large family of cats and was looked after by a poor widow and her daughters who had none to call their own. In one of the many delightful passages in the film, Tareque shows us Sultan’s long tresses being oiled and combed by the woman who was like a sister to him. Compassion and comradeship come together more than once in Sultan’s life to give new meanings to the institution of family.

Gradually, Sultan also developed a close relationship with the peasants of the area, sharing in their daily pains and struggles. During this period of self-exile, his attitude towards life and art underwent a deep transformation. He was profoundly affected by the social upheavals of the Liberation War and the assertive spirit of Bengali nationalism. At about this time a new spectacular dimension began to manifest itself in his art. It was with his epic paintings on the life of the Bengali peasantry that he re-entered the art world with an exhibition in Dhaka in 1976, his first in twenty-five years.

Tareque: “Sultan resembled the Sufi mystic of yore in many ways. His disinterest in money or fame, in material success in any form, made him give away countless paintings, each worth hundreds of thousands of takas, to anyone asking for them. The drawing room of many a Dhaka culture-vulture is adorned with a Sultan obtained without paying anything. Once I found him protecting himself from the rain using one of his paintings as an umbrella.”

Sultan’s larger-than-life peasant figures are strong and proud; big-built and muscular; strikingly colourful and in harmony with the green and brown of the fields they sow and reap. The huge canvases are a conscious and deliberate attempt at celebrating the rural ethos, the pastoral way of life. They glorify the titanic struggle waged by farming families to feed and keep alive the nation. In their own way, the paintings are a critique of the rural-urban divide that almost always works against the interests of villagers. The bulging muscles and exaggerated postures of the farmers are, in a sense, a great artist’s oblique condemnation of a grossly unjust system, reflections of which are increasingly in evidence in Bangladesh’s neighbours as well. Sultan’s farmers are indeed mythical creatures belonging to a feverish imagination and a stout conscience that seem to be mocking at official protestations of concern for them. There is about Adam Surat an air of free enquiry into the quiet, necessarily austere lifestyle of a man of the earth who happened to be gifted in a very special way – the way of brush and paints. In Tareque’s hands, the life of this rare person came to blend harmoniously with the lush greenery that surrounded him, producing a portrait of the artist in a state of childlike purity. This is a ‘must see’ film for anyone who feels strongly drawn to the poetry of Nature and the ability of Man to add to that poetry by the exertions of his imagination. Films such as Adam Surat provide sustenance for the soul in a world burdened with avoidable ambitions. The artistic and philosophical importance of this documentary is in direct proportion to the growing spiritual blight that has set in the country of its origin. The sensitive viewer may even be tempted to imagine Sultan turning and twisting in his grave at what more than one generation of Bangladesh leaders have done to the legacy of liberation fashioned out of extreme adversity by the nation’s founding fathers.

That 1991 package, which we saw with extreme interest, included Ganatantra Mukti Paak (Let there be Democracy), Tareque’s second work for the big screen. This is a three-minute silent animation film which narrated the history of Bangladesh by means of icons, images and motifs that keep visually changing all the while. This is the first animation film by a Bangladesh artist and is dedicated to the memory of Noor Hossain, who gave his life opposing the dictatorship of General Ershad. The film begins with the partition of India in 1947 (actually the partition of only Bengal and Punjab) and the birth of Pakistan. It then shifts to the momentous language movement of 1952 and the rise of Bengali nationalism. What follow carry echoes of familiar events as also of political or military figures – the army takeover in Pakistan; Yahya Khan’s crackdown on East Pakistan; the historic emergence of Bangladesh; and the reappearance of military rule and religious fundamentalism in post-liberation Bangladesh.

Tareque: “The role of imperialism bolstering the Ershad regime is juxtaposed with the heroic death of Noor Hossain, a working class youth who braved the junta’s guns. Hossain had taken to the street with the words, ‘Down with Autocracy’ emblazoned on his bare chest, and ‘Let there be Democracy’ on his back.”

