Documentary Films of Tanvir Mokammel : An Internal Odyssey in Search for Truth

Sushil Saha

Sushil Saha

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A student of English literature and a First Division cricketer who later became a whole-timer of the Communist Party, interestingly enough, ended up as a film director. The person is Tanvir Mokammel of Bangladesh. May be the overall socio-political scenario of his country drove him to the orbit of film-making. During the Seventies, when the war-ravaged Bangladesh was at an indecisive crossroad, oscillating between destruction and creation, and was gradually finding its foot on the ground, its film industry, instead of venturing to move forward, rather strangely ran backward and stumbled. In that state of political instability of the Eighties of the last century, Tanvir Mokammel, along with a couple of politically conscious youth stepped into the arena of Bangladesh cinema. Obviously it was not a cake walk! But his debut short film ‘Hooliya’ (1985) demonstrated the maker’s courage and competence. Since then he never had to look back. During the last three decades, confronting innumerable hurdles, Tanvir Mokammel has made six feature and thirteen documentaries.

In this article I will venture to analysis some of Tanvir Mokammel’s documentary films and will try to explore the maker’s philosophy in his search for truth. As we know, Tanvir Mokammel is in constant praxis with devotion to rediscover the present and the forgotten past of his country. I will also try to understand the auteur’s point of view in order to evaluate the persona of the film-maker as reflected in his documentaries. And in this connection, an expression of Tanvir Mokammel himself is being quoted as an introduction to this deliberation…. “I really like to make documentary films. In documentary cinema life situations of real people get portrayed. I believe it is very important for any film-maker to remain firmly rooted on the ground reality of his country and of his time. Making documentaries compels me to return to the real life of the real people of my country, to interact with their social, political and economic realities. This is very important as it is necessary for an artist, for his own creative need, to remain firmly rooted in his own land and in his own society.”[1] Before initiating the discussion I must admit that though I have watched most of Tanvir’s films yet I have not seen all of his documentaries. So I will try to portray an analysis of only those documentary films of Tanvir which I have seen. The films discussed in this article are arranged neither in accordance to their period of creation nor to my liking for them.

‘Swapnabhumi’ (The Promised Land—2007): The Human Gem

Khulna of the then East Pakistan was my birth place and I grew up in this town during the Pakistan era. Close to where we lived was the Khalispur industrial belt where some jute mills and a newsprint mill were located. An industrial area incorporates the presence of working labourers in clusters. And labour slums always foretell a crowded place, dirty and unhealthy congested with too many people in a small space.  Goats, cows, cocks and chickens, even buffaloes, were breeded there in cosy co-existence with the dwellers. In Khulna, one large section of these labourers were the ‘Biharis ’. Though the original birth place of most of those Urdu-speaking Muslim community were the state of Bihar but many also came from Uttarpradesh, Hyderbad, and even West Bengal. But in the popular connotation of the East Bengal Bangalees all those Urdu-speakers from India were known as the “Biharis”. Before the Partition of India, many of these “Biharis” used to reside in the suburbs of Kolkata i.e. in Titagarh, Naihati, Barackpore, Kankinada or in such other places. After the Partition, a huge number of those community migrated for their dreamland—Pakistan, i.e, in East Pakistan. They dreamed that in this new land and in new ambience they will live in peace and prosperity. In their new country, divided according to religion, they hoped to become first class citizens and enjoy better privileges. Though at the initial days of the Pakistan era they enjoyed some privileges but it did not take much long time for their dreams to shatter. Those unfortunate people became helpless tools in the political intrigues by the Pakistani rulers and earned a new identity from the Bengalis— ‘the miscreants’.

During the course of time the Biharis in East Pakistan, mostly uneducated, failed miserably to uplift their standard of living and got involved in the sub-terrain world of anti-social activities and communal riots. Generally their professions were labourer or butcher. A few were lower ranking railway employees. Some of them got involved in pick pocketing, ticket touting, wagon breaking, and not the least, smuggling in the border areas. Others also got involved in different kinds of profession of the dark underworld. They became a directionless community to be easily motivated, or cheaply purchased, by the ruling clique of Pakistan’s to be used as their musclemen.

