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Kokhono Asheni: A Case Study

  • Published at 05:46 pm May 17th, 2018
Zahir Raihan in 1961, at the set of Kokhono Asheni. Photo: Wikipedia

An in-depth look into Zahir Raihan's directorial debut

Kokhono Asheni, the directorial debut of Zahir Raihan, is a landmark film in the history of Bangladeshi filmmaking. Although Raihan had previously worked as an assistant director to A J Karder in the film Jago Huya Savera, it is with Kokhono Asheni that he truly announced his arrival on the filmmaking stage. As is the case with many works of art far ahead of their times, Kokhono Asheni did not do particularly well commercially. The film, however, was well received by critics as ground-breaking in its substance, style and narrative elements. It can be broadly categorized under the 'experimental art film' category, albeit feeling like a social melodrama.  

Kokhono Asheni is set against the backdrop of 1960s Dhaka in the then East Pakistan. As such, it provides us with a rare opportunity to see life of the average middle-class Bangladeshi in Dhaka. Raihan does a truly wonderful job of capturing the essence and spirit of the city. This feat is even more impressive considering the technical limitations he had to contend with at the time of making this film. Although the film could clearly have benefitted from better production values, Raihan does not let these issues diminish the artistic value of the film. He is particularly adept at portraying a society and a city that is slowly but surely coming to grips with its identity, a society that values the arts, a society that enunciates its intellectual faculties. The film contains strong socio-political messaging by showing how the masses of the society are having to contend with the oppressive forces that the elites push down upon them through the capitalist mechanism. Raihan was known as being someone who prescribed to the communist philosophy and within Kokhono Asheni we can see his ideals being reflected. Many film critics have also cited Raihan’s films being his vessel to fight for the rights of people and for equality.

The emergence of the educated middle-class and its associated values are quite evident in Kokhono Asheni. Shawkat’s life as a bohemian artist perfectly illustrates the life of an artist in Dhaka during the 60s. Shawkat’s choice of attire is something that is particularly striking when we talk about middle class sensibilities portrayed within the film. He is almost exclusively seen adorned in stylish jackets with his hair back brushed sleekly. We also see Shawkat and his friends regularly hanging out at cafes partaking in the favourite Bengali pastime of “Addabaji” (idle talk). He holds art exhibitions of his work and critics and collectors seem to deem his work praiseworthy. Shawkat portrays the perfect embodiment of a chic young artist. Although it is apparent that he does not have a sufficient income and he and his sisters rely on his father’s modest income to make ends meet (this is of course until events take a turn for the worse and his father first loses his job and then passes away), he has a care free life doing what he loves to do. The mere existence of artists and art collectors point to segments within the society who value the more abstract pleasures of life and a higher state of consciousness.

Although the film could clearly have benefitted from better production values, Raihan does not let these issues diminish the artistic value of the film

Kokhono Asheni makes particularly good use of symbolism to portray the socio-political tension that existed in society between the oppressors and the oppressed at the time. It might even be argued that Raihan was portraying the struggles of Shawkat, his family and Myriam as being representative of the struggle of the Bangladeshis against the Pakistani oppressors. I think this was Zahir Raihan’s intention (as does film scholar Imran Firdaus). Raihan was an ardent patriot and had been a very active activist in all forms of social causes (he was, in fact, one of the first people arrested during the February 21 language movement demonstration) and believed in using his films to give voice to the voiceless and the powerless.

The art collector, Sultan, represents the Pakistani despots. His description of his “acquisition” of Myriam and her subsequent state of affairs bears a striking resemblance to the story of East Pakistan. When Sultan first takes Shawkat to his house to view his art collection, he tells him how he had “freed” Myriam when he had acquired her. Yet, Sultan’s definition of freedom might not match many of ours. This is very much symbolic of how East Pakistan gained independence as a nation from the colonial forces of the British in 1947 and yet, having gained supposed freedom, did not seem to enjoy any of the associated benefits of freedom. Just as Myriam had no agency nor autonomy over her life, neither did East Pakistan over its affairs. 

The plight of the middle class salary man is also vividly highlighted in Kokhono Asheni. When Shawkat’s father loses his job, and eventually dies, the reality of living in a capitalist society as an artist dawns on him. The entire burden of providing for himself and his two sisters falls squarely on his shoulders. He is forced to give up on his bohemian way of life and look for work. Myriam, who he is in love with, also begs him to rescue her from Sultan but Shawkat cannot do so because he does not have the means. At this very critical juncture, he starts seeing his two sisters as being unnecessary burdens on him, people who are disposable from his life. Raihan shows how the capitalist institution slowly kills the artist’s spirit and entraps him in society’s pitfalls. Up until that point, we were shown a very loving relationship between Shawkat and his two sisters but when he eventually is faced with the choice of the responsibility of an elder brother, in the traditional Bangladeshi sense, versus pursuing his own desires, he chooses the latter. He in fact tells his two sisters via a letter, “In this world we are all alone, I am going on my own path, you choose your own.” Thus, we can once again see Raihan critiquing the capitalist mandate of individualism over collectivism as this act by Shawkat effectively leads to the death of his two sisters.

Kokhono Asheni makes particularly good use of symbolism to portray the socio-political tension that existed in society between the oppressors and the oppressed at the time

The one aspect of Kokhono Asheni that I found to be completely open to interpretation was the reoccurrence of the same sequence of events with Myriam being the only constant. We are shown two sisters and an artist being found dead in the first few opening scenes with Myriam possibly being the only one aware of the cause. The same events unfold with Shawkat and his two sisters and then at the very end, we see another family of the same exact makeup taking up residence at the same building. Perhaps, it is a nod to the 'circle-of-life' school of thought. Perhaps, Raihan uses Myriam to convey the message that a suffering entity will cause suffering to even those she loves through absolutely no faults of its own.

Kokhono Asheni is indeed a pleasure and a joy to behold. The acting by the cast are remarkable, the score and music is quite brilliant and Raihan’s first effort as a director is more than just commendable. It is a landmark film in the Bangladeshi film industry that not has an abundance of style but substance in galore with important messages in an important period in the history of the people of this land.

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