But that didn’t save Matir Moina (The Clay Bird) from controversy. The film won an award at Cannes but was banned outright in Bangladesh by the censor board. “They said it was religiously sensitive,” says Tareque. “In retrospect, it was probably something to do with the backlash of Sept. 11. They were just nervous.”
The nervousness probably stemmed from the fact that at the heart of the film is the struggle between two definitions of Islam—one more secular and rooted in the music of the wandering baul folk singers, the other more orthodox and rigid. The young protagonist Anu is uprooted from the first world by his father and sent to a madrasah. It was not a cynical ploy to capitalize on the Western world’s post-9/11 fascination with madrasahs as breeding grounds for fanatical Taliban. The Clay Bird as a film was actually finished long before 9/11, though it was submitted to the censors after September 2001. More importantly, Tareque Masud knew what he was talking about. He himself spent most of his formative years in a madrasah.
“Madrasahs were not about terrorism and Taliban,” says Tareque. “It was mostly poor children and orphans who went there.” Tareque ended up there because his father, an atheist, an English teacher, an aficionado of Indian classical music, and a graduate of Calcutta’s Presidency College, became a “born-again Muslim” about a year after he got married.
Tareque remembers his madrasah days with a mixture of dread and appreciation. “Doing your ablutions at 4 a.m. was definitely hard. But I was also mesmerized by all the rituals there—the Quranic chants.” In the end, he feels that his madrasah experience, with its rigid discipline, actually helped inculcate a certain sensitivity to him. It’s a trait he wanted to impart to the boy Anu through whose wide-eyed wonder the tragedy of modern Bangladesh must unfold.
This meant that Tareque could not find Anu in the usual crop of precocious child actors who populate commercial cinema. “We were looking for children who were not professional actors,” says Catherine Masud, Tareque’s wife and the producer of the film. Catherine met Tareque while doing research in Bangladesh and ended up marrying him and chucking academia for the up-and-down world of filmmaking. Part of her job as producer was to find a believable Anu. “We finally found him. He was a servant boy in a middle-class home in Bangladesh. Of course, he is not a servant boy anymore. He is a full-time student.” The Masuds who had worked with street children before put their experience to good use in The Clay Bird. Anu’s friend Rokon was in real life a helper on a public transport vehicle and came from a slum in Dhaka. Half the students in Anu’s madrasah were real madrasah students.
Shooting inside mosques and madrasahs and villages with synch sound, (the first Bangladeshi feature film to do that), gives The Clay Bird a technical polish that has helped it make its mark in festivals like Cannes and Edinburgh. But trying to recreate 1960s Bangladesh was a daunting task. At first sight, the rural scenes, with stagnant ponds and lush fields, seem part of an idyllic village life that could fit as seamlessly into Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali of the 1950s as into a Bangladeshi village in 2000. “But it was more difficult than you would think,” says Catherine. “Even in rural areas we had to contend with things like power lines, sound of motorized boats, blaring Hindi film songs, plastics, t-shirts.” Recreating a boat festival took three months of painstaking work for they had to watch out not just for visual anachronisms but also worry about audio missteps. “But in the end I think everyone really appreciated it,” says Catherine. “I guess people had a certain nostalgia for the traditional way of celebrating these festivals.”
But The Clay Bird is no paean to a nostalgic simpler way of life. Though the landscape of the film is lush and certain to evoke pangs of homesickness in the transplanted Bengali, the issues at the heart of the film are anything but romantic. The film ends before the actual war of liberation that left an estimated 3 million dead and 10 million homeless. But it deals again and again with the same battles of the isms—Marxism vs. capitalism, secularism vs. fundamentalism—that still roil modern Bangladesh. Like ever-expanding concentric circles, Masud explores this debate both in the confines of Anu’s home as well as his madrasah, and out in the open under the tree as wandering folk singers debate the meaning of God all night in verse. “If you wish to go to heaven, keep fear of Allah in your heart,” sings the disciple. “If you want to be close to Allah, keep love within your heart,” replies her guru. “I wanted very much to show Bangladesh’s rich oral traditions,” says Tareque. “Sufi baul tradition is a combination of Vaishnav mysticism and Iranian Sufism—this is very much expressed through music.”
Careful as they were to show the richness of Bangladesh’s heritage, having obtained permission to shoot in mosques, the Masuds were taken aback when the film was banned. But that story had a happy ending. Bangladesh’s film community and intelligentsia rallied to the film’s defense. “People made a big point that if the film can be seen all over France why Bangladeshi people can’t see it,” says Tareque. “Are we stupid or idiots that we can’t judge for ourselves?” In the end, the film was not only un-banned, it became Bangladesh’s first official submission for the Foreign Language Oscar. “And when it released in Bangladesh, it ran to packed houses and even madrasah students and teachers saw it and had no problems,” says Catherine.
The success of Matir Moina in Bangladesh is no mean achievement. About 100 films are made every year in Bangladesh. “But they are three hours long each and they are mostly third-class imitations of third-grade Bollywood films. So it’s more like 500 films,” says Tareque. “But cinema theaters are still collapsing. On the other hand, films like ours that are 80-90 minutes long are doing well.” It’s been a long, hard trek, though, for independent cinema. Tareque remembers making 16 mm documentaries and renting auditoriums to screen them. “We printed the tickets ourselves.”
He wishes the Bangladeshi film market would open up at least to neighboring West Bengal. Ever since the 1965 India-Pakistan war, there has been an embargo on Indian films in Bangladesh. Even after 1971 that embargo was kept in place, this time in the name of protecting the Bangla film industry. “But it doesn’t work, since satellite dishes are everywhere. Meanwhile, theaters are shutting down,” says Tareque, who remembers how in the ’60s Bangladeshis would flock to the theater to see films with Bengali superstars Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen.
What this tit-for-tat embargo means is that The Clay Bird will not be released in neighboring India. But right now the Masuds are not worrying about that. As The Clay Bird opens in art houses around the country, they are anxiously waiting to see what U.S. audiences make of a war few remember anymore. Tareque doesn’t know what the film will contribute to the shifting record of Bangladesh’s history. He hopes there will be a national consensus one day on 1971 that a military crackdown on an elected leadership that was denied political power led to a guerilla war.
For him, personally, that changed his life. “War was in fact a liberating factor for me and my mother who was in purdah,” says Tareque. “It forced us to leave our home and become refugees in my mother’s village. Those nine months were nine years in terms of my mental experience. War is nothing to romanticize about, but if it didn’t happen, things wouldn’t have changed.” The Clay Bird remains his documentation of that change.
Sandip Roy-Chowdhury is on the editorial board of India Currents and host of UpFront, a newsmagazine show on KALW 91.7 produced by New California Media.