Of genocide and liberation: the works of Tareque Masud

Print edition : August 27, 2021

Tareque Masud with Mishuk Munier during the filming of “Adam Surot”, 1985. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

“Muktir Gaan” (1995) is about Bengali cultural activists who travelled through refugee camps and battle zones during the war of 1971.

A scene from “Matir Moina” (2002). The depth of feeling combined with the artistic excellence with which the film portrayed the anguish in the soul of a divided family at a time of nationwide upheaval was richly rewarded. Photo: by special arrangement

Tareque and Catherine Masud with Lear Levin (centre). An American film crew, led by Lear Levin, shot some 20 hours of footage capturing the daily experience of the Free Bangladesh Cultural Squad. Photo: By special arrangement

A scene from ‘Matir Moina’. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Tareque Masud introduced the new generation of Bangladeshis to the freedom struggle through his Muktir Gaan, Muktir Kotha and Matir Moina, films that have evoked frenzied enthusiasm in that country.

AT the time of writing, freedom-loving Bangladeshis are observing with pride and sadness the 50th anniversary of the liberation war of 1971 in which at least three million people were killed and many times that number physically displaced, economically destroyed or psychologically traumatised. For nine months, the Punjabi and Pathan soldiers of Yahya Khan, Tikka Khan and Rao Farman Ali, collectively still remembered with a shudder and deep contempt in Bangladesh as the ‘Khan Sena’, looted, raped and killed in orgies reminiscent of medieval bestiality. To escape the reign of terror, about ten million people fled what was then still known as East Pakistan and sought refuge in camps in different parts of eastern India. They were Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and others, but all Bengalis first.

Drawing parallels with the war in Vietnam and the United States’ atrocities on the inhabitants of that brave country, Zahir Raihan’s Stop Genocide, an intrepid and innovative documentary, portrayed both the extent of savagery inflicted by the Pakistan Army and the growth of indigenous resistance. Soon after Stop Genocide was completed in 1971, Zahir Raihan was picked up from his home by the army at night and killed. His body was never found, but his films and short stories remain to light the path of generations of Bangladeshi documentarians attempting a fusion of artistic exploration and political commitment.

‘Muktir Gaan’

As the masses are celebrating the centenary of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, or the completion of half a century of freedom from the stranglehold of the marauders, tragically, Bangladesh’s community of artists and intellectuals are also observing the tenth anniversary of the death in a road accident on August 13, 2011, of Tareque Masud. Tareque and Catherine Masud’s Muktir Gaan (Song of Freedom) drew its inspiration from the memory and example of martyrs such as Zahir Raihan.

Based on “extraordinary footage from an extraordinary time”, Muktir Gaan (35 mm, colour, 80 minutes, 1995) is about a group of Bengali cultural activists that travelled through refugee camps and battle zones during the war of 1971 performing songs that expressed the deep emotional attachment of Bengalis to their land and culture. The feeling with which they sang the songs of Rabindranath Tagore, Nazrul Islam, D.L. Roy, Gurusaday Dutta, Jyotirindra Moitra, Moshad Ali and Sikander Abuzafar moved teenaged fighters and old peasants alike. The troupe also enacted humorous, meaningful skits that combined with the songs to inspire the people.

Also read: Bangladesh War: A war and liberation

The documentary itself has a history no less tortuous or triumphant than that of the liberation movement, a slice of which it depicts. An American film crew, led by one Lear Levin, shot some 20 hours of footage capturing the daily experience of the troupe, which called itself the Free Bangladesh Cultural Squad. But Levin never got to complete the film. Muktir Gaan incorporated much of this original footage, besides collecting archival material from all over the world, to tell the story of the liberation war to those who went through it but, more importantly, to the generations born after the war. Through the eyes of the troupe members—men and women, Hindu and Muslim—the film portrays the spirit of solidarity that brought together an entire nation plunged into indescribable suffering. Characterised by rigorous editing, this remarkable narrative documentary relies as much on moving testimonies from those who participated in the war as on soul-stirring songs and music.