So during any ‘bandh’ or ‘hartal’, or in any political program by the disgruntled Bengalis, the Biharis  would appear as the henchmen of the West Pakistan’s ruling circles. I still have some vivid and terrible memories of their atrocities in Khulna during the communal riot of 1964. So since my childhood I only nursed nothing but hatred for the Biharis. During the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971, their anti-Bengali violent activities reached to genocidal proportion. As collaborator of the marauding Pakistan army, the Biharis unleashed an unprecedented reign of brutal terror.

But history rotates on its own wheels. When the war was over and a new independent state of Bangladesh emerged, the status of the Biharis became very pathetic. They were then nobody’s baby. Pakistan, the loser state, after quibbling a lot, refused to accept them in Pakistan. During the early years of independence, due to the poor law and order situation in Bangladesh, thousands of Biharis became victims of revenge killing. Some Biharis had then managed to flee to Pakistan and some even to India. For others, refugee camps were established. A sub-human existence began for this hapless community and their new title became ‘the Standard Pakistanis’.

When the Bengali community of the newly independent Bangladesh were making strides towards development with dreams for a better future, those helpless Biharis remained confined into various shabby camps of only 8’-8’ space for each family to live in, and for mere survival, had to struggle in very unheathy and filthy environments. Thus passed the three unbearable decades. After many legal battles, they have recently attained their rights as citizens of Bangladesh. By accepting Bangladesh as their present and future homeland after four decades of independence of sovereign Bangladesh, they can now also brace themselves for a better future.

About these ill fated ‘Biharis’, Tanvir Mokammel, with a deep and profound humanist approach, has made a remarkable documentary—‘Swapnabhumi’ (The Promised Land). Though Tanvir’s idea of making this film was not greeted by many, especially by the Bengali nationalist intelligentsia, but his unbiased approach later compelled them to render acknowledgement. Against this trend to brand ‘the Biharis’ as ‘crime-prone’, and the tendency to isolate a whole community from the mainstream Bangladeshi society, Tanvir raised some bold questions. Most of those hooligans who caused havoc during the Liberation War of 1971 breathed their last already. Other survivors of 1971 are now subjected to old age or in deathbed. So, why the new generation of Biharis today still have to bear the legacy of the misdeeds of their ancestors ? They now want to live in Bangladesh with full rights as human beings and as equal citizens. Don’t they deserve this simple opportunity?

This humanist approach has immensely enriched Tanvir’s film “Swapnabhumi”, a gem of a documentary, and the film seems to have given a profound and new dimension to those old words of wisdom— ‘Hate the Sin Not the Sinner’. The director of ‘Swapnabhumi’ (The Promised Land) has very efficaciously renewed this ageold wise sermon once more.

Nisshango Sarathi’ (An Unsung Hero—2007): Tale of a Dadhichi—the Great Sacrificer of Mythology

