Tanvir Mokammel is one of those few gifted and talented artists of Bangladesh who hardly needs an introduction. A perceptive writer and filmmaker, Mokammel is perhaps a unique voice as far as love for the country and its people is concerned. Even a cursory glance at his oeuvre will reveal that Mokammel’s journey as a creative artist has revolved around Bangladesh. His debut film Hooliya
(Wanted, 1984), based on Nirmalendu Goon’s famous poem, is a 28-minute experimental film and a political critique of the country. Then there is Smriti Ekattor
(Rememberance of 71, 1994) which is a telling documentary on the murder of the Bengalee intellectuals by the Islamic fundamentalists during the war of liberation in 1971. In Ekti Golir Atyakahini
(Tale of a Lane, 1995) Mokammel presents an ethnographic documentary on the life and the present condition of the Hindu conch shell-makers living in the architecturally interesting, almost antique lane of Shakharibazar in Old Dhaka. The deep concern for the motherland for whose freedom Tanvir joined the liberation war captures the centre-stage of his first full-length feature film Nadir Nam Modhumati
(The River Named Modhumati, 1995). Set against the backdrop of the war, the film received three national awards and was shown in prestigious international film festivals including the Tri-Continental Film Festival, Nantes, France. Chitra Nadir Pare
(Quiet Flows the River Chitra, 1998) relates the tragic tale of a Hindu family in East Pakistan which had refused to leave the homeland after the Partition of India in 1947, but which was ultimately compelled to leave the country. His 215-minute mega documentary 1971
(2011) can be seen as a significant attempt to study the liberation war. Mokammel’s latest feature film Jibondhuli
(The Drummer, 2014) which is set against the Chukanagar massacre on May 20, 1971 depicts the plight of low-caste Hindu people during the war. The documentary Seemantorekha
(The Borderline) which the director is set to release this year will unpack the dreary narratives of the Bengalees uprooted by the Partition. These films apart, Mokammel in the remarkable documentaries like Achin Pakhi
(The Unknown Bard, 1996), Oie Jamuna
(A Tale of the Jamuna River, 2002) and Karnaphulir Kanna
(Teardrops of the Karnaphuli, 2005) as well as the films such as Lalsalu
(A Tree without Roots, 2001) and Lalon
(2004) repeatedly makes Bangladesh with her age-old secular, non-communal way of life his protagonist in more than one way.
A Dhaka University alumnus, Mokammel was born on March 8, 1955. In a part e-mail and a part telephonic interview with the writer in December last year the prolific filmmaker spoke about his preoccupation and philosophy as an artist. The following excerpts from the interview are our humble gift to Mokammel on his 62nd birth anniversary.
You mentioned in quite a few interviews that the 1947 Partition of Bengal is a living reality for you. As you made it clear, at the heart of Partition was the lust for power and wealth which caused untold sufferings for millions, which is, of course true. However, the seed of Partition was sowed in 1905. Although that Partition was annulled, it had struck a decisive blow to the unity of the Bengalis. You seem to be disinterested in it. Why? Is it because you prefer to depict the events that directly impacted you?
The 1905 Division of Bengal is of course very significant. However, the British annulled it just after six years. It is now only a matter of conjecture how it would have really worked.
I am definitely interested in the 1905 Division as well. But for making films I have so far preferred the 1947 Partition which is real to me. I have seen and experienced the aftermath of this terrible tragedy which has destroyed the lives and livelihood of millions. I am about to complete a documentary Seemantorekha
(The Borderline) on the agonies and sufferings of the people uprooted by the 1947 Partition. I have known some of these people personally. But the event of 1905 is too far removed, almost in a different time zone! I have also dealt with the 1947 Partition in my feature film Chitra Nadir Pare
(Quiet flows the river Chitra). In Seemantorekha
I will try to delve deep into the whole gamut of the Partition of Bengal in 1947 and its impact. 2017 marks the 70th anniversary of the Partition of Bengal. We intend to release the film this year.
Ritwik Ghatak’s films, especially his films of the Partition trilogy-Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud-Capped Star), Komol Gandhar (A Soft Note on a Sharp Scale) and Subarnarekha (Golden Lining), are great pieces of art pregnant with archetypal motives of immense depth
We look forward to watching it. Nevertheless, the first film on Partition was Chinnamul (The Uprooted) by Nemai Ghosh. Then came Ritwik Ghatak’s partition trilogy. How is your Chitra Nadir Pare both similar and dissimilar to those films by Ghosh and Ghatak?
The films of Nemai Ghosh and Ritwik Ghatak are great cinematic arts. Nemai Ghosh’s Chinnamul
successfully portrayed the trauma and pains of displacement of the millions of refugees. The raw reality documented in Chinnamul
by Ghosh can be hardly surpassed.
Ritwik Ghatak’s films, especially his films of the Partition trilogy-Meghe Dhaka Tara
(The Cloud-Capped Star), Komol Gandhar
(A Soft Note on a Sharp Scale) and Subarnarekha
(Golden Lining), are great pieces of art pregnant with archetypal motives of immense depth.
