Feature Img
Meherjaan movie poster
Meherjaan movie poster

There are times when in the middle of posturing and profiling, we lose sight of the big picture. Arguing for a ban on the movie Meherjaan is one such moment.   Those who were asking for a ban, or who are happy that its distributors have pulled down the curtain on the film, forget that a very dangerous precedence is being set — tow the line of an ‘acceptable’ narrative in your creative pursuit or perish.

Of course, I had problems with the film’s narrative that portrayed a feel-good image of the war. But I have been stunned with the sheer ferocity of the criticism the film received. I had the chance to see an earlier cut of Meherjaan six months ago with a lot of expectation, only to be disappointed by the script and the absurdity of its plot line. A film that campaigns on its political background — can it claim to be an apolitical love story when faced with criticism?

But I thought this was the beginning of a healthy exchange. I thought it was the beginning of the clash of storytelling between two generations — one that was too emotionally close to the War to accept any other narrative of the story and the one for whom the research of the War was done through interviews and books. It is foolish to dismiss either of these narratives as both were relevant. But it was important to keep the space open for debate to get a semblance of balance on both sides.

I was looking forward to a rational debate on substance, heated discussions on the history, and in the end a populace that has more clarity on our War through the discourse. Instead, what we saw, as it all too frequently happens in Bangladesh, was a debate that quickly descended into the personal territory. What’s the director’s family background? What was the hidden agenda? Why was the film released now? And most alarmingly, how did the Censor Board release this film?

Why? Why such personalisation and vilification when there is plenty to criticise on the substance of the film?

Those who asked this question were also put into a bracket with some colourful labels – “Engreji blogwala”, “bidesh ferot”, “out of touch”, “personally benefited”.   This is not the first time the progressive camp reacted with such vitriol when faced with such ‘nuisance factors’. I recall how Maqsudul Huq Maq of the band Feedback was castigated, vilified and eventually blacklisted in BTV in the late ‘90s for his experimentation with Tagore songs.

Still for a lot of people, the strong reaction against Meherjaan could be put into proper context. The common narrative of the War is not established on firmer ground yet, some said — thanks to many distortions in the past 35 years. There was nervousness about a counter narrative. “We haven’t had a closure yet”. “We are not ready for a counter narrative yet”.

Or so we are told.

Having accepted that, why do we not leave it up to the public to decide rather than trying to influence what it can or cannot see?

Too often, we underestimate the power of the average citizens in deciding what they want to accept and reject. Quite in contrast to existing norms, Tareque and Catherine Masud in the last few weeks have taken their latest film ‘Runway’ to the mass all around the country. In theatres after theatres in different cities, packed audience came and watched the film based on a somewhat controversial topic of the rise of religious extremism in Bangladesh. He took it to places where it mattered and left it upon the audience to judge his film. The results were surprising. The audience engaged in lively debates after the show and the director came away with an array of discourses – some expected and some not so expected — which, I believe, will only make his future works stronger. The lesson therefore is that it is extremely patronising to ‘shield’ the public from the so-called ‘incorrect’ narratives. Show it to as many people as possible and let the public decide what is right and what is wrong.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened with Meherjaan.  It couldn’t even be shown in Dhaka for more than a week. In spite of sell out crowds, the distributor pulled the film off the screen; the real reason behind the pull out is yet to be known but if some news reports are to be believed, the withdrawal of the censor certificate is likely to follow.

This will no doubt make some of those from the “progressive camp”, who were asking for the ban and those who originally questioned its censor certificate, happy.  But losers will be those who truly want an open space for creative exploration and who want an open space for debate without questioning each others’ agenda.

The losers will be those who could have hoped for a better film on 1971 in future by doing an honest critic of Meherjaan, which will now be impossible as it gains martyrdom.

The tragedy is not that film’s life was cut short. Real tragedy is that the intense reaction and subsequent exchanges could have provoked the younger generation to search for the real history of the War and its relevance. Now it’s a missed opportunity.

“In these transition times, we are all fighting for the soul of our country we live”, said Rahul Bose, Bollywood’s thinking actor, at an event in Dhaka for the Asian Women’s University last week.

Indeed we are.  However, among all the posturing and internal politic, those of us, who claim to be from the progressive liberal camp in this country, forget what kind of soul we aspire to have for our nation. Will this soul be about creativity, openness and fairness or will this be about close mindedness, banning of views that we don’t like, and censorship?

