|Volume 5 Issue 09| September 2011|
Reading Matir Moina:
ZAKIR HOSSAIN RAJU examines Matir Moina as a complex text which must be studied from several vantage points.
It was Wednesday, October 16, 2002. I received a call from Tareque bhai (Tareque Masud) inviting me to a special screening of Matir Moina.
I remembered that I heard about Matir Moina many years back. During the late-1980s and early-1990s when both Tareque bhai and I were active in Bangladesh Short Film Forum (BSFF), especially to organise the international short film festivals, he used to tell us about his experiences in madrasah. None of us (except Tareque) had attended a madrasah, so we used to become astonished hearing all the details of his childhood days within the walls of an avowedly Islamic-fundamentalist institution. We used to be surprised not only knowing about a different world, but also imagining the journey Tareque had taken in order to learn and study the mysteries of cinema, a supposedly 'western' and non-Islamic medium of expression. We repeatedly heard about Tareque bhai's dream of making a feature film depicting his experiences in madrasah.
Matir Moina, the film, took more than two years to be made. I got news from here and there about how Tareque and Catherine were making the film, especially putting together funds from a variety of sources ranging from the French government to Bangladeshi organisations. Then in May 2002 when I was trying hard to finish my PhD thesis in the Department of Cinema Studies at La Trobe University (Melbourne), I read in The Daily Star that Bangladesh Film Censor Board had banned the film though it was screened in Cannes Film Festival as the first ever Bangladeshi film at Cannes. I became more eager to see the film. The bell finally rang with the call from Tareque bhai.
The next evening I entered the British Council and found that it was really a 'special' screening. The audience was a select group of well-known literary and cultural personalities (only because of Tareque bhai's affection was I invited). The film went for some hundred minutes. Primarily Matir Moina is the tale of Anu. This pre-teen boy in 1960s East Pakistan grows up and faces different trauma in his family and in the society. In a way this film can be read as the story of Anu's coming of age. Anu reminds us of Apu, the character in Satyajit Ray's Apu trilogy, especially how a pre-teen Apu looks at things around him with eyes full of curiosity and innocence in Pather Panchali.
In the discussion after the film, some of the members of the audience came forward to voice their opinions and concerns. One of them said that they found the film disjointed. Some pointed out that the address to a father should be 'apni', not 'tumi'. One questioned the portrayal of the liberation war while another from the audience said that he found it was quite correct. Somebody said that since the film portrays an adolescent boy's life in a madrasah and within a rural household, the part on liberation war was not necessary. In the meantime, Tareque bhai narrated how he made the film depicting his own childhood and how he knitted folkloric materials to depict the modest nature of Islam. What struck me was how many different angles were used by different viewers of the film to critique the film. While Tareque bhai was trying to talk about his own version of the film, the members in the audience pushed their own agenda in order to establish their versions of/about Matir Moina.
Quite surprisingly, the written responses to the film published in the local press did not offer such varied analyses of the film. The objective of these short reviews and articles was to praise the film and the people who made the film. Some provided some background information on the making of the film while some shared their experience of watching the film. Most of these outlined the storyline and narrative structure of the film as well as, at least partially, the cinematic qualities of the film. I appreciate their endeavours in promoting Matir Moina, however, for a film like this we probably needed more complex and multi-layered analysis of the film. Why? Simply because it is a multi-layered 'text' operating at the same time at many different levels. We need more careful and thorough analyses of the film from well-equipped film critics.
Let me take the liberty of using two key-terms such as 'text' and 'reading' from contemporary Cinema and Cultural Studies. Text means not only printed or written materials, rather something articulated by symbols within an orderly structure is a text. In this sense, a film, a speech, a poem or a painting is also a text. Any text can be 'read' or interpreted differently by different receivers of the text. In other words, a text normally invites multiple readings from various readers/viewers. Generally the author holds a 'preferred reading' -- s/he wishes her/his readers/viewers to read her/his work in a particular way and to reach the same conclusion.