Those who know in details the course of history of the Bengali nationalist movement in East Pakistan since the creation of Pakistan upto the birth of Bangladesh in 1971, are acquainted with the fact that when an unprepared country had faced a brutal war, during those turbulent days of 1971, the key-person who led the country and succeeded to accomplish the task of his life, was Tajuddin Ahmad. People of Bangladesh were fortunate to have Tajuddin Ahmad as the closest associate of their great national leader—Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. In absence of Sheikh Mujib, who was then languishing in a Pakistan jail, Tajuddin led the Liberation War of Bangladesh almost single handed and with élan. During those perilous nine months he drove the chariot of war steadily with a firm determination and succeeded to escort it to its final goal—the independence of Bangladesh. Then he lost control of it. After independence, even though winning over all those hard battles of a very precarious long journey, Tajuddin had to concede defeat in an independent homeland and had to become a mere spectator. What an irony of history! Tremendous pressure from worldwide got Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib released and returned to his Sonar Bangla. But the war-ravaged Bangladesh was then undergoing a very arduous struggle of reconstruction. Bangabandhu was then, simultaneously, glorified as well slandered. But unfortunately Tajuddin, his once most trusted lieutenant, was pushed out of the  stage. As an agonized spectator Tajuddin was helplessly witnessing the signs of the disastrous changes to come ! But there was none there to listen to him. Everyone forgot this great patriot and an agonized soul who devoted all his life for his country. Had he been alive Tajuddin might be subjected to more negligence and insult. But his agonies came to an end as he was brutally assassinated inside Dhaka jail soon after the killing of Sheikh Mujib by a wayward section of the Bangladesh army. Thus this unfortunate nation lost one of its most eminent statesmen.

To portray true history, a crystal clear analytical mind is required. In this biopic film, ‘Nissongo Sarathi’, Tanvir Mokammel showed enough of that. Viewing those turbulent days of the past from the objective distance of the present, Tanvir Mokammel minutely concentrated only on the facts. And in the 100-minutes documentary, filled with unknown informations, the eventful year of 1971 was placed as the centre of gravity.

While recollecting the contribution of this noble personality during those stormy days, the director interviewed many prominent personalities of Bangladesh. Through the interviews of those renowned persons like Dr. Kamal Hossain, Barrister Amirul Islam, economist Rehman Sobhan and Tajuddin’s wife Zohra Tajuddin, Tajuddin Ahmad’s entire life and works get reflected from all different perspectives. In fact, those truthful spoken words by these revered persons, Tajuddin Ahmad’s life and persona, his sacrifices, his perseverance as a lone charioter to achieve the independence of Bangladesh as the goal of his life, and his determined fight and never to accept defeat, may remind one the mythological character of Dadhichi.

‘Nisshango Sarathi’—the very title of the film sounds a bit melancholic due to its tragic connotation. But in fact, viewing the film is a rejuvenating experience to find the exceptional proficiency of a war-time leader. It appears that this unusual political leader was born only to make the birth of Bangladesh a reality. Perhaps, for this reason, after having accomplished the mission of his life to make an independent Bangladesh, by realizing Bangabandhu’s dream, Tajuddin left the political stage once for all. The hero who triumphed over the most critical period of history of the Bengali nation in 1971, vanished in the realm of history as a helpless prey of the merciless slayers!

The prime quality of this documentary is its adroitness to explore the political self of Tajuddin Ahmad without any prejudices. So the creation of Pakistan in 1947, and the birth of Bangladesh in 1971, along with the history of the next few years upto the tragedy of 1975, constitute the major content of the film. Not Tajuddin as a person only but his political struggles remain the main focus of this film. The director seems to have stressed more on the real events and information than on having any emotional overture, generally found in this kind of biopic. Clear political perspective and devotion to history seem to have contributed a lot in the laborious research to create this remarkable piece of documentary.

The film illustrates in minute details the political events of East Pakistan during the 1950s and the 1960s. This particular introductory portion seems very pertinent to understand the persona of Tajuddin, and also to understand the film better as this documentary has to be understood on the backdrop of Bangladesh politics—past and present.

To make such a film requires a constant nourishing process within, an urge to search for the truth and nothing but the truth and to always remain loyal to the every details of history. No doubt Tanvir Mokammel is blessed with all those qualities. The film, not only reveals the valour and heroic strength of one tragic hero, but contains a plethora of information of the incidents happened, even the tragic event of Tajuddin’s brutal assassination inside the Dhaka Central Jail in 1975. Making this film is a glorious effort by Tanvir Mokammel to brighten those faded pages of Bangladesh history, an effort, which also displays the deep political commitment of a well informed film-maker.

