A war and liberation

Munsur Ali tells the story of the 1971 Bangladesh War of Independence in his debut film, which was also an act of “self-exploration”.

Published : Dec 09, 2015 17:30 IST

A still  from “Shongram”.

A still from “Shongram”.

FOR Munsur Ali, a British film director of Bangladeshi origin, making his debut film, Shongram , was an act of “self-exploration” and an attempt at seeking his own identity. The film depicts, for the first time on an international platform, the story of the 1971 Bangladesh War of Independence, which the people of the Bangladesh simply refer to as “Shongram”, or war. This chapter of the history of this region has remained largely unknown to the West, and before this film, there has not been any major cultural representation of the 1971 war at the international level.

“People in the West know about the World Wars and the Gulf War, but hardly anyone knows about the Liberation War of Bangladesh in which three million people were killed, 200,000 women violated and around 10 million people, mostly Hindus, displaced. I wanted to present this unknown event of history to a world audience,” Munsur Ali told Frontline in a conversation that ranged from the making of Shongram , to growing up in the United Kingdom, and finally finding his own identity.

The film was screened at the recently concluded Kolkata International Film Festival.

For Munsur Ali, born in 1978 and raised in London, Shongram was not just a representation of history through the medium of cinema, it was a personal quest for identity.

“I went to a Church of England school from Monday to Friday and every Wednesday we would be taken to church. I attended Islamic Arabic school every weekend and took Bengali lessons on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I was naturally a little confused, and by the time I was 18, I was rebellious and frustrated and questioned pretty much everything,” he said.

Growing up in east London, under the menace of racial intolerance and the Pakistani-bashing prevalent in that part of the city in the 1980s, Munsur Ali’s social environment could not have been further removed from the idyllic picture of Bangladesh painted by his parents, no doubt coloured by nostalgia and homesickness. He still bears the physical scars of racial violence that he encountered as a boy.

“The people of my parent’s generation at that time were very tolerant. They would always tell us ‘this is after all their land’, with the perception that they would one day return to Bangladesh. But we were not so tolerant and physically defended ourselves,” he said.

The atmosphere of hostility further exacerbated Munsur Ali’s confusion about his own identity, and the questions that formed in his mind eventually led to the making of Shongram .

“I didn’t understand when we were told to go back to our own country. I used to think: do we come from a country so poor and weak that people can treat us in this manner?” he said.

In the film, Karim, the protagonist of the story, like Munsur Ali, goes through a “journey” to attain self-realisation. The story operates at various levels.

From one angle, it is a love story set in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) between a Muslim boy and a Hindu girl before the 1971 war tears their world asunder; from another angle, it is a representation of the Bangladesh War of Independence; and from yet another angle, it is the story of a young man coming of age and finding his true self.

The story unfolds in flashback, with Karim, an elderly British Bangladeshi, played by Anupam Kher, recounting the story of his life while on his deathbed to a journalist played by the Hollywood and Italian movie star Asia Argento. Although 90 per cent of the film was shot in the Sylhet region of Bangladesh, and most of the film is in the Bengali language, Munsur Ali maintains that it is not a Bangladeshi film but a “British-Bangali point of view”.

“This film was me trying to search for my roots and my craving to find my own identity. Like me, Karim starts off being very childish but has to grow up fast. I realised what I needed to know was my own history, the history of my own people, where they came from, why so many people from South Asia migrated to the U.K. at that time. Making this film helped me understand all this,” Munsur Ali said.

He feels that the importance of the 1971 war needs to be highlighted all the more, as it is a part of living history as the people who bore the physical and emotional scars of that period are still alive, as are those who inflicted those scars.

An interesting angle that Munsur Ali explores in the film is the communal harmony that existed between Muslims and Hindus in the region before the war.

The stories he heard from his parents as a child were instrumental in shaping the vision of the film. His father would tell him stories of one of his closest friends, a Hindu, with whom he would go fishing; in the film, Karim’s father and the father of the Hindu girl he loves are the best of friends, who fought shoulder to shoulder against the British.

“My parents always gave a little sigh before they spoke of their ‘desh’ (country), and as a child I had an impression of a beautiful world of harmony. But because of 1971 there was this massive shift and change of mindset—if you are a Hindu you have to go to India. It broke up families and friendships. This is an aspect I wanted to explore—how an idyllic situation turned into a hellish one,” Munsur Ali said.

His extensive research included talking to people who were in the Liberation Army, relatives of those who got killed, rape victims, Pakistani people who were in the Army, and researchers. He pored over testimonials and went through video archives.

The film begins with the original 1971 NBC news report of March 26 when Operation Searchlight [a military operation carried out by Pakistan to curb the nationalist movement in East Pakistan] started.

The minute-long report made by a journalist from the United States talks about 200 years of British rule; Partition; Yahya Khan, then President of Pakistan, and the Bangladeshi leader Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, and essentially gives a build-up to the 1971 war.

“We now have the perception the U.S. had of that era and that’s what I represent in the film. Even a viewer who does not know anything about the Bangladesh War of Liberation will have a decent idea right at the beginning of the film,” Munsur Ali said.

On how a first-time film-maker managed to rope in Hollywood and Indian stars, Munsur Ali admitted that it was quite nerve-wracking approaching them.

“What did the trick was that it was an untold story. The story of Shongram will always continue in Bangladesh, but nothing like this has been told at the international level,” he said.

According to him, the single-most important message of the film is the need to respect one’s own identity and the identity of others.

“One has to know oneself. I spent my life in the U.K. and like everyone I am a product of my environment, but that also boxed me in and excluded me from other strong connections that I had,” he said.

At the end of the film, the words of Anupam Kher’s character probably sum up the central message: “Everything has changed, but I am still a Bangali.”

“Whether you are a British-Indian citizen or an East Pakistani or a Bangladeshi, these are all just labels. At the end of the day what matters is how you see yourself,” Munsur Ali said.

This 37-year-old debutant film-maker feels that he has crossed the first hurdle of his career.

“I dreamt of making films from the age of 19 and did my B.A. Honours in film production; so, for me, it is a massive achievement to have finished an international film with two major stars. The fact that my film is being well-received in film festivals has strengthened my confidence and self-belief, but at heart I am still that 19-year-old boy in love with the movies,” he said.

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