Tareque tried his hand at other subjects as well, which should not be seen in isolation but as part of the overall need for greater freedom for the masses to experience equality and enjoy the fruits of liberation. A video documentary on gender violence, called Sonar Beri (Chains of Gold) was followed by another documentary – Ah! America – which records the attraction that many men and women in one of the poorest countries on earth feel for the richest and most powerful which is also the most violent and exploitative, especially towards poor and helpless immigrants from the East. Tareque knew what he was talking about, married as he was to an American film animator and editor, and spending some time each year in the United States. This enabled him to see through some of the most vigorously touted features of American society. He deplored the heartlessness with which the American nation exploited cheap immigrant labour to enrich itself more and more. At the same time, it pained him to see, as he put it, ‘how these immigrants are willing to demean themselves to gain entry into the United States or to stay on at the cost of their dignity and self-respect’.

Almost a quarter century after the birth of Bangladesh, Tareque with his wife Catherine, created a documentary called Muktir Gaan (Song of Freedom) which drew its inspiration from the memory and example of martyrs like Zahir Raihan. Based on ‘extraordinary footage from an extraordinary time’, Muktir Gaan (35 mm, colour, 80 minutes, 1995) is about a group of Bengali cultural activists which travelled through refugee camps and battle zones during the war of 1971, performing songs and skits that expressed the deep emotional attachment that Bengalees have to their land and culture. The feeling with which they sang the songs of Tagore, Nazrul, D L Roy, Gurusaday Dutta, Jyotirindra Moitra, Moshad Ali and Sikander Abuzafar moved teenage fighters of the Mukti Bahini (Liberation Fighters) and old peasants alike. The troop also enacted meaningful skits which combined with the songs to inspire the people.

The documentary itself has a history no less tortuous or triumphant than that of the Liberation Movement, a slice of which it depicts. An American film crew shot some twenty hours of footage capturing the daily experience of the troupe (the Free Bangladesh Cultural Squad), but their film was never completed. Muktir Gaan incorporates much of the original footage besides collecting archival material from all over the world to tell the story of the Liberation War to those who went through it and, in a sense more importantly, to the generations born after the war. Through the eyes of the troupe members – men and women, Muslim and Hindu – the film portrays the spirit of solidarity that brought together an entire nation plunged into indescribable suffering. Characterised by rigorous editing and imaginative reconstruction of real-life events, this remarkable narrative documentary relies as much on some moving testimonies from those who participated in the war as on soul-stirring songs and music.

Tareque: “Arguably, no film on the Liberation War, documentary or drama, has evoked the kind of frenzied enthusiasm in Bangladesh as Muktir Gaan. Thousands of men and women of all ages, classes and persuasions thronged the theatres of Dhaka and other cities and towns to see the film. The BNP government of Begum Khaleda Zia tried to suppress the film with the result that more and more citizens bought tickets to the screenings.”

Memories crowd in on me as I recall my first conversations with Tareque during and in the aftermath of that 1991 session of Bangladesh films. Whilst having food at a wayside eatery in the Free School Street area of Calcutta, known for its second-hand bookshops, foreign tourists with limited means, and sex-workers catering to all tastes and classes, Tareque told me how for sometime past he had been thinking of doing a full-length fictional feature with autobiographical elements. He said the proposed film would be as much about himself as a small boy as about his father who started out as an atheist, but somewhere along the line succumbed to the temptations of fundamentalism. Tareque believed that apart from his own self, his mother, too, suffered greatly on account of the sea-change in his Presidency College-educated father’s beliefs and lifestyle.

Matir Moina (The Clay Bird) was the name that Tareque gave to that film when it finally came to be made more than ten years after that conversation in the eatery – about himself and his friends at the madrasa to which he was forcibly sent, his father, his suffering but quietly disapproving mother, his little sister who had to pay with her life for the father’s obstinate ways, his uncle who was the antithesis of the father, and above everything else about a nation on the boil clamouring for freedom from a cruel oppressor.

Matir Moina went on to be screened at many prestigious film festivals and earned an international reputation that no film from Bangladesh has equalled to date. In Cannes, it received a standing ovation and won the international critics’ prize. The depth of feeling and the artistic excellence with which the film portrayed the anguish in the soul of a divided family at a time of nationwide upheaval, were amply recognised and richly rewarded. Comparing Tareque’s debut in fiction with the best of Satyajit Ray and Abbas Kiarostami, critics heralded the arrival of a talent that promised to grow from strength to strength.