Karnaphulir Kanna’ (Teardrops of Karnaphuli, 2005): A Prosperous Settlement Drowned Under Tears

The Chittagong Hill Tract, located at the south-east of Bangladesh, differs a lot from the plain land of Bengal. Not only the Hill Tract’s topography, but its environment, and the language, dress, food habit and culture of the Chakma, Marma and other tribal people, are totally different from the rest of Bangladesh. Whether during Pakistan regime, or in an independent Bangladesh, life situation of the indigenous people of the hills have hardly made any change. In economic and social development they are still lagging far behind their fellow citizens in the other parts of the country.

The indigenous people of the Chittagong Hill Tract are solely dependent on nature, and with enough natural resources around, have managed to survive for centuries on that. But due to indifference and insensibility of the state, even in their austere living condition, they have been facing serious economic and political troubles. In the 1960’s, when the country was experiencing Martial Law of General Ayub Khan, in the name of development,

the Kaptai Hydro-Electric Project (1959-62) was launched on the Karnaphuli river which was an extreme action of imprudence and proved to be almost a suicidal project. One vast lake, Kaptai lake, got formed due to this dam. 54,000 acres of arable land of the indigenous people just drowned underwater and thousands of people became homeless overnight. Even the King of Rangamati’s palace sank under the lake. This Kaptai Lake, which caused tears for thousands of homeless, now attracts the tourists for its scenic beauty. But it also reminds us the old proverb anew—‘Ghute Pore Gobor Hase’‘The Next Turn is Yours’. The very purpose of the project also failed miserably. Power generation remained below the huge cost of production. Kaptai Lake remained as another example of the indifferent approach of the West Pakistan’s ruling clique towards the people of the East Pakistan. Encountering many such injustices and discriminatory actions, the independent state of Bangladesh finally came into being in 1971 and the Bengalis of Bangladesh stepped into the world of new socio-economic developments. But for the indigenous people of the Chittagong Hill Tract, no worthy development initiative have taken place yet. Rather a new serious trouble appeared for them. As during the regime of the then President Zia (in the year of 1979), by an weird move of the government, almost half a million plain land Bengalis were rehabilitated in the hills of the Chittagong Hill Tract. The local people themselves turned into minority in their own land. Farfetched effects fell on their life and livelihood. This obviously caused violence, and almost a civil war broke out, which continued for decades. Finally Bangladesh government was forced to sign a peace accord with the indigenous people. But peace remained elusive and the life of the hill people still remains as perturbed as before.

Dealing this sensitive issue of the Chittagong Hill Tract Tanvir Mokammel has made a well-researched documentary ‘Karnaphulir Kanna’ (Teardrops of Karnaphuli). The sixty minutes’ film is a tragic tale of those unfortunate tribal people—their dreams, agonies, aspirations and frustrations. This worthy film is the product of the director’s superb sensivity and diligent hard work. Loyalty to history, quest for truth and sympathy for the underdogs, all came to side with the cause of the downtrodden hill people. No wonder why the film was banned by the government of Bangladesh and Tanvir had to get clearance of the film by the verdict of the High Court. This beautifully shot documentary on the lives and predicaments of the hill people of Chittagong definitely sensitizes us and makes us guilt conscious for the aggressive chauvinism of a section of our Bengali race.

‘Bostrobalikra’ (Garment Girls of Bangladesh, 2007): For Thousand Years They Walk on the Streets

Each day at dawn and in the evening twilight, there is a familiar sight in the city of Dhaka. That is of the walking girls of the garment factories. During the last two decades, export-oriented garment industry in Bangladesh has made a tremendous progress. A good section of women of Bangladesh are now engaged in this industry as labour force, which besides generating wealth for the country, have also uplifted the standard of living of these poor girls. International apparel companies have invested their funds and a vibrant industry and work culture are now prevalent in this sector. Most of these garment girls were previously engaged as domestic servants in the rich and middle class households. To escape the poverty cycle, megre wages, hard work and humiliation, they now prefer to join as industrial labour in these factories.
The girls now definitely earn more, and above all, have obtained some sort of identity and respect in the society. This is the reason why everyday, job-seeking girls from the rural areas of Bangladesh, continuously flock into the Dhaka city. As Bangladesh workers have less wages compared to other countries, the multinational investors prefer Bangladesh, and the garment industry in Bangladesh now is becoming a vibrant one.

