April issue 2012

By | Arts & Culture | Movies | Published 10 years ago

Confronting the bitter truth of history is not easy. The Bengali peasantry and intelligentsia spearheaded a movement for the creation of the new state of Pakistan in 1947. But, ironically, just a little more than two decades later the Bengalis broke away from the nation they helped found after a bitterly fought battle in 1971. The complicated corollary of that war still hangs heavy on both nations.

As a parable of those times, the Bangladeshi feature film Meherjaan (2011) represents this harsh reality in a poignant way, insightful of the gentle topography and aesthetic of the land we know as Bangladesh. The cinematography, dialogue and characterisation reflect a temperate facet of the Bengali people. The theme of ‘love thy enemy’ is woven into the narrative of two lovers, one Pakistani and the other Bengali. The director’s premise is philosophical, of Gandhian and Biblical proportions; after all to befriend an enemy ‘is the quintessence of true religion.’ But in the horrific brother- kill-brother mayhem which ensued in 1971, religion receded into the background as racial discrimination reared its ugly head.

Meherjaan is the story of Meher, a young Bengali woman (Bengali actress Shayna Amin) who falls in love with a Pakistani soldier (Pakistani actor Omar Rahim), who abandons his unit during the 1971 Pakistan-Bangladesh war. Love, says Martin Luther King, is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend, and that is the subject of the film. The young Meher’s destiny is writ by the machinations of the times and the lovers are powerless to remain together. Running parallel to her story is that of her cousin Neela (Reetu Abdus Sattar), who comes to live in their maternal grandfather’s home in the village — she is a broken woman, bitter and disturbed after being raped by Pakistani soldiers, she is now tainted, a birangona. While the village is home to their extended family, several freedom fighters also take refuge in the rural oasis, unsettling its tranquility with their separatist ideals. Two peace-loving sadhus befriend Meher; they promote pacifism and a love for nature and give shelter to the runaway Pakistani soldier.

The film is a captivating portrait of a family caught between the fervent nationalism of the Bengali separatist movement and their own idealistic notions of love and peace. It begins with the return of a young woman named Sarah to Bangladesh — Neela’s child, a war baby given away to a German couple at birth — Sarah (rather stilted acting by Nasima Selim) meets the older Meher (Jaya Bachchan, who also emotes quite frugally) and proceeds to piece together her past. Meher’s recollections of 1971 provide a totally female narrative of the time. Her story is that of a young woman in love, for whom love is the all-encompassing emotion at that time, not hatred instigated by war. Her Pakistani soldier refers to her as “Meher-Jaan,” an intimate endearment of love which knows no boundaries.

Directed by Bengali filmmaker, Rubaiyat Hossain, who draws inspiration from the parallel cinema of Indian Bengali filmmakers Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, she delineates complicated themes in a simple manner. The reality of war is shown briefly: soldiers running as a pack through a wooded forest, an army unit arriving at the haveli doorstep to threaten the family within. The director interlaces the personal and the political in a manner that the political never overtakes the personal story.

Ms Hossain employs actors from diverse backgrounds: Jaya Bahaduri Bachchan from India is cast as the older Meher and Omar Rahim from Pakistan stars as Wasim Khan, the soldier. Rubaiyat Hussain also has a role in the film as Meher’s quirky, youngest maternal aunt. Victor Bannerjee, (who can forget him as Dr Aziz Ahmed from David Lean’s 1984 epic A Passage to India), is cast in the role of the family patriarch and village elder and is a wonderful portrayal of an old-world sub-continental gentleman of the early 20th century which he evokes through his demeanour and lifestyle — imagine a rattan chair in a verdant garden, a cup of tea and a crisp kurta, pajama.

Meherjaan encapsulates the spirit of Rabindranath Tagore’s Amar Shonar Bangla, Ami Tomae Bhalobhashi(My Bengal of Gold, I Love You) in the cinematic depiction of the Bangladeshi landscape. The fragrance of the mango groves, the beauty of the paddy-fields, the banyan trees and the gentle rivers — this must surely resonate with lovers of nature, irrespective of nation. Especially moving is the use of Nayyara Noor’s rendition of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s ‘Hum Ke Theray Ajnabi,’ written after the fall of Dhaka (‘When will we again see a spring of unstained green?/After how many monsoons will the blood be washed from the branches?). Can the pacifism of love and the beauty of nature’s gentle countenance blur memories of the horrors of the past?

Meherjaan was withdrawn from theatres in Bangladesh, just one week after its release, following an outcry in the country against the positive portrayal of a Pakistani soldier. Critics of the film also felt that the suffering of the Bangladeshi people, especially the women, had been underplayed. It has, however, got rave reviews at international film festivals and was recently nominated in the Best Film and Best Director categories at the 14th London Asian Film Festival last month.

This review was originally published in the April issue of Newsline under the headline “From Bangladesh with Love.”

The writer is a former assistant editor at Newsline