Cinema & National Memory in Bangladesh

By Catherine Masud

clay-bird-tareque-masud-1.jpgThe Clay Bird, 2002

Film, faith and the search for tolerance

A Question of Identity

1971: The Independence War of Bangladesh, whereby the then East Pakistan won its liberation from the dominant Western wing, now known simply as Pakistan. At the time, it came as a momentous event, resulting in some three million dead and ten million refugees but, even within Bangladesh, the memory has become muddled and confused by decades of bickering and deadly infighting. And yet, in cinema, again and again, the ghosts of 1971 continue to haunt the screen. This is because in today’s Bangladesh, thirty-two years on, similar conflicts and contradictions are still very much alive. Bangladesh politics, culture, and society continue to be defined by an ongoing debate on the nature and origin of the national identity. In three of our films, made in succession between 1995 and 2002, we have continued to touch on this debate, revising and expanding the discourse in ever widening circles of interpretation.

Celluloid History

In the turbulent years of internecine bloodshed that followed independence, many of the documents and records of the Liberation struggle were destroyed. The national film archives were ignored and mismanaged, often for deliberate political ends. In the resulting historical vacuum, various parties and platforms were free to manipulate the symbols of ’71, whether in the form of dead leadership, freedom fighters, or collaborators, to their own ends and purposes. After 1975, military governments adopted an Islamic façade to legitimize their rule, smothering the secular and tolerant values of the Liberation War.

clay-bird-tareque-masud-2.jpgThe Clay Bird, 2002

Against this backdrop, it was a strange revelation for us to come across, in 1990, twenty hours of footage from 1971, in the Manhattan basement of American filmmaker Lear Levin. In 1971 Lear had tried – and failed – to complete a film on the war to raise money for the refugees. The cans of super 16mm footage were relegated to the back shelves, where they remained untouched for twenty years. We came to see it out of curiosity more than anything else, but after viewing the pristine images, we were inspired to make a film based on the footage. Rather than dry news reportage, the visuals were filled with pastoral beauty and poignant details of refugee life. Also scattered throughout the twenty hours of footage were images of a troupe of musicians, who had toured throughout the border zones in ’71, singing inspirational nationalist songs for the refugees and freedom fighters. The musical troupe – a mixture of young men and women, Hindu and Muslim – seemed an embodiment of the tolerant and egalitarian ideals of Bengali nationalism.

This was just the beginning of a worldwide search to rediscover a lost history. The Bangladesh National Archives might be a wasteland but we soon realized that the world’s collections were brimming over with documentation of those times. Using Levin’s footage of the troupe as a narrative base, we structured a documentary around archival documentation of the war. It was released as Song of Freedom in 1995. The response took even us by surprise: for months on end, thousands came to see the film. Most of the audience was young, the majority of them women. Tears streaked their faces, although the film itself was devoid of the melodrama typical of Bengali cinema.

words-of-freedom-catherine-masud-tareque-masud-1.jpgWords of Freedom, 1999 

Gradually, we realized the true source of the pain: the film was not only about the past, but the present as well, read in the context of the tragedies that befell the nation post-1971 and the suppression of the ideals and values that defined Liberation. Many young people openly expressed their anger. “Why were we not told? Why has the truth been hidden from us all these years?” It was one of those strange convergences of history that the release of the film coincided with and fed into a revival of Bengali nationalism which snowballed throughout the next year. And it was no accident that the government then in power, having passed the film uncut, sought to ban it after its release.

In the storm that followed its release, certain ambiguities in representation were lost. The subversive depiction of women as active and equal partners in the struggle went against the grain of the implicitly male-dominated symbolism of the war. Additionally, the class element of the struggle did not fit into the mainstream discourse of Bengali nationalism and so was overlooked. The actual guerrilla fighters seen in the film are ordinary farmers and labourers, while the singers are from middle/upper middle class backgrounds. The film ends with a troubling question, as one of the fighters stares off into what might be the distant future. “Have we done justice to their sacrifice? Have we lived up to the ideals for which they fought and died?” The fact that the narrator is one of the cultural troupe members and is indicating a separation between himself and the peasant fighters by the use of the third person was too subtle a point for those whose main agenda was elsewhere. But for us, the question was a new starting point for our next film, which sought to find the answer.