Tanvir Mokammel, by watching those girls treading the streets, once wrote a poem— “Bostrobalikara”. But though the poem worked as the genesis of the film yet the tenderness and lyrical touch of that poem are justifiably absent in the documentary. To explore the pros and cons of this fledgeling industry, and to find out the real condition of the workers’ lives, the film-maker had to be down to earth. Interviews of the workers, and comments by concerned economists, factory-owners, trade union leaders and intellectuals, have enhanced the depth of the film. Shots inside the busy factories enriched the visual aspect of the documentary a lot. Concerned national and international experts, with their expertise knowledge, have sure helped, but kudos go to the film-maker as well who worked diligently to make a very detailed portrayal of the garment sector of Bangladesh today. With his delicate skill, by shooting home and abroad, Tanvir also showed the economic possibilities of this export-oriented industry as a whole. To explore the real life situation of the garment girls Tanvir seems to have left no stone unturned. For this he travelled with his camera inside the busy factories, some of which are no better than sweatshops, and also into the slums to visualize the living dwellings of those working women. The film quite elaborately and successfully depicts the everyday life, ordeals and dreams of some of these garment girls. Beginning with a mere individual life-story it turned out to be a narrative of a budding class-in-itself— the garment workers of Bangladesh, and also the immense possibilities of this sector for the fragile economy of a poor country like Bangladesh.

In spite of numerous hurdles, there are many tiny lanterns visible in the poverty-stricken Bangladesh today. With the combination of a rational approach and factual information the director successfully put on some light on one of Bangladesh’s main economic potentialities at presents— the garment sector. Here lies the importance of this sensitively shot and remarkable documentary— ‘Bostrobalikara’ (Garment Girls of Bangladesh).

‘Oie Jamuna’ (Tale of a River—2002): River as Eternal Resource of Life and Prosperity

This film may better not be called a documentary per se but an ‘inward journey’—a voyage within one’s inner self. The river Jamuna, originating in Tibet, crosses the plateau of Assam as the Brahmaputra, then flows through the plain lands of Bangladesh to finally reach to the Bay of Bengal. In Bangladesh, the Brahmapurta is known as the Jamuna. While floating on a country boat on the mighty Jamuna, one of the major rivers of not only of Bangladesh but of the whole world, the director’s lenses have visualised with elan the riverside human settlements, their day-to-day life situations, their sorrows and joys. For a couple of weeks the film maker, accompanied by his film unit, journeyed through this vast waterway of the Jamuna and rediscovered his own homeland as if in a newly realized vision. No doubt, the idea itself was a noble one. It appears to be a re-exploration of one’s inner self through the reflections of the moving images of this beautiful, as well as, perilous river. The film-maker not only looks at the Jamuna as a passive viewer, but as an interpreter as well. He listens to the stories, participates in the joys and sorrows of the habitants over the river banks, and keeps on reflecting Jamuna’s influence on the lives and thought process of these people. Sometimes the film-unit interact with a fisherman or a folk-singer, the sons of the soil, as if to understand the inner soul of this land. As viewer of this film, we also get influenced to take part in this fascinating journey on the massive Jamuna which remains an endless life-generating river. We also perceive, as if, an inner meaning of life and become enchanted by the incessant flow of the mighty Jamuna river with all it treasures and renewal possibilities of life.

