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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Sunday, January 23, 2011
OP-ED

Meherjaan's women on the verge

Courtesy: Naeem Mohaiemen

The week of Meherjaan's release in cinema halls, a friend received a SMS from a viewer: "The film is an insult to muktijuddho, women and Bangladesh." In a subsequent email debate, some wondered out loud about a "pro-Pakistan" agenda.

I found myself disagreeing with these polarised characterisations, which rush to pass judgment and flatten the debate. But we also need to pause to parse the reactions carefully, especially as they seem to fracture along generational lines. At least part of the visceral response is to the story's central pivot -- a love affair between a Bengali woman and a Pakistani soldier. The film declares it is about "loving the other," although in a nation of a million others (Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, Pahari, Bihari) this variation can only be privileged within the war's crucible.

The idea of a Pakistani-Bengali romance, in the midst of a genocidal war whose ferocious modes included sexual assault and rape (documented in the aftermath by Brownmiller; and later by Ain o Salish Kendra, Nilima Ibrahim and others) will strike some as perverse. Given the dearth of analytical film treatment of 1971, and over-representation of clumsy hagiography, audiences may feel unease that a well-funded, sumptuously lensed, international crew production sketches a romance that runs counter to the war's actual impact on Bengali women.

Other viewers however may consider the secondary character of Neela, the rape victim who becomes "lagam-hin” (socially rejected and therefore free of constraints) as an attempt to represent war's collateral damage. Certainly the idea of trauma leading to a certain madness and social transgression has been explored elsewhere (as in Yasmine Kabir's A Certain Liberation). But the undertone here, of sexual assault leading to social liberation, remains problematic.

The initial screenplay was by Ebadur Rahman, but he eventually resigned from the project due to creative differences. In an email, he explained that his original script, prior to his departure from the film, had intended to locate the "gap" or "absence" in the language field that historicises muktijudhdho. There was also the intention to create what Angela Carter calls "wild women's discourse."

The story, and final execution by director Rubaiyat Hossain, is framed as a counter-narrative of the war. The problem is that the basic narrative is still blurry in a global context. Two generations of Bhuttos have passed away without acknowledging the paterfamilias' role in the genocide. Western journalists routinely refer to 1971 as "the India-Pakistan war" and "secession." Indian intervention in the final weeks of 1971 is writ large over the entire nine months, rendering invisible the Bengali guerilla resistance, and obscuring war crimes.

Having worked on projects where I pursued the cracks between histories, I am not particularly worried by this film's taboo romance or friction with foundational histories. I don't believe it is every artist's duty to always re-inscribe the basic facts. Mahmud Rahman, whose short stories in Killing the Water include one where allegorised Bengalis commit mass murder, points out that works of fiction or art are unfairly forced to take on the burden of representation in our local context. Where art is expected to function as reportage, anything outside a dominant narrative of unblemished heroism is seen as insult and hostility. In an email about the debate over the film, Dina Siddiqi notes: "Individuals are conscripted into wars they may not agree with; individual soldiers can have a conscience, no matter how brutal and dehumanising war time ideology."

Watching Meherjaan, I could give it space as a counter-narrative project, whether I agree with it or not. But analysing it as pure cinema, I was jolted by the absurdist elements of the fairy tale screenplay. Meher plays out her love in soft-lit evening glow, with translucent water frolics, multiple costume changes (the soldier even has a dhoti ensemble) and wandering baul serenades. Half my viewing time was spent wondering how this couple could spend hours holding hands and engaging in close clinches, while remaining undiscovered.

Once the lovers are found, the reactions are mellow and measured to the point of delirium. Even in peacetime, male aggression and macho swagger reacts aggressively, possessively and patronisingly to questions of "honour." But in 1971, in an extreme environment where reprisals against transgressive Bengalis were also the norm, the characters carry on as if Meherjaan has only been caught stealing peyara. Meyera ektu erokom korei...

The film gives the audience a way out from the central conundrum. The soldier is not the dreaded "Punjabi hanadar" (just as "Bihari" became a stand-in for "Urdu speaker," Punjabi is another flattening signifier), but rather, a Balochi. You are meant to think of the post-71 Baloch uprising. And to sweeten the taste, he has run away from his battalion and hasn't killed anyone. A traitorous Pakistani! The other transforms into, well... us.

Meherjaan packs many subplots: the closeted possible lesbian, the last Muslim quasi-feudal, the feisty coquette, the leftist radical. People attempting a meta-reading can ponder the choice of Jaya Bacchan as memory locus or Victor Banerjee as Muslim grandee on the cinderblock. The latter is especially ironic, given Banerjee was a onetime campaigner for the BJP, during their anti-Muslim zenith.

In 1997, in a review of Tareque and Catherine Masud's just-released Muktir Gaan, I recalled a scene with affection: "Troupe members try to teach the bird Bengali, starting with the ultra-dainty 'When evening comes slowly' couplet and ending with 'Joi Bangla!' The parrot fails to learn either the gentle lyrics or the street chant -- in real life, not everything happens on cue."

In a contrasting hostile review, Obaid Jaigirdar questioned how Lear Levin (whose footage the Masuds used) could afford his expensive camera equipment. The insinuation seemed to be that he was an "intelligence agency" plant. But I met the man many years later, and the reality was prosaic. Levin made his living as an adman, and brought his own equipment to the refugee camps. He filmed it as he saw it, no grand conspiracy there.

Meherjaan also needs to be discussed in a new language, without defaulting to questions of other "agendas." It is one director's attempt to begin imagining other stories, and we need cautious openings for discussion about that effort, even if we think it failed.

Some viewers will be irked by a perceived assault on the honour of history, but for me the dissatisfaction instead is with the celluloid execution. Scenarios are built as a dissociated dollhouse, within which the ugly context is a force-fit and the attempt at counter-narrative loses its way. The brutality of genocide and the geography of ravage vanish, while starry-eyed lovers stroll, undisturbed, through mustard fields.

Naeem Mohaiemen's projects include "Penn Station Kills Me" (w/ Gensler, Gutierrez, Blagojevic), a video installation re-imagining founding context of Louis Kahn's Shangsad Bhavan. E-mail: naeem.mohaiemen@gmail.com

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