When Abdul Jabbar Khan first decided to make a Bangla language film, he didn't have any clear idea on how to actually go about it. He was sitting in a meeting called by Dr Abdus Sadek, the director of erstwhile East Pakistan's Statistics Bureau. It was January of 1953, almost a year since the Language Movement hit its pinnacle on February 21. Dr Sadek convened the meeting to discuss possible steps to be taken in order to start making Bangla language films in East Pakistan. Only foreign language films were shown in the 92 cinema halls that existed at that time in the geographical area of what is now Bangladesh.
Much like the ruling elites in West Pakistan, a non-Bengali film producer objected to the proposition. Fazle Dosani, the producer, objected for a reason he appeared to have plucked out of thin air - “You can't make films here, because the weather is very humid,” he bluntly proclaimed. Incensed, Abdul Jabbar Khan protested Dosani's bizarre and obtrusive argument with logic.
“If films can be made in Kolkata why we can't we do it in Dhaka? I have seen Pramathesh Barua shooting (here). And other directors from Kolkata have come here to shoot as well. If no one does it within a year, I, Jabbar Khan, will do it myself,” he told everyone at the meeting. Before a year could pass, in December of 1953, Khan started shooting for what became the first ever Bangla language film in East Pakistan - Mukh O Mukhosh.
Quoted in the upcoming book titled Amader Cholocchitrey Bayannor Uposthapon: Onushandhan O Porjalochona,
this story was related in discussing the context and background of how Bangla language films began in Bangladesh. Written by Nabeel Al Jahan, the book is scheduled to be released at the Ekushey Book Fair around February 21. First put together as a research paper for Bangladesh Film Archive (BFA), the national film archive of Bangladesh, it will be published as a book by BFA as part of its research publication program that the organization conducts every year.
Currently working as Assistant Editor at Cine-Page, a film magazine based in Dhaka, Nabeel normally writes under the byline 'Nabeel Onusurjo'. But BFA insisted using his formal name and Nabeel reluctantly obliged.
The reason for choosing this topic for his research, Nabeel says, is that the Language Movement is among the two most important moments in Bangladesh's history. The movement sowed the seed of self-determination that ultimately culminated in the Liberation War, giving birth to a free country. But Bangladeshi filmmakers seem to have focused more on the liberation war and the immensely important Language Movement has not yet been chosen as the central theme of any full-length feature film. However, it has been shown with some prominence in a few films.
Nabeel's research documented these films and tried to “discover the essence of how the Language Movement is presented in these relatively small number of films.” At the same time, the research paper and subsequently, the book tries to find out the reasons behind why the subject has been neglected so much, compared to the Liberation War.
Nabeel's analysis of the films shed light on the historical context, and examine the importance with which the Language Movement was depicted in each of those films, ultimately providing a thorough documentation on the subject. Below is an abridged excerpt from his book focusing on the film Kalmilata.
Shahidul Haque Khan's Kalmilata (1981)
is mainly a film on the Liberation War. The plot is set in a village, where the narrative follows a set of characters that seemingly represent different segments of people in the country. The timeline covers pre-liberation, the war and the post-liberation era. The core narrative is how the people sprung into action to protect and rebuild the country. The narrative is not always realistic. Sometimes it rejects reality and sometimes it draws a wishful picture of 'what could have been'.
Overall, there is a number of inconsistencies in the narrative. There are many irrelevant plot points and many things relevant to the liberation struggle were ignored. However, before putting that on the writer/director, the time of the film's release must be taken into consideration. Who were in the government and how they treated the Liberation War are very important in this equation. While a long period had passed after Bangabandhu's assassination, the environment of the country was still not favourable to the pro-liberation forces. Needless to say, it was tough to freely work on the liberation struggle during Zia's period, but was also difficult after him, during Ershad's rule. And that is probably why the Razakar issue was ignored in the film.
But this is more to do with political reality and it is not ideological bias on the part of the filmmaker, as evidenced by a few scenes in the film. The most significant among these scenes is the one shown just before the war. The seemingly unrelated sequence shows the birth of a child. The symbolic scene pays homage to Bangabandhu. It shows a man sitting outside a village house waiting for his child to be born. The man's attire and look, brushed back hair, heavy black frame spectacles, thick mustache and white pajama-punjabi, leave little doubt as to who the filmmaker was alluding to. The symbolic scene then shows a midwife coming out of the hut, as a newborn's cry is heard, and telling the man - “What a strangely wonderful baby, his eyes are radiating as if powerful flames will come out of them.” The very next frame shows a flag of Bangladesh, making it abundantly clear that the newborn baby symbolizes the country and the father is Bangabandhu.
The film has in its core, the spirit of 1952, and that is expressed very suitably in the story, without forcing the connection. It wasn't presented very directly and not through symbolism either. Moti, a school-going child in the film, was shown to place flowers everyday at the local Shahid Minar before going to school because his uncle was a language martyr. One day when his teacher inquired about the reason for his being late that day and he spoke about his daily ritual, the teacher appreciated him and took the opportunity to tell his class about the Language Movement and its martyrs. The teacher's lesson about it appeared a little contrived, but the cinematic intention was not out of context.
The second time the Language Movement is referred to is in a scene with a local shopkeeper engaged in an argument with college student Auli, played by Ilias Kanchan. The shopkeeper makes a suggestive comment saying that “you shouldn't get tangled up with the guardians of the country,” referring to the anti-government movement and liberation struggle. Auli retorted by saying, “What tangle? We have been stamped upon since '52 without protesting. How long can this go on? We will now fight back to defend our land and to defend our country.”
Auli's straightforward and rather inarticulate response is a very important dialogue in Kalmilata,
because embedded and compacted in it is the whole history and philosophy of the emergence of Bangladesh by cutting ties with the bizarre and discriminatory state called Pakistan.
Another sequence in the film has a direct reference to 1952. This appears right after the aforementioned symbolic scene with the child birth – it shows the training of freedom fighters. It starts with a close-up shot of Bangladesh's flag and the frame shifts downward to show freedom fighters marching. As the camera moves forward with the parade, a Shahid Minar is seen where the new flag of the new country is fluttering in front of the monument. These scenes acknowledge the significance of 1952 in Bangladesh's liberation.