Chitra Nadir Pare
is a very modest low-budget film. Whereas Ghatak’s or Ghosh’s films depict the trauma and tragedy of the uprooted Hindu population from East Bengal struggling in their refugee existence in Kolkata, Chitra Nadir Pare
mainly deals with a Hindu family which has chosen to stay back. Though the family finally has to leave East Bengal for India after the 1964 riot, the film unveils their epic endeavour to stay put in their motherland alongside their Muslim neighbours. The film ends with the final departure of Minoti and her aunt on the Jessore Road en route to Kolkata. I guess the main difference between Chitra Nadir Pare
and those of Ghatak’s or Ghosh’s films is that my film ends with a family leaving East Bengal when their works show the struggling refugee families in the soil of India.
Ghatak does not explicitly depict Partition in his films although it works as the biggest stimulus for him. Ghatak lived with the horrors of Partition all his life. How will you rate Ghatak as a maker of Partition films?
The Partition of 1947 is a grand event. It had its build up, the actual events, and also its aftermath. True, Ghatak mainly deals with the after effects of Partition on the refugee families. It is, however, equally true that in so doing he was also narrating the story of the Partition itself. In fact, there is no other filmmaker in this subcontinent who was so emotionally moved and made so many films on the theme of Partition as Ghatak.
The common thread that unites your Partition and liberation war films is the miseries of common masses. And of course there is this forced migration of thousands of Hindus. What particular point did you wish to stress in Jibondhuli (The Drummer)? How, in your opinion, is it different from our ‘mainstream’ liberation war films?
depicts the sufferings of a low-caste Hindu drummer and his family during the liberation war in 1971. Hindu community, especially the low-caste Hindu families, suffered terribly during the war. They were also the worst victims of the genocidal killing by the Pakistan army like the Chuknagar massacre. But as these low-caste Hindus are poor and have no representation in the state power or on the corporate media of Bangladesh, so their cries are hardly heard. Jibondhuli
narrates the story of one such poor low-caste drummer Jibon Krisna Das and his family. It is history seen from below, a kind of worm’s view. As an artist I am committed to those human beings who are most exploited, most helpless and whose situation is most wretched. This perspective, seeing history from below, is what separates Jibondhuli
from other mainstream films on our liberation war.
How will you evaluate the songs and music in your films, especially in Jibondhuli?
Music is an integral part of cinema’s aesthetics. I do not mind to use effect music in the soundtrack of my films to heighten emotion. Ghatak used it very successfully, not only in Komol Gandhar, but in his other films as well. In Jibondhuli
, as the central protagonist is a drummer, so we had ample scope to use music pieces, especially folk music in the sound track. We used different variations of one musical instrument dhak (drum) particularly in this film, as it was played by Jibon the drummer. I think the last scene of the film is very symbolic so far as the use of music is concerned. Jibon, the poor low-caste drummer, who always remains timid and subdued, rises up to the occasion and begins to play his dhak in a frenzied way. Here the music becomes a symbol of his protest against all the atrocities around.
soundtrack also has some songs. I do not like characters singing on the screen. That is a very crude idiom and the practice of the commercial film industry. So I loathe it. However, I see no problem in using songs, or part of it, in the soundtrack to induce the required emotion. Jibondhuli has quite a few songs in the soundtrack. I myself have composed some of these songs.
In recent years there has been a renewed interest in the Partition. Scholars are also paying serious attention to Partition studies. How will you describe the phenomenon?
The Partition is an epic event that artists, scholars, historians, social and political scientists are bound to fall back on. It is the root of most of our present social and political problems. The Partition destroyed and disrupted the lives of millions of people. As an artist I cannot remain oblivious of it. In my films and literary works, I have repeatedly tried to tell the stories about the Partition and the miseries it caused. Both Chitra Nadir Pare
and the documentary Seemantorekha
directly deal with the 1947 Partition. Some of my other films have also made references to it. In my literary works, Partition as a theme, has figured regularly, almost like a leitmotif. How much the Partition of 1947 haunts me can be understood from the fact that my two novels that I have written so far--Dui Nogor
, both have Partition at their centre.
The Partition has been described as the greatest human tragedy. How far will you agree with it?
I fully agree with it. It is one of the worst human tragedies that ever happened in this land and also to humankind. It is a colossal tragedy for which Bengalis, as a people, will have to suffer for generations to come.
Could the Partition be avoided? Ghatak dreamt of a ‘culturally’ unified Bengal in the absence of a geographically and politically united Bengal. Do you believe in the existence of a culturally unified Bengal? Can there be ever a unity for that matter?
There were definite socio-political, economic and cultural reasons, both objective and subjective, which caused the Partition. We cannot change the history now. Even God cannot change the past! So it is better to accept the reality and try to build a practical and humane relationship between the two halves of Bengal. Our language, and much of our culture, is the same. There are more factors present for unity than disunity between the two Bengals. We should build on that.
A culturally unified Bengal? Sure. You can look at history from all different perspectives. You can see history by seeing 1971 as the starting point, one can see 1947 as the point of beginning, or even 1757, the year of the battle of Plassey, or when the Turks first came in the twelfth century. But as a Bengalee artist, I would like to see Bengali culture as a river which has been flowing for more than two thousand years. Indeed, I am proud and motivated to work for this ancient and rich culture. One political event, like the Partition in one particular year only, as the 1947, should under no circumstances stop or alter that flow.
As an artist, I am always for cultural unity. But political unity? That is for the politicians to decide.
Thank you too.
Dr Ahmed Ahsanuzzaman is professor of English and the Director (in-charge), Fine Arts Institute of Khulna University. A theatre enthusiast, Ahsanuzzaman who obtained both his MPhil and PhD from Oslo University, Norway is interested in partition and cultural studies.