It is an uncanny feeling to watch how exceptional artists separated by great distances are, however, often united in telling common stories. If the toy clay-bird in Matir Moina is a metaphor for the missing sister, a similar metaphor binding a brother and a sister is to be found in an animation film from Maharashtra made some years before the celebrated Bangladesh film. Shilpa Ranade’s Mani’s Dying is based on an extract from the Marathi novel Kosala (The Cocoon) by the noted writer Bhalchandra Nemade. The film tells the story of a young man who leaves his village to go to study in Pune. Life in the city alienates him from his home. The film is a reconstruction in crayons, pencils and photographs of events surrounding the death of the protagonist’s five year old sister in a small pox epidemic in their village. At the end of the film, the protagonist goes to the cave monastery at Ajanta where, through the painted stories from the life and teachings of Buddha, he comes to terms with death and suffering.

Mani’s Dying (1995, 16mm, 7.12 minutes, English) is a very personal attempt at reading meanings both poignant and profound in the lives of the little girl Mani and her big brother who finds the time to take her seriously only after she is dead of a scourge which is far from gone from the neglected interior of the country. It is a wrenching experience to grow with the brother as he recollects his failure to bring Mani a red sari which he had promised her. The unrealised red sari works as a moving symbol for the painfully and prematurely terminated life of little Mani. Again, the photographs at the close of the film showing Mani’s sisters getting married underline the pathos in the life of the absent one. Mani’s Dying is small only in duration. In every other way, be it in terms of art, technique or statement, it is big and beautiful; sadly and disturbingly beautiful.

It is not known whether Bhalchandra Nemade is telling an autobiographical story, but Tareque’s seriously sick sister actually died due to their father’s obstinacy not to treat her illness with western medicine which he seems to have thought of as the devil’s invention. In course of the last conversation I had with Tareque in Calcutta, he told me that his mother had never forgiven his father for having caused the death of the child. Tareque himself appeared to have softened, saying that the old man was in the last leg of his life’s journey and appeared to be full of remorse for what he had done. But there was nothing that he or anyone else in the family could do to bring round his mother to their point of view. Catherine was by his side as he remembered the past and connected it to the present in a wistful tone. The death of such a one asTareque Masud  who symbolised a rare genius for carving lasting art out of individual traumas and collective tragedies, is a loss that no language can adequately express.

Distinguished as he was, it is however arguable whether Tareque would have turned out the way he did if he had had to plough a lonely furrow. Artists, more than others, flourish in packs. They gain their inspiration, their urge to excel, and a shoulder to cry on from each other. To arrive at a credible and provocative evaluation of Tareque’s body of work, it is necessary to place by its side the films of at least two of his contemporaries – Tanvir Mokammel and Morshedul Islam. In a sense they are all chroniclers of death. The War of Liberation is a subject that has been repeatedly visited by each of them in varied styles, different genres, with varying degrees of artistic success. It is a startling coincidence that Tareque should have left us on the 50th anniversary of that war which ended in a Pyrrhic victory and the birth of a separate Bengali-speaking nation. No less than three million Bengalee lives – Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Buddhist and others – were ended by the murderous Punjabi and Pathan hordes of Yahya Khan, Tikka Khan and Rao Firman Ali.

Mokammel: “The history of short filmmaking in Bangladesh begins with Zahir Raihan’s Stop Genocide. During the 1971 war, Raihan, a gifted filmmaker, rose to the occasion and made this remarkable short documentary. The film is a vehement protest against the pogrom on Bengalees by the marauding Pakistan army. Three more documentaries were made during the war. These are Alamgir Kabir’s Liberation Fighters, Babul Chowdhury’s Innocent Millions, and another film by Zahir Raihan, A State is Born. These films have great emotive value for our people and considering the conditions in which they were made, one may overlook certain technical limitations. This is the heritage of our short filmmaking.”

Tanvir  Mokammel came to the fore with a short fiction film called Hooliya (Arrest Warrant). Based on a poem by the well-known Bangladeshi Left intellectual and former activist, Nirmalendu Goon, Hooliya is about a young man who is forced to stay away from his village home on account of an arrest warrant hanging over his head.

Tanvir: “The period of the film is during the autocratic regime of Ayub Khan in the late ‘60s. But the film draws parallels with the democratic movement against the autocracy of Ershad, presenting certain aspects of Bangladesh politics in symbolism.”