Certainly one can propose different routes to read the film. For example, here I utilise two useful approaches of Film Studies in order to make a comprehension of Matir Moina. These are textual and social-contextual ways of looking into the film. For the textual analysis, the starting point is that this is a text composed by a creative filmmaker. One can decipher how Tareque Masud put together this cinematic text. One who knows that Matir Moina is depiction of (or based on) Tareque's childhood life can easily create a direct transactional relationship between the film and its author. If I take such an auteurist approach within textual analysis it will invite me to take this text as the creation of its author (a method I do not believe to be very productive, but preferred by most of our cultural commentators). For a moment I will fancy this and argue that as an author of cinema, Tareque is influenced by European art cinema of the 1950s-60s. This film largely follows the cinematic methods used in the films of European masters. The episodic structure, the lack of motivation of the characters and the 'non-acting' of the actors in Matir Moina reminds me more of Bresson, Antonioni and Wenders, especially of their earlier works.
Following the pattern of European art cinema narration established by such master filmmakers, Matir Moina is based on a 'loose' narrative. The structure of the film does not lead us to a climax that usually happens in a classical Hollywood film (or in a popular Hindi film). Actually there is no climax as such in this film. It is not also committed in following a narrative logic, a linear storytelling that keeps the audiences glued to the popular films. We do not see some of the key-events in the film, which are important parts of the narrative. For example, we just come to know that Asma died when we see Milon collecting Anu from the madrasah, but we never see how Asma died (one may remember how elaborately Satyajit Ray showed us Durga's death in Pather Panchali). We only hear the sound and fury of the Pakistani army and see the villagers fleeing, but do not see any member of the army. We hear that Milon and his accomplices died in the bridge when fighting against the army, but we do not see the bloodshed. Similarly, we understand that Kazi slaughters the cow on Eid day, but we are not shown the climax of the bloody event.
As it is usual for European art cinema, there is also no highly-motivated goal-oriented protagonist in the film. Rather, as is often the case in our daily living, the protagonists seem to be suffering being caught in between opposite ideals. For example, we can never be sure regarding the relationship between Ayesha and Milon. It seems that they are more than sister-in-law and brother-in-law to each other, however this aspect is not clarified in the film intentionally. Even Kazi who seems quite strong in his pro-Islam and anti-West belief hands money to one of the villagers, the boatman, to take his sick wife to a doctor in the town barring him from going for traditional or Islamic treatment.
If I move from textual analysis to social-contextual reading of the film, I would like to read Matir Moina not as an autobiography of Tareque Masud, but as a biography of Bangladesh as a nation. This is not only the story of pre-teen madrasah-student Anu (or Tareque) who sees and shows us the world around him. Rather this is the tale of the formation of the cultural identity of Bengali-Muslims. Rather, embodying Anu's subjective angle, Tareque Masud portrays an important piece of our history of being a nation in the film. In other words, in my view the 'autobiographic' characteristics of the film became less important and are absorbed within the larger social context of the narrative. There is no doubt that there are some first-hand experiences of Tareque which are translated in the film as Anu's experiences. But do not all artists transform their experience into their art practices in one way or another? In that way, are not all texts autobiographic?
In the line of important films of contemporary Asian filmmakers such as Zhang Yimou of the Chinese Fifth generation and Hou Hsia-Hsien of Taiwan's new wave cinema, Tareque has also produced a filmic commentary on Bangladesh's national history. Matir Moina tells us how the ordinary people of the then East Pakistan negotiated the conflict between Bengali identity and Muslim identity and constructed a new and hybrid cultural identity like Bengali-Muslim identity in order to get rid of the pan-Indian Muslim identity that served as the basis of the foundation of Pakistan in 1947. For example, Anu's father Kazi believes in Muslim brotherhood. He repeatedly asks, 'why will a Muslim kill another Muslim?' On the other hand, Anu's college-going uncle Milon believes in Bengali cultural identity and dies in the war against Pakistani army. These two can be said to represent two opposing currents in Bangladesh liberation movement as well as in the construction of Bengali-Muslim identity in 1960s East Pakistan.
