|Volume 5 Issue 09| September 2011|
Popular Culture as a Safeguard against Extremism
FAHMIDUL HAQ speaks to Tareque Masud about the filmmaker's ideas on national identity and how he has dealt with identity issues in his work.
Fahmidul Haq (FH): How do you see the emergence of Bengali-Muslim identity? How do you see its national and religious aspects?
Tareque Masud (TM): Here some conflicting and mutually exclusive elements are in play. One is secularist Bengali nationalist discourse, another is scholastic, and Islamist discourse. And the third is this popular culture which is more accommodating and syncretic. I wish to divide religion into two aspects: scholastic religion and popular religion. In Matir Moina popular Islam has been endorsed very clearly. What are the characteristics of popular Islam? One element is traditional thoughts within Muslim culture, one of which is pagan, and which is mostly indigenous. Another element is Sufism which is there in parallel of Islami shariah and which is incorporated in those traditional thoughts. These are melted with the Vaishnava mysticism. This mysticism remains in both Hindus and Muslims. Because indigenous Muslim came from indigenous culture especially who are not Ashrafs (elite Muslims). Those Atraf (ordinary) and rural Muslims inherited their culture from Vaishnavism. Moreover, East Bengal was a grazing ground of Buddhist mysticism.
Buddhist mysticism, vaishnavism and Iranian Sufism altogether formed the philosophical and religious base among people of East Bengal. It is to be noted that Iranian Sufism was different from Turkish and North African Sufism. Where other Sufisms are spiritual and radical, Iranian Sufism is poetic and creative. In East Bengal the creed of Islam has been taken by the people, not the culture. The same thing happened to Buddhism in China, Far Eastern and South-East Asian countries. They did not import Indian culture with Buddhism; they adopted creed and philosophy of Buddhism. In Bengal, imposed Arab culture was not accepted, but Sufism easily blended with Vaishnavism.
Through this blending, a sub-culture blending culture and philosophy emerged called Baul. But this Baul philosophy in a sense is sophisticated kind of thought which is elevated to a very high art. In Bangladesh, against modernism, it was once considered as low art, which is discarded as idealism by modernists and secularists. In the context of Bangladesh, before the 1990s, urban literate Bangladeshis wanted to be modern by following two Western socio-political ways of living -- either capitalism or socialism. Bengali Muslims had disowned local philosophical way of living and thinking. But after the fall of communism, since the 1990s, the new generation has picked up Lalon, the eminent Baul of Nineteenth Century, as their philosophical guru. But they are extracting a partial Lalon from a secularist discourse. Even filmmakers are involved in that process. Achin Pakhi (1996) by Tanvir Mokammel can be considered as an example of the nature of secularism of Bengali-Muslims. We have taken even Lalon by fitting him in our casting matrix. The film is the best exercise of symptomatic middle class appropriation or misappropriation of a very complex culture. We try to establish ours as a secular nation and seek elements of secularism in ancient times, we get Lalon and we refer to only the songs that support us. But he had religious thoughts which we do not want to take.
On the other hand, the cultural and religious aspects set in the root of Bengali culture formed by a trio of mysticism are not limited to Baulism only. Baul culture is an elite and high art. They believe in Sadhusanga, they do not consider common people to be capable of understanding their high philosophical thoughts. The real Bauls were never public performers. They considered the public very ordinary creatures. They were very snobbish. A Baul sings in front of Sadhus like him, those who can respond to his mysterious thoughts. But there is another group that has popularised Baul thoughts through public performance. They are called Bayatis in Muslim community and Palakar in Hindu community though they have some other names. They are mass based people. They are singing for the public and this is their profession. Real Bauls do not have any profession, they are like Buddhist monks. They think they are only there to think and the public exist to feed them and public have provided everything to them historically. Bayatis are diffusing thoughts of Bauls in simplified form and the thoughts are indoctrinated in popular psyche. It is no longer a sub-culture. These thoughts are egalitarian, tolerant, debating and questioning which are there in complex and sophisticated form among Bauls. Sometimes Bayatis raise blasphemous questions, which are not contradictory with religion. The goal of religion and philosophy is questioning -- who am I, from where have I come, where to go...? However, these culture and religion established by Bauls and Bayatis is the popular culture. I think this popular culture is the safeguard of any kind of extremism. This is why the hardliners and followers of Islami Shariah cannot become popular in Bangladesh. I would like to say this is the dominant identity and culture of Bangladesh in opposition to the secular ideology, which is again minority, isolated and discontinued. To the secularists, this popular culture and mullahs are synonymous. And scholastic mullahs see them equally. In forming identity, this popular culture may be a major ingredient but it is still in a dialectical process. I cannot say this is our identity. It is still under process. Here some conflicting and mutually exclusive elements are in play. One is secularist Bengali nationalist discourse, another is scholastic and Islamist discourse. And the third is this popular culture which is more accommodating and syncretic. There is overlapping here across the religions. A lot of Hindu people visit the shrine of Islamic Pirs. In scroll painting like Gazir Pot and also in Puthi Literature, there is overlapping between Hindu and Muslims. Thus in folk forms and cultures, this popular religious culture is available. But all these do not mean that this folk culture and religion will be dominant as our identity. We can go in either direction: secularists may become a minority and scholastics will be stronger. But it is difficult to say what is going to happen. I think the whole debate and the dialectic is under process.