Notwithstanding the poor quality of sound or the indifferent camerawork, Hooliya exerts an appeal that is, by turns, poetic, romantic or quietly political. The appeal stems largely from the conviction with which the director works on a theme that is so close to the heart of the nation. The film works well at the personal level too. The young man’s relationships with those around him (his father, mother, small sister or a neighbourhood sister-in-law), or with the village comrades who come visiting him at night for news of the world outside, are convincingly fleshed out.

One particular passage merits more than passing mention. It relates to an ‘affair’ between the rebellious youth and a young girl. Having fled East Pakistan with others of her family for want of security, the girl is shown living in a dingy part of Shyambazar in north Calcutta. She yearns for him as much as for the open spaces and blue skies of her lost homeland, as revealed in a letter to him. But she also admits that she feels safer in her new environment. The mood of the passage borders on the lyrical; a mixture of romantic nostalgia and a profound sadness that perhaps the two of them will never meet again.

Tanvir: “Maybe there was no such ‘affair’ in the young man’s life; maybe there was. Who can tell? Perhaps he is dreaming of an impossible romance. Every true revolutionary cannot but dream of a better day, a slightly better order, and a little love and decency among human beings.”

After Hooliya, Mokammel shot a documentary in 35 mm colour. Smriti Ekattor (Memories of ’71) relates the fate of at least 300 leading Bengali intellectuals, artists and political figures who were systematically liquidated by Islamic fundamentalists during the liberation war.

Tanvir: “Masterminded by the Pakistan army, these ghastly killings were spearheaded by Al-Badr, the death squad of Jamaat-i-Islami (whose leader was none other than Gholam Azam who later came to be shielded from popular wrath by the government of Khaleda Zia, which depended for its survival in the early ‘90s on the support of fundamentalist elements in the Bangladesh Parliament)… During the war when Dhaka would be under curfew at night, Al-Badr buses would pick up doctors, litterateurs, artists, teachers, playwrights and others, blindfold them and take them away. Later, their bodies would be found in marshy areas near the city. In some cases, like that of the filmmaker Zahir Raihan, the bodies were never found. The film aims at exploring the reasons and events behind the murder of these intellectuals and public figures.”

Although visually flat and aesthetically unexciting, Smriti Ekattor nonetheless provides for a credible documentation of events during a period that carried within itself germs of the present struggle between fundamentalists drawing material and moral support from Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia on the one hand, and forces epitomizing the tenets of the socio-political faith which inspired the nationalist war against Pakistan on the other. In Tanvir’s words: “We are caught between Mujib’s legacy and the lure of fundamentalism.”

The liberation war and the role of fifth-columnists was again raised by Tanvir in his first full-length fictional feature, Nodir Naam Modhumoti (Modhumoti, the Name of the River). Examining the character and activities of ‘razakars’ (the name given to traitors in Bangladesh) in a rather loud and long-winded fashion, the film reflects the concerns and commitments of not just Tanvir but practically every important director of the alternative school in Bangladesh. For, as they are never tired of explaining, they cannot bring themselves to forget what the liberation struggle cost the nation in terms of moral and psychological devastation, not to mention the 3 million unarmed, defenseless people who were killed, or at least double that number who were maimed and left useless for life.

Tanvir: “Come to think of it, this monumental tragedy would have passed into the folklore of man’s inhumanity to man, meriting mention alongside Hitler’s annihilation of Jews, had it occurred in some part of the West and not in one of the poorest countries of the so-called third world.”

Tanvir says in regard to Nodir Naam Modhumoti, which was banned by the Khaleda Zia regime in the mid-‘90s: “Motaleb Kazi, chairman of a union council and a collaborator of the Pakistan army, had been causing havoc during the 1971 war. But his son joins the freedom fighters, the Mukti Bahini. In the code of the freedom fighters, the punishment handed down to collaborators is death. But the guerillas resist from taking any action against the father of one of their comrades. However, one day, the son himself takes the decision to strike at the father. Thereby, a Hamlet-like story is enacted in the riverine, marshy-land of Bangladesh with the bloody war of 1971 providing the backdrop.”