Writing in a collection of reminiscences called Tareque Masud—Life & Dreams, Naila Khan, one of the members of the Free Bangladesh Cultural Squad, observed: “In 1971 a group of young men and women travelled between refugee camps and liberated zones, singing inspirational songs. They were followed by a young film-maker named Lear Levin, who filmed their every step, even when they weren’t aware of it. For over 20 years, that footage was stored in his basement, along with another 20 hours of film he had shot on the war. In 20 years many of those artists, including myself, forgot that Lear Levin had done so much filming.”

Naila Khan would seem to be talking to herself as she continues on the ups and downs of the history of the film until it finally got to be made: “Was Lear waiting for a young film-maker like Tareque Masud? Most probably. Because Tareque and Catherine nurtured those 20-odd hours of film footage to make it all come to life again… it was not just Lear’s footage that made the film. To his credit, Tareque added many new things. An archivist, historian and storyteller were hidden in Tareque, and all three of these skills resulted in Muktir Gaan. Besides Lear Levin’s footage, there is other footage in Muktir Gaan. Tareque searched and found this footage at the BBC, Granada TV and the Indian Film Archives. He collected footage of the freedom struggle from all over the world and edited it all together. And then he gave Bangladesh and the whole world the invaluable gift of Muktir Gaan.”

Apparently, Naila Khan, now in her early seventies, cannot forget the youth she has long left behind her; a youth that saw the birth of a new nation, a pyrrhic victory no doubt, with tears of sadness and whoops of joy. She recalls with the accuracy of a memoirist whose flair for detail is matched by her depth of feeling for an artist gone before his time: “I accompanied Tareque sometimes to different places where Muktir Gaan was screened. I remember travelling to a village with Lear Levin. Tareque didn’t just stop when he finished Muktir Gaan, he also screened the film all over Bangladesh. Tareque made everyone in Bangladesh listen to the songs of freedom. I witnessed Tareque screening Muktir Gaan to thousands of villagers on a school playground in Dhonobari. I remember a snake-charmer telling me how much they had forgotten (about the War), how much they had been tortured, how many had been shot and slaughtered.”

In a world where amnesia is the norm and forgetting the past the saddest feature of societies that had once endured untold pain and suffering, Naila Khan strikes a discordant note by ending her memories with hope for the future: “Tareque was born to introduce the freedom struggle to the new generation, to show it to them and to tell them about the war in an innovative way. He not only made Muktir Gaan, but also Muktir Kotha (Freedom’s Tale) and Matir Moina (The Clay Bird). And he wanted to do more. These films are about the feelings, thoughts, ideas, and spirit of freedom. I hope that the new generation will carry on the same spirit and ideals, and the sense of patriotism”.

Also read: Revisiting Mrinal Sen’s "Calcutta ’71"

What did Tareque Masud himself have to say about the documentary which, to this day, draws large crowds whenever and wherever it is shown in Bangladesh? After a screening of the film in Calcutta (now Kolkata), he told this writer: “Arguably, no film on the liberation war, documentary or drama, has evoked the kind of frenzied enthusiasm in Bangladesh as Muktir Gaan. Thousands of men and women of all ages, classes and persuasions have thronged the theatres of Dhaka and other cities to see the film. The BNP [Bangladesh Nationalist Party] government of Begum Khaleda Zia tried its best to suppress the film with the result that more and more citizens bought tickets to the screenings.”

The subject and style of Muktir Gaan being what it is, it is understandable that it should have been greeted with massive viewership and great acclaim. But six years before this work, structured like a ‘musical’ with profound social and political implications, Tareque Masud had begun his film-making journey with an hour-long colour biopic on the maverick painting genius Sheikh Mohammad Sultan (August 10, 1923-October 10, 1994), a household name in Bangladesh.

This biopic, which was anything but a biopic in the conventional sense of the term, was called Adam Surat (The Inner Strength). Started in 1982, it took six years to complete, reflecting the unshakeable faith of a young documentarian in the greatness of a life complete with a tenaciously held belief in a composite culture and society with the Bengali language at the centre of things.