If we endorse all sorts of identities differently, there is no problem. I have a Muslim identity, it does not matter whether I am practising or not, but I am considered as Muslim by others. It may be a framing from Judeo-Christian perspectives or it may be complementary. Another thing is I am a Bengali. This is ethno-linguistic identity. The interesting thing is that popular religiosity can neutralise this stupid debate: am I Muslim or Bengali? It takes religion to a more philosophical level.
This debate does not exist among common people; it does work in different discourses created by literate people. This popular religion can solve the problem.
You cannot isolate religion from history. I am not religious, but I am extremely interested in religion.
TM: In my films, the identity issue has come up regularly. To discuss about identity in our films we have to look at how the religious and secular archetypes have been portrayed. I have a very strong position about it. In our films, religious people are portrayed as very derogatory and bad people with beards and prayer caps that has a certain caricature feel. This is a very dominant portrayal in art films of Bangladesh. You cannot see a nuanced and complex view here. The whole religious community is bundled together in this archetype. But the plurality among them, the spectrum of the whole grayscale, that is totally missing in those films, it is black and white. Usually the national history of the country has been attached with this portrayal of religious people and they are identified as demons. It is done from an ultra secular point of view of the makers. The problem lies with the secular nationalist historiographical discourse of the nation. The basic notion of the birth of the nation in 1971 was an ultra secular jingoism towards Bengali identity, which is seen repeatedly in every art form or piece. Incidentally, religious political parties like Jamaat-e-Islami and Muslim League were against break-up of Pakistan and hence they were against the Liberation War of Bangladesh. For that, the whole religious community has been bundled together by secular film directors or creators of other art forms. In another sense, there is idealisation and lionisation of Bengali nationalism in art forms. Though Muktir Gaan somehow contributed to those nationalistic views, there was also criticism and nuanced views within that. We created the archetypes of anti-liberation forces and collaborators of Pakistani Army as 'religious people wearing pajama-kurta and having beard' to portray ourselves differently from the stereotypes. But those collaborators were not always necessarily dressed in pajama-kurta and had beards. Many of them looked like us clean-shaven and attired in Western outfits. This process of othering had worked at the sub-conscious level among independent filmmakers. Hence we get a narrative which has two aspects: one, as the form of film is a Western one, we cannot bring the Caucasian features of the characters but by imposing Western characteristics in their mannerism, way of speaking, behaviours; two, we make a film on poor and rural people from an ideal position, though we do not have any relation with those poor people. This is a harmless subject to deal with. If you take one of the best independent films, Suryo Dighal Bari (1979) as an example, you will see there all sorts of archetypal representation where a bearded oldish man tries to harass a lonely woman.
He is a very ordinary subaltern person but you are making a big villain out of him. This is a stereotype we love to build. Those ordinary mullahs, they are not educated, they are not powerful. To represent them as bad guys is comfortable for us. You may find Kazi in Matir Moina who is an exception. He has all dualities; he is very strong and hard outside but breaks down when he feels the ultimate break up of Pakistan.
I never thought I would make Matir Moina. I always thought I have to do something with my childhood. But at a stage I thought why not make a film? Staying in New York, I could get a better perspective. That gave me a much better understanding of my own identity. When we make films with Western narrative structure, do we pick the structure only? The container carries the content as well. In our films you will see not only the Western structure; you will see the Western society as well. We make a prototype in Bangladesh. You will find Bangladeshi Liberation War, Bangladeshi perspective, but you will not find our immediate cultural milieu. My mother is fasting, saying prayers, my father doing ozu; there is pluralistic culture and conflict within the cultures, my religiosity and my ethnicity -- in our films these are carefully left out. These are filtered out; there is conscious effort to discard them. You will see a sahebi world in our films, which is subconsciously created. You will not find any film dealing with internal conflict of our identity. Being away from the country for five years, I could see my own culture from a multiple perspective, not from only a nationalist perspective.
Matir Moina was not communicating to the intelligentsia of Bangladesh, because it does not conform or contradict directly with some of their strong belief system. It cannot make them 'hate it' or 'love it'. It raises a lot of issues, which our intellectual make up is not ready for. They want to see something which either attacks them or gratifies them. It should be either pro-Islamic or anti-Islamic. It should be either pro-socialist or anti-socialist. Since it deals with the whole dilemma, it has multiple perspectives, there were mine and Catherine's multicultural contribution, our relationship also; here two persons are watching. It came from a multicultural perspective and experience.