Revising Revivalism

After a new government came to power in 1996, espousing the principles and ideals of ’71, a revivalist version of history was brought to centre-stage; but as we took the film from Dhaka to villages across the country, we encountered a growing critique of Bengali nationalism from a most unexpected source: ordinary people. This nationalism was essentially an ideology of the middle class intelligentsia. It did not encompass farmers and labourers, the majority population. Nor did it account for “adivasis” – ethnically and linguistically distinct tribes-people – or women, particularly the poor and marginalized. This lapse wasn’t lost on our new audience. In a remote border region, tribal war veterans reminisced nostalgically on the unified spirit of ’71 and reflected on their status as second-class citizens in the Bangladesh they’d fought to liberate. Village women who had confronted the invading Pakistan Army with broken pots and bamboo spears spoke out against the establishment view that only men had fought. The memories they recounted were a national treasure that would die with their generation. We began to document our travels and interactions and a film began to take shape that we eventually called Words of Freedom. In the cinematic reading of history, we found that it was not just the lens of the camera but the lens of the projector that determined the film’s meaning. In the city, for a middle class audience, the film Song of Freedom had one meaning but to a remote village audience it had a completely different interpretation. The audience, therefore, was a film’s ultimate author.

words-of-freedom-catherine-masud-tareque-masud-2.jpgWords of Freedom, 1999

Although it was built on apparently casual encounters with rural audiences, Words of Freedom was at another level an attempt to stretch the definition of national identity. Without any effort towards intellectual analysis, the contradictions inherent within the framework of Bengali nationalism naturally emerged through the voices of the dispossessed. One professor of history, after hearing the testimonies, cried out that his entire life of scholarship had been a waste. Another intellectual, who had earlier commented on the lack of awareness and articulacy among the working classes, publicly retracted his views after watching the film. As debate swirled in the wake of the film’s release, a new interpretation of ’71 began to emerge, more inclusive and complex, embracing diversity and pluralism. But the fault lines of contradiction still remained. The fundamental problem was how to reconcile Bangladesh’s dual Muslim and Bengali identities. This became one of the main subjects of our next film.

Religion and Identity in the New “Global” World

We had long been preoccupied by the theme of religiosity and its connection with culture and society and had developed a deep appreciation for the vibrant rural culture of the country, with its syncretic character and mystic tradition of theosophical debate. We wanted to bring these traditions to the screen, while touching on the core problems of identity and religion and so, in 2000, we began work on our first feature, The Clay Bird.

It is based on Tareque’s childhood experience during the late 1960s, a turbulent, formative phase for the emerging nation. His deeply religious father had sent him off to study in an Islamic school, a madrasa. At the time, the country was sharply polarized between pro-Islamists (believing in a unified Pakistan) and secular Bengali nationalists, agitating for democratic reform and, later, independence. Told through the innocent and curious eyes of young Anu, the film attempts to give a balanced and realistic view of life in a madrasa where, even in the midst of social upheaval, the tradition of debate inherent in Islam was still alive. At the same time, the film does not gloss over the extremist tendencies that existed among sections of the madrasa establishment.

Indeed, if the film has any message, it is to expose the danger of any form of extremism, religious or political. In addition, we discovered that the crisis of Bengali/Muslim identity was more a middle-class/intelligentsia phenomenon and that, at the grassroots level, this conflict had been organically resolved through an amalgamated blend of cultures.

As we were completing the editing, the reverberations of September 11th shook the globe. Already in Bangladesh, the pendulum was swinging away from nationalist rhetoric towards a rising Islamic consciousness and, after 9/11, this accelerated and a backlash led to a resurgence of the religious right, who soon came to power in a new coalition government. There was no longer space for debate on questions of religion and national identity, and The Clay Bird was banned. In the international media, the previously unknown “madrasa” became synonymous with Islamic fundamentalism. Sectarian conflicts in South Asia reached new levels of intensity. In this new globalized context, issues of national identity cannot be looked at in the narrow prism of the local anymore. Readings of history, symbolism and identity have always been in flux and so our own artistic vision will continue similarly to evolve.

Tareque and Catherine Masud’s The Clay Bird is currently on general release from ICA projects.