Initially, Tareque Masud had felt drawn to including in his film the androgynous aspect of Sultan’s persona, which was a talking point in and around the village of Narail in Jessore district of Bangladesh where he lived. The director told this writer in 1991 that there was a period in the painter’s life when he was given to roaming his ancestral village dressed as Radha. He would wear a sari, put ghungroos on his feet, and feathers in his long hair. But after prolonged mental wrestling, Tareque Masud decided against including this in his film, fearing that it might turn this eclectic spirit into a market commodity. “I felt there were far more important things to show and tell viewers about Sultan, such as his quiet but intense nationalist spirit, his empathy for the poor farmer and his family, his secularism which comes to him as easily as his breathing and, of course, his robust and colourful canvasses which are almost always about his country’s brave and hard-working yet desperately poor farming brothers and sisters.”

Son of a poor mason, Sultan had little or no formal education. But thanks to the active support of the scholar and critic Shaheed Suhrawardy, Sultan could attend Government Art College in Calcutta. However, being of a restless nature, he left in the midst of his studies to explore the vastness of (undivided) India. After spending a few years in Kashmir, he went on a long journey through the U.S. and Europe where he earned fame, thanks to his untutored genius, which attracted the notice of art critics. But wealth or fame never found a place in the artist’s list of priorities, causing him to return to his village in what had by then become East Pakistan. A recluse by nature and disinterested in worldly comforts, a fresh phase of meditation began in his peripatetic life. He isolated himself in a deserted temple where he was looked after by a poor widow and her daughters.

Tareque Masud’s words reflected as much his deep respect for his subject as they mildly rebuked the opportunistic ways of the city art collectors: “Sultan resembled the Sufi mystic of yore in many ways. His disinterest in money or fame, in material success in any form, made him give away countless paintings, each worth hundreds of thousands of takas, to anyone asking for them. The drawing room of many a Dhaka culture-vulture is adorned with a Sultan obtained without paying anything. Once I found him protecting himself from the rain using one of his paintings as an umbrella.”

Animation film

Tareque Masud followed up the documentary on the painter with a three-minute silent animation called Ganatantra Mukti Paak (Let there be Democracy), which narrated the history of the birth of Bangladesh by means of icons, images and motifs that keep visually changing all the while. This was the first animation film by a Bangladeshi director, pointing to his experimental turn of mind and preoccupation with cinema in practically all its genres. The film was dedicated to the memory of a working-class youth called Noor Hossain, who gave up his life opposing the dictatorship of General Ershad. The film begins with the Partition of Bengal in 1947 and the birth of Pakistan. It then shifts to the momentous language movement of 1952, opposing the imposition of Urdu on the Bengali-speaking masses. The language movement, which claimed numerous young lives on the streets of Dhaka and other cities and towns, gave a marked impetus to the rise of Bengali nationalism. What follows carry echoes of well-known events and political or military figures—the army takeover in Pakistan; Yahya Khan’s crackdown on East Pakistan; the historic emergence of Bangladesh; and the reappearance of military rule and religious fundamentalism in post-liberation Bangladesh.

Also read: ‘Cinema is my life’

Tareque Masud said: “The role of imperialism bolstering the Muhammad Ershad regime is juxtaposed with the heroic death of Noor Hossain, a working-class youth who braved the junta’s guns. Hossain had taken to the street with the words ‘Down with Autocracy’ emblazoned on his bare chest, and ‘Let there be Democracy’ on his back.”

Turning to a scrapbook yellowed with time and brittle, but preserved with love, I discover words that I had written decades ago distilled from many conversations with an artist whose smile was as infectious as his handshake was comradely: “Tareque tried his hand at other subjects as well, which should not be seen in isolation but as part of the overall need for greater freedom for the masses to experience equality and enjoy the fruits of liberation. A video documentary on gender violence, called Sonar Beri (Chains of Gold), was followed by another documentary—Ah! America—which records the attraction that many men and women in one of the poorest countries on earth feel for the richest and most powerful but which is also the most violent and exploitative, especially towards poor and helpless immigrants from the three continents of damnation and woe.”