If Muktir Gaan deals with Bengali cultural identity, if Matir Moina can be considered as film of the duality between Bengali and religious identity ... should I use the word Bengali-Muslim identity? If you want me to choose between Muslim or Bengali identities, I would like to pick the second option. Muslim identity almost resembles Bangladeshi identity. It excludes Hindu and other communities. Bengali identity in the context of Bangladesh, it is my language and ethnicity. But internationally, whether I practise religion or not, I am a Muslim. Because I have been projected by others as a Muslim. What I am, it is not my belief, it is others' belief. I cannot deny my Muslimness. Culturally I am a Muslim. Because I have been projected as a Muslim. But in local context, I am a Bengali here. Both of them are my identities. And there is no contradiction. But when I am saying Bengali-Muslim identity there is a sub-textual connotation. Even if Golam Azam denies he is a Bengali and Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah says, “Nature has given me such a face that I have to say I am a Bengali”, for both of them it is true that they are Bengali. No matter how much Golam Azam denies it, he is still Bengali.
FH: “Independent films, which portray national and religious identity, deepen the conflict between secular-modern versus communal identity in Bangladesh” -- please comment.
TM: Independent films of Bangladesh are widening the gap of the conflicting secular and Islamist identity. Filmmakers are part of the polarisation. They are reaffirming the secular and middle class discourse. He is catering to his class position, re-establishing nationalist narratives and dominant ideology. He is not questioning his catered audience. He just re-perpetuates the dominant ideology. But the responsibility of an artist is to raise questions, to shock the audience. The role of art is to create discomfort among people and the society. For the reason Muktir Gaan (1995) was comfortable for the middle class audience, for the same reason Muktir Kotha (1996) was uncomfortable. Because in Muktir Kotha subaltern and indigenous people are questioning who were the real victims of the genocide, who are beneficiaries of the Liberation War. We went to teach rural people while showing Muktir Gaan, but we were actually taught by them. Muktir Kotha was basically that unlearning process shot in camera. This film we did not make, the film made us. The audience of Muktir Gaan is the protagonist of Muktir Kotha.
But this archetype religious community in art cinema has reversed in contemporary times. In some films like Joyjatra (2004) by Touquir Ahmed, Shyamol Chhaya (2004) by Humayun Ahmed, the whole archetype has been reversed. Both the films were made in the same year and the subject of both the films is almost the same. Set in the backdrop of the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971, in both of the films, some people were gathered in a boat trying to escape the attack of the Pakistani Army. But how did this reversed portrayal of religious people happen? It is not by the maker or writer, it is by the audience of a new time who dictate the terms and the maker or writer subconsciously falls into them.
The backlash of 9/11 and the emergence of Islamic sentiment have made it. Here again you are catering to your audience. Now I am identified by the Europeans or Americans as 'Muslim', so the affinity has been created with the 'bearded other'. I became almost a 'bearded man' myself. So I can't portray myself as a bad guy. I am now endorsing my Muslim identity. In the earlier texts, Rajakar and Moulavi are synonymous. In Joyjatra, the first protest against the Pakistan Army came from the Imam of the Moulavi of the village mosque and the first man who joined the Liberation War in Shyamol Chhaya was the Moulavi Sahib. The first shahid was a Moulavi in both of the films. In the boat, people from Hindu community are doing Puja and when the Muslims asked them not to because the Pakistani Army would attack them, the Moulavi insists not to interrupt in other religious community's rituals, which is quite unnatural in 1971 situation where minority Hindus were primary targets of the Pakistani Army. This reversed construction is dictated by post 9/11 and post Afghan-Iraq war era. This construction is seen in almost every art film. Even the same director who portrayed religious people one way earlier is now portraying them in another way. Religious people are now the forerunners of the Liberation War in contemporary art films of Bangladesh.
FH: Do you make film for global audience? Are you aware of Western gaze working in your film?
TM: I claim my works are contributing to national cinema of Bangladesh. But I am not a man of national cinema. I believe in international cinema and regional cinema. I can describe myself as one who is contributing even to Muslim cinema (not to be confused with Islamist cinema). At this point I believe more in sub-culture instead of national culture. My base is not in national sphere rather in peripheral sphere. At the international level my audience is also peripheral. They are an alternative audience around the art houses who want to hear the diversified voices from different parts of the world. The people who are fighting against globalisation or imperialism throughout the world, I feel affinity with them. They are my audience. In that way I want to address the counter global audience. I do not believe in global cinema, I believe in fighting global cinema with universal cinema. I can't fight against global cinema with small national cinema. I have to explore alternative subways to fight against the highway. Diasporic audience may be one of my markets. Bengali people are there in almost every part of the world. Also South Asian audience is my audience. The concept of nation state is the reason for many human conflicts. Should I remain left in the trap of nation state?
This interview was taken in 2006 as a part of the author's PhD research in the area of film studies, entitled 'Representing Identity in Cinema: The Case of Selected Independent Films in Bangladesh', which was completed in 2010.
Dr. Fahmidul Haq is Associate Professor, Department of Mass Communication and Journalism, University of Dhaka.
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