‘Japani Bodhu’ (The Japanese Wife—2012): Story of an Enlightened Bengali Lady

The film is an unique biography of an exceptional Bengali woman—Hariprobha Takeda. It appears that some worn out pages of history have been flickered with the tale of a neglected woman left uncared in our history and lost in a forgotten era. It is a biopic film telling the story of an exceptionally enlightened Bengali woman of the last century.

Hariprobha Basu Mallick (1890-1972) was born in an educated but poor Brahmo family and lived in Dhaka in the early years of the 19th century. Hariprobha was married to a Japanese young man named Oemon Takeda who was then living in Dhaka to run a soap factory. Not for those days only, even for today, the event of a marriage between a Japanese man and a Bengali girl, surprises us. It was truely a courageous step of Hariprobha’s enlightened Brahmo family to egg her ‘to come out from her inner cage to step out in the outer world’ (Apon hote bahir hoye baire danra—Tagore). In 1912 Hariprobha visited her in-laws in Japan for the first time. In a remote village in Japan, Hariprobha spent a considerable number of days amidst completely unknown ambiences and social customs. Then she returned to his husband’s place of work again —Bengal. After coming back to Bengal, Hariprobha wrote her vivid experiences in Japan as a traveler, and a book was published with the title ‘Bongo Mohilar Japan Jatra’ (Journey of a Bengali Woman to Japan). Point to be noted that Tagore’s much acclaimed ‘Japan Yatrir Dairy’ (Diary of a Traveller to Japan) was published in 1916, four years after Hariprobha’s book. Therefore Hariprobha should be honoured as the first Bengali travel-writer on Japan. But the little known book by an unknown female author almost went into oblivion. It was rediscovered after a long time, in fact, only at the fag end of the last century. Retrieval of this book opened up a new chapter of history before us. The story of a courageous and enlightened Bengali woman emerged from an unknown distant past.

The notable incident of Hariprobha’s life was her last visit to Japan in the 1940s during the Second World War. In those turbulent days, on behalf of the Azad Hind Fouz of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Hariprobha used to read Bengali news from the Tokyo Radio. She would take risk of her life by travelling on foot between her home and the radio station often wearing a helmet on her head through the curfew-clad dark streets of the devastatingly bombed Tokyo. Hariprobha Takeda also had the rare experience to get acquainted with Rashbihari Basu, the legendary Bengali nationalist leader in exile. This episode of Hariprobha’s life is an example of unrivalled bravery which in the pages of history should be written in golden letters.

The film “Japani Bodhu” was shot both in Japan and in Bangladesh and followed the trails of Hariprobha’s journey. White illustrating the colourful life of Hariprobha, Tanvir Mokammel has effectively used some clippings of the classic Japanese movie “Tokyo Story” by the great and unique film-maker of Japan of the last century—Yasujiro Ozu. Those black and white shots from Ozu mesmerizes us with the visuals of Japan of those bygone days.

Childless Hariprobha died in Kolkata in 1972. Tanvir ended the film with the tales of some other Bengali brides now married and living in Japan. Even some Japanese women, who married Bengali men, have been interviewed as well. The film thus creates an unified cinematic experience of cultural confluence where the two cultures embrace each other. And in that, the pioneer was the remarkable lady Hariprobha Takeda from Dhaka. Beyond religion, language, culture or tradition, bondage among the human beings finally prevails. Voice of Tagore resonances;          ‘Viswa Sathe Yoge Jethai Viharo

Sei Khane Yog Tomar Sathe Amaro’

(Where you are connected with the world

I too feel connected to you there)

‘1971’ (2011): A Severe Crisis and an Outstanding Ballad of the Victory of the Bengalis

In its thousand years of history Bengali race never faced such a terrible ordeal as in 1971. When Bengal was partitioned in 1947 on the basis of religion, none could then apprehend what monstrous result this division would ultimately bring. In fact, the West Pakistani rulers never accepted the people of East Pakistan as their equal countrymen. So since the birth of Pakistan, many signs of conflicts have been showing up. Pakistan was then ruled by the dark regimes of one military dictator after another. That is why, during the whole twenty-four years of the Pakistan era, East Bengal has been seething with anger, protest and resistance which finally ended with the independence of Bangladesh in 1971. With the help of neighbouring India, Bangladesh achieved victory within only nine months. The Liberation War of 1971 became a glorious bench mark in the history of the Bengalis.