Chitra Nodir Parey (Quiet Flows the River Chitra, 1998), Tanvir’s next venture, is set in the ‘50s and ‘60s in Narail, a small provincial town in what was East Pakistan. This is a social drama portraying the harmonious relationship between two families, one Hindu and the other Muslim, in the backdrop of larger-than-life events working towards the growth of Bengali nationalism, Chitra Nodir Parey has several memorable ‘moments’ and some distinguished acting which audiences on the international festival circuit have not failed to appreciate. Even as the country is beset with turmoil, the river Chitra, a silent witness to the human tragedies being enacted on its banks, continues to flow freely.

Equally freely flows Tanvir’s hope for the rejuvenation of his people. “Our films are not shown in the regular theatres which are reserved for films that have no relation to the lives of the people. However, my films and those by my friends draw thousands of eager viewers in Dhaka and other cities and towns in Bangladesh, thanks to an alternative network of viewing places. It reassures us to see people buying tickets and thronging to our films even as the authorities try out everything they can think of to discourage us and dissuade the people.”

At least two other films by Tanvir deserve a few words each. In 1996, he made an hour-long video documentary called Achin Pakhi (Unknown Bard) on the life and music of Fakir Lalon Shah, the doyen of Bengal bauls (wayside minstrels). The half-real, half-mythic figure scoured the countryside singing of the love between man and man that no knife can cut. In his own way the director was making a similar plea for lasting human values through his films. It goes without saying that the countries of the sub-continent could do with a few more Tanvir Mokammels.

After a screening of his Lalshalu (A Tree without Roots) at Siri Fort, New Delhi, several years ago, Tanvir said: “They are constantly trying to undermine the gains of the 1971 liberation war, but one would be mistaken to think that the secular, democratic, liberal forces in Bangladesh have disappeared.”

Lalshalu leaves a strong impression by virtue of its bold and authentic rendition of the 1948 classic by Syed Waliullah. The story of the self-seeking preacher, who is able to use religion for wrong ends for sometime but in the end comes a cropper, is arguably the most remarkable novel about the rural Muslim community of what was East Bengal. Tanvir: “In Bangladesh, Syed Waliullah is still regarded as a writer of deep insight, and I thought the need of the hour is to bring home to people the plea for humanity that the great writer made in his great novel.”

To give credit where credit is due, it must be said that one of the films that inspired Tareque to give his all to it once he chose filmmaking as the vocation of his life was Agaami (The Morrow). Syed Salahuddin Zaki, an early product of the Pune Film Institute and a leading Film Society activist in Bangladesh during the 80s and early 90s, is on record thus: “Alamgir Kabir, one of the leading exponents of film culture in Bangladesh, propagated the concept of making low-budget short–length purposeful films – preferably in 16mm – and distribute such films independently outside the bondage of the so-called mainstream cinema’s distribution and exhibition system. With the making of Agaami (1984) and Hooliya (1985), the ideas of Alamgir Kabir gained momentum.”

An effective fusion of documentary and drama, Morshedul Islam’s Agaami, which won a Silver Peacock at the International Film Festival of India in 1985, played a path-breaking role in that many of the short films that emerged from Dhaka in subsequent years resembled it in theme, style and a realistic idiom that appealed to viewers in the newly independent nation. True, Agaami has its moments of technical awkwardness – and no one is more aware of it than the film’s soft-spoken, mild-mannered director – but the more important thing to note is that it is difficult to ignore the film’s ability to tell the truth as its director Morshedul perceived it, with a simplicity of touch combined with a rare depth of conviction. It is in this that Morshedul’s first film carries important lessons for short film directors working in adverse conditions on either side of the river Padma. What was true then is true even now.

In 1988, Morshedul directed Suchona (Warning), an hour long fictional feature in 16mm colour. In a sense, Suchona took off from where Agaami ended, speaking of the need for another and a new kind of struggle by the survivors of the war of liberation. Morshedul is articulate about the disillusionment in the ranks of the liberal forces in Bangladesh, as also about the need for a fresh popular upheaval to complete the unfinished revolution that rocked the country fifty summers ago. Should such a development come about in the years ahead, it is doubtful how many of Bangladesh’s Urdu speaking ‘New Citizens’ will play a positive role in it.