The conflict between Kazi and Milon and thus the whole of Matir Moina can be read using a larger framework. That is the idea of modernity. Milon is modern, liberal and progressive. He wears shirt and trousers and debates about western political trends including Marxism. Kazi is the opposite, he does not like debates. He wears Muslim dress and has a beard. He seems fundamentalist in his belief in Islam. He even thinks that the use of western drugs are un-Islamic for which we see the helpless death of Anu's sister Asma. He is so afraid of outside (supposedly Western/modern) forces that he does not even open the window in his room. Ayesha, Kazi's wife, keeps opening the window when Kazi repeatedly closes the window. He does not want modern/western thoughts to enter his house and to divert his family from Islamic way of life. So he decides to send his only son Anu to a madrasah. Anu, being an accomplice of Milon, does not like the environment there and finally leaves. Human liberation from religious bigotry becomes synonymous to the search for a modern way of life.
The framework of modernity can lead us to the issue of transaction between the West and the Orient. Is Matir Moina made to be seen only through a 'Western' gaze?
Why do we see a number of rural festivals and folk concerts in the film, which are not directly related to the narrative? These do not expedite the narrative flow, rather serve as detours. Two such scenes are of boat race and village fair. Anu is present as an observer in these events; however the detailed, lengthy and exotic depiction of these festivities goes beyond the subjective view of Anu. In other words, these scenes can be seen as narrative excesses. Similarly, with the scene of the debate between two folk singers on the 'true' nature of Islam, there is very thin narrative logic. Anu's uncle Milon and his friends are in the audience of this show, other than this minimal relationship with the main narrative strand, this sequence can be said to be an individual text within the film text. Similar points can be raised against the folk concert that Ayesha and Asma watch and the ballad of Qurbani (lit. sacrifice) recited by the boatman for the villagers. Why are these narrative excesses there? Interestingly, these excesses portray visually captivating indigenous rituals or at the least orally describe Islamic practices as those were absorbed within the culture of rural Bangladesh. How should one read these exotic and elaborate depictions of these non-modern practices in the film? Are these self-Orientalist portrayals of rural Bangladesh, needed to frame the film as well as the nation in contemporary West?
Despite such questions about Matir Moina, I have no doubt that this film is going to be remembered as a milestone in Bangladesh film history. But is it going to be studied as a complex text from different vantage points which it deserves? Are we going to get various 'readings' of the film from different critics working from different perspectives? I am raising these questions, as I do not want Matir Moina to receive the same fate as our other important art films such as Nadi O Nari, Kancher Deyal, Surya Dighal Bari, Chaka and Chitra Nodir Pare. These films have become something like our national pride, though most people do not know why they are so. A good number of linear and repetitive reviews of these films were and are published in Bengali while almost nobody did thorough analyses on these films. None of these landmark films received attention of scholars of world cinema that could place Bangladesh in the global cinematic context, as it happened, say with Pather Panchali in India, Rashomon in Japan, City of Sadness in Taiwan or with Red Sorghum in China. I hope that Matir Moina will serve as the starting point of reading our cinematic texts with the means used in contemporary film studies. This is one of the much-needed tasks that can place our films in the world scene as well as make us aware of the critical function cinema plays in any society.
This article was written in November 2002.
Zakir Hossain Raju is Associate Professor at Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB). He is associated with alternative film movement in Bangladesh since 1986. His forthcoming books include Bangladesh Cinema and National Identity: In Search of the Modern? (Routledge: London), Culture, Media and Identities (Open University: Malaysia) and Film in Bangladesh: A Defiant Survivor (Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema: New Delhi and Colombo).
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