A laborious and painstaking research by Tanvir Mokammel for long seven years and meticulous picturisation of every detail of all the major events of those nine months make the mega-documentary ‘1971’ a profound experience to watch. With the assemblage of eye-witness interviews and rare archival footages, the film of nearly three and half hours succeeded to recreate the history of 1971, a crystallized time, which epitomizes Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s dream for a Golden Bengal.

It may be mentioned that with profound intellectual integrity and immense hard work the director has made this massive documentary possible. He dealt with all the major events of 1971, and also the incidents before 1971 in proper historical perspective. The film-unit travelled to the important places of genocide, and also visited significant places of occurrences both in Bangladesh and in India to record the interviews of the eye-witnesses. The film-maker also meticulously collected concerned footages from different national and international archives.

In this gigantic work, Mahadeb Shi, the editor of the film, tuned himself perfectly to the director’s rhythm. Having arranged neatly the sequences one after another in the context of the nine month’s war of liberation, the film unit have succeeded to portray the bitter struggles in 1971, and finally the ultimate victory, the birth of a new nation-state—Bangladesh, with a perfect blend of artistic integrity and emotional overtures. This noble effort of a film-maker to portray the pangs, pathos and glories of his country and nation, is not only something one can be proud of, but surely remains as a source of great contentment to watch as well.

‘Bonojatri’ (Riders to the Sunderbans—2005): A Joy Ride to the Inaccessible.

In the southern most corner of the Sunderbans in Bangladesh, downstream of the Shibsha, a major river of south Bengal which confluences with the Pasar, another important river of the jungle, is an island known as Dublarchar. For the lower caste people of Bangladesh, Dublarchar is considered as a holy place as Gangasagar is in India. Since ancient times, during the holy full-moon of the Bengali month of Kartik, the wives of the fishermen would come here to worship the sea on the Dublarchar sea-shore to appease the sea for the safe return of their husbands from the perilous sea voyages.

With course of time this once sea-worship ritual of the working people gradually turned into a Vaisnav ‘Rashmela’ fair. The journey to Dublarchar incorporates crossing over some of the most dangerous rivers of the Sundarbans. But paying no heed to the old Bengali proverb—‘Jole Kumir, Dangae Bagh’ (Crocodile in Water, Tiger in Land) pilgrims, especially the wives and children of the fishermen, reach the place in groves. So it is not a simple journey but almost a kind of an odyssey. In the film ‘Bonojatri’ the film-maker has followed the pilgrims with his camera and the documentary becomes a visual representation of the lives of those marginal communities for whom the dense forest of Sundarban becomes a kind of a refuse for a few days, and who, during this perilous journey, survive on the jungle’s resources. The film, in one side portrays the dangers from the tiger-ridden jungle in every step. On the other hand, depicts the detailed arrangements of such a massive festival. While depicting this mammoth gathering of thousands of pilgrims on the sea-shore, the minor details of the individual pilgrims have not been missed out. The film portrays the dangers of the journey as well as the jovialities of the courageous pilgrims. The camera visualizes the beauties of the Sunderbans superbly, yet refrains from becoming a display of some stunning pictorial collage like the National Geographic but rather presents a believable visualization revealing the soul of the jungle.