Judging from the reactions that I hear that Tareque and Catherine Masud got in their brilliant attempt to take the film to all over Bangladesh, I suspect it’s the former. Ironically, in the case of Meherjaan, however, we are setting a terrible precedence of intolerance with the vilification of a creative pursuit and celebration of its ‘withdrawal’. This, I am afraid, will return and haunt us for a long time to come.

Does this mean I am advocating to allow anything and everything under the sun in the name of freedom of speech?  Surely not. Freedom comes with responsibilities.  Surely Rubaiat Hossain, having access to the power and privilege, due to her family connection, could have showed more maturity, restraint and care in the portrayal of the war and particularly the women victims of the war. She deserves some of the criticism she is getting on the substance of the movie. But the movie by all account deserves to be shown.

There is still time. Let’s criticise the film to pieces. But let us protest any restriction in showing the film — be it official or unofficial.  Even if we hate the film, let us protest any attempt on censorship. Let us allow our people to make up their own minds about the film by letting them go and see it. More importantly in this process, let us aspire to make a better film – much better than Meherjaan – that captures the true essence of our great Liberation War.

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Asif Saleh is a co-founder and contributor to Drishtipat Writers’ Collective.

15 Responses to “Losing the plot with Meherjaan”

  1. Fayaz Ahmad

    Freedom of expression is not a destination but a journey. Rubaiat may have seen the first barrier in her own journey. Hope and believe that she would value this experience and search for answers. Thanks to Asif for yet another piece provoking thoughts.

  2. S. M. Akash

    Dear Asif Bhai,

    Congratulations. It’s a good piece. I also read some other articles on the issue. I stand by you as you said “Let us allow our people to make up their own minds about the film by letting them go and see it. …..let us aspire to make a better film – much better than Meherjaan – that captures the true essence of our great Liberation War.”

    Thanks,

    Akash

  3. Rezwan

    Hello Sir,

    I read your writeup and you just wrote what’s actually going on my mind. I enjoyed watching the movie with my family and it was after about 10 years we had gone to a cinema hall to watch a Bengali movie. At first, my parents were not that enthusiastic as they read some features against the movie published in newspapers saying that it’s a movie all about rape & disrespecting Liberation War.

    But later we found it was a love story where ’71 is just a background. Throughout the world, we can see that a girl falls in love with a wounded soldier who’s an enemy to her country. But, the so-called intellectuals of our country has taken it as a SIN. Our two neighbouring countries who have a cold relation since ’47 and and battled many wars. Both countries have made so many movies — a love story between native girl and soldier of the other country but none of them went off air after release. The self-proclaimed patriots(!) of a blogsite are saying that this movie is an obstacle to carry out war crimes trial. I think the government should look into it and allow MEHERJAAN to run.

    With regards,
    Rezwan

  4. Basher

    All I hear in this article is to ensure the uninterrupted supply of anything and everything in the name of freedom of speech and promotion of culture. It simply says the author represents the group who like to make the headline news by experimenting new things even at the cost of facts, truth and others’ sentiment. No wonder the author went on saying, “I recall how Maqsudul Huq Maq of the band Feedback was castigated, vilified and eventually blacklisted in BTV in the late ‘90s for his experimentation with Tagore songs.” Dear learned author, please try to realize that, to many Rabindra sangeet (what you call Tagore song) is not a matter of experiment. Also as a civilized person we should not support the destruction of others’ creation in the name of experimentation. In fact, when so called experimentation was done, Rabindra sangeet was protected under copyright. It was simply a breach of law. How come it did not come in the ‘Dristi’ of Dristipat. Culture and freedom should not teach us to play with facts, truth and others’ sentiment disrespectfully.

  5. Prince

    Dear Asif,

    When you believe that distortion of history only started after 1975 (Unheard Voice / Meherjan), how do you justify when you say, “I was looking forward to a rational debate on substance, heated discussions on the history, and in the end a populace that has more clarity on our War through the discourse.” ? Please clarify.

  6. Mahmudur Rahman

    The article is little judgmental and reaches conclusions without any basis. How does the movie give a feel good feeling of the war? Have you seen the movie? How many people in total have watched this movie? A few hundred to a couple of thousands at most? So people are making up their minds without watching the movie.

