With the tragic death of Tareque Masud in a car crash near Dhaka on 13 August, Bangladesh has lost her tallest filmmaker, and the film world an artist of refinement and compassion, qualities so transparent in his cinema. Author of several documentaries and two feature films, Masud proved his mettle on the world stage with his first feature, The Clay Bird (Matir Moina, 2002), produced by his American-born wife Catherine.. The film garnered three international awards, including the International Critics Prize in Cannes for “its authentic, moving and delicate portrayal of a country struggling for its democratic rights.”
The Clay Bird story, narrated through the eyes of a child, is set at the end of the 1960s and the early 70s, just as a secular liberation movement is gathering storm in Bangladesh. Young Anu is bundled off to a madrasa by his father Kazi, a man who has forsaken British manners and dress to turn to Islam. Kazi is given to prayer, authoritarianism and homeopathy. In the process, he turns against his easy-going leftist younger brother who enjoys taking Anu to see Hindu folk festivals (hence the father’s insistence on a madrasa education), and sees his little daughter die as he refuses to get her treated her with modern medicine. But it is really Anu’s story. Innocent and vulnerable, the boy befriends the lonely Rokon in the strict madrasa; they fantasise and play together. But Rokon has ear problems, and Anu witnesses his exorcising in the pond before the other children. Even as he learns the ways of life in these surroundings, he sees, during a visit home, the orthodoxy of his father and the imperceptibly growing independence of his mother. Political ferment is brewing, and his parents are living through a widening rift that seems to go in tandem with the upheaval. The family, like so many other families, is torn apart. It’s a slow, intimately told story, a splendid piece of filmmaking, with fine, controlled acting and, without overstating it, a hymn to tolerance. The Clay Bird was made with a grant from Fonds Sud, but the Masuds invested all their savings in the project. They cast several non-professionals - villagers and folk musicians, and above all children from the streets and the madrasa. When it opened the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes in 2002, there was a gasp of admiration and awe, as much for its quiet lyricism and splendid photography as for its natural, unforced story-telling, its understanding of children and its essential secularism. That, however, was not enough for the censors. The film was banned because it was considered too ‘religiously sensitive’, because it could ‘hurt religious sentiments’. It was shown in France but not at home in Bangladesh. An outraged press demanded the lifting of the ban, and the Masuds took the case to the Appeal Board which demanded several cuts. A DVD was realised in BD in 2005. The cuts apparently were minor. How much of the story was based on Masud’s own experience? In an interview given to the French daily Le Monde, Masud said: “I underwent religious schooling in madrasa. These schools are very strict. At the same time, they help the most disadvantaged children. Anu is a passive observer of the world around him. He does not try to intervene. This puts him in a privileged position. Adults already have preconceived opinions and judgments. But through Anu's eyes, without discrimination, the diverse aspects of my society are revealed: religious pluralism, the moderate Sufi sects, the secular traditions, nationalism… In this context, political upheaval is just one aspect among many. It's then up to each person, following Anu's lead, to make their own judgment. If my film raises questions, it does so from the innocent perspective of a child.” The Homeland a.k.a The Inner Journey (Ontorjatra, 2005), co-directed by Catherine, is a return-to-the-homeland story of a divorced mother living in England (her former husband has just died in Bangladesh) and her adolescent son, and their rediscovery of their country and family. For the mother, this is a nostalgic trip, a revisiting of places she knew in Dhaka; for the son, it’s almost a first-time visit since he had left Dhaka as a child. New relationships are built with other family members, and old ones renewed. More importantly, the mother and son reach a mature level of understanding towards the end of the film, as she admits to the bitter feelings she nurtured towards her husband, and as the son understands why and how she cloaked her resentment in stony silence. The film becomes, metaphorically, the journey of an inner quest. Partly set in the sylvan landscape of Sylhet, this contemplative film touches gently upon issues of diasporic identity, homeland, memory, personal desires and family solidarity, as the young boy realises has something to come back to. “For the last five or years,” said Tareque Masud about his film, “we have had to spend long periods of time overseas, especially in New York and East London, famed for their Bangladesh inhabitants...(We had) an opportunity to see first-hand the lives of first and second generation Bangladeshis who had grown up in a mixed culture. Upon talking to them, I realised that they were having an identity crisis of sorts. Those who were born there immediately built up a connection to (the) culture (of the country of residence), while...their parents try to instil in them the traditional ways in which they themselves have been groomed. Ontorjatra is a story that focuses on these issues.” The result is a coming-of-age film of a young boy, and a coming-to-terms film of a mother. The visit home is the trigger and, in a sense, an elucidation. Born in 1957, Masud studied History at the University of Dhaka. He made socially committed films and experimental shorts. Co-founder of an alternative filmmakers’ forum, he became the centre of a new cinema in Bangladesh. In 1988 he coordinated the International Short Film Festival in Dhaka. In New York, he and his wife Catherine directed a documentary on the liberation of Bangladesh. Catherine has a Master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Chicago. She and Tareque ran their company, Audiovision. Among the many issues that impassioned Masud, two were close to his heart: the social and cultural complexity of Bangladesh, especially when set in the context of the liberation war, and children. The award-winning co-directed documentary, Songs of Freedom(Muktir Gaan, 1995), traced the journey of a music troupe it wove through the length and breadth of the country during the Liberation War, singing inspirational songs and motivating freedom fighters and ordinary citizens. Words of Freedom (Muktir Katha, 1999) documented the experiences, as orally recounted of ordinary villagers during 1971 Liberation War; while Women and War (Narir Kotha, 2000) was on the experiences of women survivors. Both these films on the country’s unsung heroes were directed by Tareque and Catherine together. Two documentaries reflect their concern for children: Voices of Children (1997), was on working children in Bangladesh; while A Kind of Childhood spoke of the lives and struggles of children who he followed over six years. Their latest project, Kagojer Phool (The Paper Flower), was based on a story on the 1947 partition. It was while location-hunting for this film that the fatal accident occurred and took Tareque’s life. The Masuds were a unique couple, working and directing socially relevant documentaries together. Although their feature film output was as yet small, there were many promises ahead. They put Bangladeshi cinema on the world map (The Clay Bird was the country’s first nomination for the Oscars) with films that were first and foremost human documents, filled with a great deal of poignancy, a little humour and much silence, free of cliches, with excellent camera work and performances that gently brought out the turmoil in the characters. NETPAC expresses its grief at the untimely passing away of Tareque and joins Bangladesh in wishing Catherine a swift and complete recovery.
by Latika Padgaonkar