A great attraction of this film is the interviews and the living expressions of the pilgrims. Aloka, the fisherman’s wife or old fisherman Niranjan who has been a regular visitor to this fair for the last fifty years – are the real faces of rural Bengal. Their belief and devotion reflect glimpses of the lives of the poor marginal people living in the south of Bengal. The segments of oral expressions of the poor people of a deprived community, devoid of any formal education reveal the real experience of this voyage. In fact, for the sheer pleasure of the journey, these travellers, mostly women, turn a short jouney of hardly two days into a voyage of a full week. It becomes poormen’s tourism, a real— joie de vivre. It is important to mention that this ‘Rashmela’ in Dublarchar also becomes an occasion of friendship between the Hindus and Muslims. With deep and meticulous care, the director in this film has made visible, the captivating images of those simple, good natured marginal Bangladeshi people. He also reveals a completely unknown and different Bangladesh to us.

Achin Pakhi’ (The Unknown Bard—1996): Where Shall I Find the Unknown?

Regarding the Bauls and Fakirs of Bengal our curiosity knows no bound. Numerous songs written and composed by the Bauls of Bengal reflect their unique and ascetic life style. But behind the apparently simple lyrics of these compositions, remains a multi-layered depth. The Bauls search the God within human beings. Their philosophy has aimed to do away with the differences between high and low castes and to consider all men to be equal human gems. Rabindranath Tagore also felt a deep attraction towards the philosophy of the Bauls, and himself also composed some songs in the Baul-genre.

Tanvir Mokammel in his documentary ‘Achin Pakhi’ has shown the life and philosophy of Fakir Lalon Shah, the doyen among the Bauls of Bengal. The film has presented the profound achievements of an extraordinary man and artist—Lalon Fakir. Lalon’s life and works, his songs, which for generations enthralled the audiences of home and abroad, have been dealt with diligence. The film, while presenting Lalon the man and the persona, has also dealt in details the Bauls of Bengal in general and their theology. Tanvir deserves kudos for choosing this particular subject which still stands tall in rural Bengal against all sorts of religious fanaticism, communalism and parochialism.

Till now Tanvir Mokammel has made thirteen documentaries. One of the major subjects of his research is the Liberation War of Bangladesh which reflects his deep commitment to the history and people of his country. But Tanvir’s films also tell us the joys and woes of the people living on the banks of the Jamuna, get us acquainted with the festivities, beliefs and struggles of the indigenous people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, then his camera also reveals the pangs and pathos of the marginal communities of the remote south Bengal. He extends his moral support to the oppressed Bihari people by making ‘Swapnabhumi’, a courageous work for a Bengali-speaking film-maker, and also addresses the progress and economic development of his country in the film ‘Bastrobalikara’. And ‘1971’, ‘Nisshongo Sarothi’, ‘Smriti ’71’, all these films become worthy tributes to the War of Liberation of Bangladesh, a war which had happened in epic dimension and had an immense impact on the geo-politics of this sub-continent.

Forty years have passed since the independence of Bangladesh but the film industry of Bangladesh is still limping. But the future seems not so doomed due to these courageous film-personalities like Tanvir Mokammel and his colleagues, who are struggling to overcome the numerous obstacles and are trying to open up a new horizon for the Bangladesh with fresh imageries and sharp intellect. We, the viewers of Tanvir Mokammel’s films, expect more captivating tales of struggles, hopes and dreams of the people of Bangladesh from his new creations. [2]

[1] Interview by Manish Rafique included in the book ‘Camerar Pechone Sarathi’, Dhaka.

[2] Here are the other documentaries of Tanvir Mokammel which I have not seen yet. So I refrain from discussing those films. The films are; 1) Smrity ’71 (Rememberance of 1971), a documentary about the murder of the Bengali intellectuals by the Islamic fundamentalist during the 1971 war. The film was never cleared by the Censor Board of Bangladesh; 2) Swapnar School (A School for Swapna), a documentary about the alternative education in Bangladesh, 3) Tale of a Lane (Ekti Golir Atyakahini), a documentary on the ancient lane of Shakhabazar in Old Dhaka; 4) ‘Images and Impressions’, a documentary about alternative education in Denmark.

Translated by: Kaberi Basu

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