    The fact is that it is a huge boost for Bangladeshi cinema as it is the best Bangladeshi film ever produced (definitely from a production standpoint). It will be seen all around the world and people will know that Bangladesh can create good movies.

  7. sajjad

    The movie is just a story, badly written, and does not warrant all these columns or discussions (unless of course the contributors have any hidden agenda).

  8. Tausif Salim

    Dear Asif,

    I am a regular reader of columns on bdnews24.com (my favorite way of being in touch with what’s happening in the homeland), and this morning it was a pleasant surprise to read your article. All the while I was reading it, it kept reminding me of ‘Inglorious Basterds’ – which had Hitler burnt alive in a movie theatre. While this is quite an extreme example and I can’t really compare because I haven’t had the chance to see Meherjaan, I agree with your point of view. I think in this age of history being re-rewritten, it is urgent that we discuss the great Liberation War in an objective, fact-based way instead of treating it as a divine, unquestionable thing.

  9. Fahmida Begum

    Hi Asif,
    Congratulations! As usual a good piece here. I need to watch the film now to understand some of your comments. How do I access the film in UK?

    I believe if we talk about freedom of speech then everyone has the right to express their speech through any media especially films. Likewise everyone has the right to provide feedback, a practice that would be impossible if the censor board does not co-operate.

    Best wishes
    Fahmida

  10. Altaf Hossain Ripon

    First of all, the film isn’t meant to “capture the true essence of our great Liberation War”. How can ONE film ever “capture the true essence” of ANY war, that is foolish. The film is not meant to be a narrative of the war either.

    This is the biggest problem with Bangalees, if one person creates something, instead of supporting, everyone wants to bring it down. People are just angry that the movie shows a Bangladeshi girl falling in love with a Pakistani.

  11. AK Shamsuddin

    I did not have the chance to watch the movie yet, but I have been following many writings about it in the media. While doing so, I was gradually becoming fearful of its fate. Now, to my utter dismay the inevitable is about to happen.

    If the censor board revokes its own decision now, that would not only expose their own vulnerability but it would also be an insult to the intelligence of the viewers . At the same time such a fickle minded censor board would always be a threat to creative film making.

    As a Bengali we are proud of our War of Liberation. We glorify it through our core narratives, and that is understandable. But alongside there are many fringe narratives of the war too, of which some of us may or may not be aware of. May be the director of Meherjan wanted to delve into those fringe narratives and fictionalise a movie at the backdrop of War of Liberation. Whether the main theme of the movie is contrary to the popular narratives of the Liberation War, could only be judged decisively by the viewers. It should be the prerogative of the viewers to accept it or reject it.

    Gagging always plugs the opportunity of a popular discourse.

  12. Fida Hasan

    I have not watched this film yet, i was meaning to. But unfortunately now i can’t. Though i have not watched it, i have heard about the film, its storyline. It is a love story between the then West Pakistani soldier and East Pakistani Bengali woman in the background of the Liberation war of Bangladesh. Personally, i do not find any problem with this plot. I have seen so many Bollywood films which narrated the relation between an Indian man and a British woman, such as Laagan, Rang De Basanti in the context of their Liberation War. Withdrawing this film only reminds me that we are still not liberal and matured. And i fully agree with Mr. Asif, even if the film “Meherjaan” is controversial, let the people make the decision.

    • shahriar

      Yes, you are right that such type of movie is not an exception in the subcontinent.

      In Laagan, or Rang de Basanti or Veer Jaara, the heroines came to India from either England or Pakistan. This was marked as a great victory for the country of origin (India) so the people could not debate over it.

      The movie industry in Bangladesh should be more conscious/careful about history and public sentiment.

      Love is blind, it may happen anywhere, within any race but the plot is different. Bangladesh is not like Alaska or Louisiana; we did not buy this land, but conquered it through bloodshed and immense amount of sacrifice.

  13. Sumon Rahman

    “Surely Rubaiyat Hossain, having access to the power and privilege, due to her family connection, could have showed more maturity, restraint and care in the portrayal of the war and particularly the women victims of the war.”

    — I did not get it. How would Rubaiyat’s access to the power and privilege and her family connection ensure more maturity in portraying the Liberation War and the women victims? Is “maturity” a function of “power, privilege and family connection”?

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