On maverick Bangladeshi film-maker Tareque Masud’s third death anniversary, Udayan Dhar looks back at the man and the inspirations that provided film lovers across the world with some of the best works of contemporary Bengali cinema.
This August, film lovers from Bangladesh and elsewhere, marked the third anniversary of the iconoclastic and brilliant film maker Tareque Masud’s tragic demise in a road crash on the Dhaka-Aricha highway while returning from a filming location. His loss is deeply felt in a nation that not only saw him bringing international fame to his country’s cinema almost akin to the way Majid Majidi did for Iran, but also touched a chord with his audiences by invoking themes that deeply resonate in the hearts and minds of most Bangladeshis.
Tareque Masud first proved his cinematic genius with the historical documentary Muktir Gaan (The Song of Freedom, 1995). In the midst of the brutal massacres and prolonged conflict of 1971 which gave birth to an independent Bangladesh, a motley bunch of artists, singers, actors and students who called themselves Bangladesh Mukti Shangrami Shilpi Shangstha travelled across refugee camps and guerilla trenches in India and the liberated districts, infusing people with the spirit of war though their music and lyrics. These songs and puppet shows originate from a space that is essentially Bengali in character, and seek to lay the spiritual foundation of a new nation being born out of a commitment towards freedom and secularism. The fact that such a film was released in 1995- a time when Bangladesh was reeling under an increasingly pro-Islamist Khaleda Zia regime was nothing less than a political statement. The film itself was a montage of invaluable footage captured on celluloid by Lear Levin and his crew, rediscovered more than two decades later by a persistent Masud and his team who managed to dig them out from the basement of Levin’s house in New York.
But it was Matir Moyna (The Clay Bird, 2002) that really reached cult status and made Masud an internationally recognised face. Loosely based on his own childhood experiences at a Madrasa during the 1971 liberation war, Matir Moyna is a very personal account of how the war impacted lives of ordinary Bengalis in East Pakistan, seen through the eyes of Anu- a young boy still trying to find his place in the world and struggling to define his relationship with his distant father amidst the cacophony of war and destruction that surrounds their idyllic small town.
The appeal of this film lies in the deeply sympathetic portrayal of everyday characters- the younger sister who desires nothing more than a decorated clay bird from the local Hindu fair, the mostly silent yet telling bond of friendship between Anu and Rokon at the Madrasa, or the activist uncle Milon and his Marxist friends. Exploring the deep fissures of religion and class in East Bengali society, the film is a caustic critique of the modern politicisation of traditions and faith. For instance, when the Madrasa starts training its young inhabitants in martial arts under the guise of defending Islam, Anu’s teacher wonders why the religion which spread in Bengal through the songs of the Sufis, now needs a sword to “defend” itself.
The film which can be watched just for the sheer power and beauty of its music (The heart-rending Baul tracks of Jodi Bheste Jaite Chao– If You Wish to Go to Heaven, and Pakhita Bondi Aachhe– The Bird Is Trapped In the Body’s Cage) became the first full-length feature film from Bangladesh to be selected for the Cannes Film Festival. Ironically, it was banned from screening in Bangladesh itself by the country’s censor board because of its irreverent take on Islamic fundamentalism and it wasn’t before a prolonged court battle that it could be finally screened there.
The events of 1971 still bear a deep mark in the psyche of the Bangladeshi people, perhaps because the country has still not had a sense of closure in the form of prosecuting those who collaborated with the Pakistani Army in the pillaging of villages and cities, and the targeted killings of Awami Leaguers, intellectuals and minority Hindus. The 2013 Shahbagh movement propelled the nominally secular Sheikh Hasina government to finally take the plunge and move decisively ahead with the War Crimes Tribunal.
No wonder then that Masud- who experienced the war first hand returns to this theme with his short film Noroshundor (The Barbershop, 2009)- a dark thriller, almost a psychological study of a mind in the grip of terror and turmoil. Through its content, the film also takes a dig at the prevalent Bengali paranoia about the Bihari community- the subject of much mistrust and even violence as Sarmila Bose reveals in her controversial new book ‘Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War’.
But Tareque wasn’t one to be just hung up on history. Bravely, he tackles very contemporary issues in his 2010 film ‘Runway’. The story of Ruhul- an unemployed urban slum dweller who gradually ends up in the netherworld of terrorism offers rarely documented glimpses into many innate aspects of modern Bangladesh- from workers’ migration to the Gulf countries to the sweat shops of the garment businesses that have become notorious for their dismal safety standards. Ironically enough, the garment factory tragedies just kept getting worse since the release of the film- culminating in the tragic death of more than a thousand people at Rana Plaza in April last year. The film is a non-judgmental take on what drives young men into the abyss of religious fanaticism, yet managing to retain the tenderness of humanity despite the realities of an unforgiving world that surrounds us. This is shown beautifully in the way Ruhul’s mother lovingly marks his homecoming with the traditional smearing of milk on her son’s face, or ironically in Ruhul’s amazement when he watches videos of a military training online, “There’s Islamic stuff on the internet?” he asks “I thought it had only naked women”.
Masud’s death came at a time when he was shooting another historical film- Kagojer Phool (The Paper Flower), a prequel to Matir Moyna– chronicling Anu’s father’s days in Calcutta from 1945-47 during the restive partition riots. It is still an unfinished project that will one day hopefully see the light of the day with the efforts of Catherine Shapere- Masud’s American born wife and film-making partner. Catherine still lives and works in Dhaka, and runs the Tareque Masud Memorial Trust- dedicated to Tareque’s memory and to his endeavors. In a recent interview she said, “Just like soldiers are martyred in wars, Tareque was like a soldier for the world of films- who lost his life in the midst of battle.”