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Shyam Benegal’s ‘Mujib: The Making of A Nation’ Narrates History Selectively

Yet, if you are looking at the film solely for Shyam Benegal’s magic touch, you could be quite disappointed. It seems less of a Benegal
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If your family has a history with the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, Shyam Benegal’s Mujib: The Making of A Nation will talk to you in familiar tongue. On the other hand, if you are fortunate enough to be able to watch the film without any baggage, lineage or otherwise, it might just not seem like a film at all. For those uninitiated into the horrors of first-hand encounter with war crimes, this is a more simpler approach. For me, the film actually brought back some deliberately forgotten tales from the past.

The earliest stories I have heard from my mother are about her experience as a fleeing refugee from Gouripur village in Comilla district of Bangladesh to an Indian refugee camp, closest to the Indian border, in Agartala. I remember her telling me how the Bangladesh Liberation War began when she was in Class V. She never got to study Class VI because the whole academic year was spent running away from one country to another, moving from one refugee camp to another and finally her family finding accommodation and meagre means of living in suburban Kolkata. When she found herself in school again, she was old enough to be enrolled in Class VII.
But before that came the stories of horrors of the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971, some of which you will see in Shyam Benegal’s biopic ‘Mujib: The Making of A Nation’. There was an instance when my mother and her family, accompanied by several other villagers, were walking on a highland with deep waters of natural ditches on both sides. People were walking in a single file, carrying all their belongings in their hands. She must have been 10 or 11 years old. Suddenly someone in front of the line hissed, “Jump into the water, the soldiers are coming with guns.”

Sculpture depicting Bangladesh Liberation War refugees

Everyone around her started jumping into the canals on both sides. My mother was speechless and dumbstruck, she didn’t know what to do. Someone from behind her pulled her into the water and pushed her inside the water so that no one could see her head from the highlands. Everybody else did the same. A jeep full of soldiers passed by showering bullets on all sides, helter skelter. After they passed everything lay still for a while. Once the jeep was out of sight, people emerged from the water and started walking again! No one knew how many got hit, they just kept walking together again, the destination; the nearest Indian refugee camp! In the film, I saw repetition of similar scenes, things I had only made space for in the darkest corners of my imagination.
Meanwhile, as a biopic the film is extensive, vividly detailed and also quite lengthy. It is 178 minutes long and in great need of smart editing. Arifin Shuvo, who plays Bangabandhu and Nusrat Imroz Tisha, who plays his wife Renu have done their best to keep the screenplay lively. In fact Tisha adds more gravity to Bangabandhu and his political persona. Here is another woman who kept home and hearth safe, while Mujib set out time and again on political pursuits inevitably followed by extended jail terms. Between Shuvo and Tisha, Tisha is the actor who will remain etched in the minds of the audience.

Yet, if you are looking at the film solely for Shyam Benegal’s magic touch, you could be quite disappointed. It seems less of a Benegal film and more of a state sponsored political agenda. Not only is history narrated rather selectively, but entire communities have been wiped off the surface of the storyline. Mujib as a student, Mujib as a husband, Mujib as a father, Mujib as a poet, Mujib as a party cadre and finally Mujib as the head of state, it’s all there. But one struggles to find the humanist face of Mujib in the script.
Strangely, the film was released at a time when the world is reeling under the emotional baggage of yet another war and its fallout in Gaza and Israel. Here in the midst of a present war, we come face to face with the horrors of past wars. Children still face the same fate whether it is 1971 or 2023. The education ministry in Gaza has officially declared that the academic term cannot be continued, an entire generation of learners have been bombed away from the surface of the earth! The only difference is social media brings them closer, even if in our mind we tend to believe that this war is happening far away from us, wishfully believing it could never reach us!


Images courtesy: Wikipedia & Flickr

A writer, journalist and radio presenter based in Kolkata.

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