If first Zahir Raihan, and later Alamgir Kabir were the principal sources of inspiration for Tareque and his friends, Bangladesh’s most important woman filmmaker, Yasmine Kabir, may be said to have been influenced by Tareque and his fellows. What unites the second and third generations of Bangladeshi filmmakers is the will, first, not to forget the lessons and legacy of the Liberation War, and second, to convert them into films that reflect a nation in perpetual turmoil.

There are not too many woman filmmakers in Bangladesh. Porobashi Mon Amaar (My Migrant Soul, colour, video, 34 minutes, 2000) first brought the gifted and argumentative Yasmine Kabir to the notice of the documentary film world. The film is about Shahjahan Babu, a young migrant worker from Bangladesh who left for Malaysia in search of work. After selling the little property he had, Babu arrived in the host country to face misery, frustration and disillusionment. He who had left Bangladesh with dreams of returning home rich and improving the fortunes of his impoverished family, died in a far off land among strangers, racked by poverty and humiliation. The film highlights the plight of the migrant worker and the role of those who trade in human misery. “It is a story about modern-day slavery.” – this is how Yasmine sums up her deeply moving film.

My Migrant Soul speaks of the marginalised and the excluded in an engaging investigative style which if followed with the care it deserves, can yield rich rewards. Using Babu’s deep love for his mother as a metaphorical cry in the wilderness, Yasmine mounts a wrenching message with universal echoes against a world order that forces the young and the vulnerable to embark on quests for success and happiness that are more often than not doomed to failure. Deservedly, this remarkable journey through the trauma of exile ending in premature and lonely death, came to be critically acclaimed wherever it was shown.

But Yasmine’s finest hour as a chronicler of her times and fellow-Bangladeshis was yet to come. Shadhinota (A Certain Liberation, colour, video, 37 minutes, 2003) must surely be counted among the most important films made in recent times on the subject of prejudices and cruelties that make for war, as indeed the search for love and humanity that transcends the severe limitations imposed on human beings by war.

The film is about Gurudasi Mondol ‘who gave herself up to madness’ in 1971, as she watched her entire family of husband and several children, including a breast-feeding infant, being wiped out by Pakistani soldiers aided by their local agents, the razakars. Thirty-two years later, Gurudasi still roams the streets of Kopilmoni, a small town in Bangladesh, searching for all that she lost for no fault of hers. According to Yasmine, “In her madness Gurudasi has found a strategy for survival.” Through her extremely lively presence, at times bordering on rip-roaring hilarity; through her ability to draw even strangers and outsiders to her empty bosom till they have become her own; and, finally, through her resolute will not to forget, Kopilmoni’s (read Bangladesh’s) ‘Mother Courage’ has kept alive the spirit of the Liberation War.

I remember the vivid impression that A Certain Liberation made at the 2004 edition of Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF), where it won a Golden Conch to unanimous acclaim. But, come to think of it, the Special Mention that the film received from the jury at the fourth Kara Film Festival (KFF) in Karachi the same year, was even more significant. It proved the existence of progressive people across the border who saw sense in owning responsibility for the dastardly deeds committed by their government in 1971. Taken together, the two recognitions underline the fact that the entire sub-continent rose as one to salute the artistry of the director and, no less, the patience and courage of a great sufferer.

Any war is tragic, chiefly because of the human lives lost. But it should be remembered that the Liberation War of Bangladesh was a monumental confrontation where the death toll was not restricted to a few thousands or even a few lakhs. No less than three million lives were lost and many times that number were displaced, economically destroyed, or traumatized for life on account of rape and other forms of inhuman torture. About the crippling effect of the war in emotive terms, no amount of words can suffice. It was in no way less devastating, physically and spiritually, than the extermination of Jews by the Nazis. To get under the skin of the documentaries relating to that period, the viewer must necessarily have an adequate idea of what the people of Bangladesh endured for long before coming out in open revolt. Bangladeshi documentarians in particular, do not want the world to forget the legacy of the martyrs of 1971. Gurudasi Mondol is one of the countless upholders of that legacy of resistance and reconstruction. The Muslim family which had taken in the homeless Gurudasi is heard telling the filmmaker that they have given up having beef in the house ever since the middle-aged devout Hindu widow had come to stay with them. It is in such telling details that the essence of the inclusivist nature of the Bangladesh Liberation War lives on.

Vidyarthy Chatterjee writes on cinema,society, and politics.



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