Tareque Masud knew what he was talking about, married as he was to an American film animator and editor, and spending some time each year in the U.S. This enabled him to see through some of the most vigorously touted features of American society. He deplored the heartlessness with which the U.S. exploited cheap immigrant labour to enrich itself more and more. At the same time, it pained him to see, as he put it, “how these immigrants are willing to demean themselves to gain entry into the U.S., or stay on at the cost of their dignity and self-respect”.

‘Matir Moina’

Although Tareque Masud had been doing impressive and insightful work for a substantial period of time before he directed Matir Moina in 2001, it was not until he had made this film that he came to acquire an international reputation. Ten years earlier, whilst having food at a wayside eatery in the Free School Street area of Calcutta, Tareque Masud had told me of his plans to do a full-length fictional feature with autobiographical elements. He said the proposed film would be as much about himself as a small boy sent to a madrasa to study as about his father who started out as an atheist but somewhere along the line succumbed to the temptations of fundamentalism. Tareque Masud believed that apart from him, his mother, too, suffered on account of the change in his Presidency College-educated father’s beliefs and lifestyle.

When I first saw Matir Moina, I could immediately recognise the narrative elements making for the film since Tareque Masud had spoken to me in detail about them, himself and his friends at the madrasa to which he was forcibly sent; his suffering, quietly disapproving mother; his little sister who had to pay with her life for the father’s obstinate ways; his loving, idealistic uncle who was the antithesis of the father; and, above everything else, a nation on the boil clamouring for freedom from a cruel oppressor.

Matir Moina went on to be screened at many prestigious film festivals and earned an international reputation that no film from Bangladesh has equalled to date. The depth of feeling combined with the artistic excellence with which the film portrayed the anguish in the soul of a divided family at a time of nationwide upheaval was amply recognised and richly rewarded. At Cannes, it received a standing ovation and won the highly respected International Critics Prize. Comparing Tareque Masud’s debut in fiction with the best of Satyajit Ray and Abbas Kiarostami, critics heralded the arrival of a rare talent.

Also read: Journey to the unreal

While the Cannes honour doubtless counted for much, it was what viewers in Pakistan thought of Matir Moina that mattered more. And therein hangs a tale of friendship between two sensitive and cultured artists living in different countries but united by common values of humanity. Tareque Masud and Anand Patwardhan had known each other for years, been together at more than one festival, and everyone knew of the high regard in which they held each other. The feeling with which Anand wrote in The Hindu of December 26, 2003, about Matir Moina’s success at the third Karachi International Film Festival earlier that year reflected the solidarity of spirit between the two. Anand: “Our pacifist Jung aur Aman (War and Peace) shared the best documentary prize with Michael Moore’s Oscar-winning Bowling for Columbine, a scathing critique of U.S. gun culture. But the award that for me marked the coming of age of Pakistan was the best fiction film award which went to a Bangladeshi film, Matir Moina (The Clay Bird) by Tareque and Catherine Masud…. For a Pakistani film festival to give the film the highest award is no mean achievement. It means coming to terms with the past. It means accepting responsibility. It means saying in so many words, ‘We are sorry’.”

Once, Tareque Masud, Catherine Masud and I chose a comparatively less crowded place at Nandan, the film complex in Calcutta, for a chat while a festival was in progress. I don’t remember how our conversation got around to Anand Patwardhan, but I remember Tareque Masud’s words: “Vidyarthy-da, you have to visit the American university campuses to know what a big draw Anand is in those places. Many film students and their teachers simply love his documentaries.” Tareque Masud and Anand Patwardhan understood each other because they spoke of the same values, under siege in their respective countries but promising to win nonetheless after long, meandering struggles.

I, for one, cannot bring myself to accept that Tareque Masud is gone never to return; a friend and adopted younger brother who was also an artist. I know of many in more lands than one who feel his absence in like manner. But, in a sense, more enormous than the tragedy of Tareque Masud’s untimely disappearance is the tragedy that Nishad, his son who was but an infant 10 years ago, will not know the love of his father in an almost choking embrace. Nishad Binghamputra Masud will have to rely on the testimonies of others to realise his unfairly lost inheritance. Can anything be sadder, yet in a way grander, than this?

Vidyarthy Chatterjee is a veteran film critic based in Kolkata.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor