Losing the plot with Meherjaan

Asif Saleh.

Published in BDnews24 on 30 January 2010.

This piece calls for a nuanced debate, and not, censorship about the controversial film Meherjaan.

There are times when in the middle of posturing and profiling, we lose sight of the big picture. Arguing for a ban on the movie Meherjaan is one such moment.   Those who were asking for a ban, or who are happy that its distributors have pulled down the curtain on the film, forget that a very dangerous precedence is being set — tow the line of an ‘acceptable’ narrative in your creative pursuit or perish.

Of course, I had problems with the film’s narrative that portrayed a feel-good image of the war. But I have been stunned with the sheer ferocity of the criticism the film received. I had the chance to see an earlier cut of Meherjaan six months ago with a lot of expectation, only to be disappointed by the script and the absurdity of its plot line. A film that campaigns on its political background — can it claim to be an apolitical love story when faced with criticism?

But I thought this was the beginning of a healthy exchange. I thought it was the beginning of the clash of storytelling between two generations — one that was too emotionally close to the War to accept any other narrative of the story and the one for whom the research of the War was done through interviews and books. It is foolish to dismiss either of these narratives as both were relevant. But it was important to keep the space open for debate to get a semblance of balance on both sides.

I was looking forward to a rational debate on substance, heated discussions on the history, and in the end a populace that has more clarity on our War through the discourse. Instead, what we saw, as it all too frequently happens in Bangladesh, was a debate that quickly descended into the personal territory. What’s the director’s family background? What was the hidden agenda? Why was the film released now? And most alarmingly, how did the Censor Board release this film?

Why? Why such personalisation and vilification when there is plenty to criticise on the substance of the film?

Those who asked this question were also put into a bracket with some colourful labels – “Engreji blogwala”, “bidesh ferot”, “out of touch”, “personally benefited”.   This is not the first time the progressive camp reacted with such vitriol when faced with such ‘nuisance factors’. I recall how Maqsudul Huq Maq of the band Feedback was castigated, vilified and eventually blacklisted in BTV in the late ‘90s for his experimentation with Tagore songs.

Still for a lot of people, the strong reaction against Meherjaan could be put into proper context. The common narrative of the War is not established on firmer ground yet, some said — thanks to many distortions in the past 35 years. There was nervousness about a counter narrative. “We haven’t had a closure yet”. “We are not ready for a counter narrative yet”.

Or so we are told.

Having accepted that, why do we not leave it up to the public to decide rather than trying to influence what it can or cannot see?

Too often, we underestimate the power of the average citizens in deciding what they want to accept and reject. Quite in contrast to existing norms, Tareque and Catherine Masud in the last few weeks have taken their latest film ‘Runway’ to the mass all around the country. In theatres after theatres in different cities, packed audience came and watched the film based on a somewhat controversial topic of the rise of religious extremism in Bangladesh. He took it to places where it mattered and left it upon the audience to judge his film. The results were surprising. The audience engaged in lively debates after the show and the director came away with an array of discourses – some expected and some not so expected — which, I believe, will only make his future works stronger. The lesson therefore is that it is extremely patronising to ‘shield’ the public from the so-called ‘incorrect’ narratives. Show it to as many people as possible and let the public decide what is right and what is wrong.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened with Meherjaan.  It couldn’t even be shown in Dhaka for more than a week. In spite of sell out crowds, the distributor pulled the film off the screen; the real reason behind the pull out is yet to be known but if some news reports are to be believed, the withdrawal of the censor certificate is likely to follow.

This will no doubt make some of those from the “progressive camp”, who were asking for the ban and those who originally questioned its censor certificate, happy.  But losers will be those who truly want an open space for creative exploration and who want an open space for debate without questioning each others’ agenda.

The losers will be those who could have hoped for a better film on 1971 in future by doing an honest critic of Meherjaan, which will now be impossible as it gains martyrdom.

The tragedy is not that film’s life was cut short. Real tragedy is that the intense reaction and subsequent exchanges could have provoked the younger generation to search for the real history of the War and its relevance. Now it’s a missed opportunity.

“In these transition times, we are all fighting for the soul of our country we live”, said Rahul Bose, Bollywood’s thinking actor, at an event in Dhaka for the Asian Women’s University last week.

Indeed we are.  However, among all the posturing and internal politic, those of us, who claim to be from the progressive liberal camp in this country, forget what kind of soul we aspire to have for our nation. Will this soul be about creativity, openness and fairness or will this be about close mindedness, banning of views that we don’t like, and censorship?

Judging from the reactions that I hear that Tareque and Catherine Masud got in their brilliant attempt to take the film to all over Bangladesh, I suspect it’s the former. Ironically, in the case of Meherjaan, however, we are setting a terrible precedence of intolerance with the vilification of a creative pursuit and celebration of its ‘withdrawal’. This, I am afraid, will return and haunt us for a long time to come.

Does this mean I am advocating to allow anything and everything under the sun in the name of freedom of speech?  Surely not. Freedom comes with responsibilities.  Surely Rubaiat Hossain, having access to the power and privilege, due to her family connection, could have showed more maturity, restraint and care in the portrayal of the war and particularly the women victims of the war. She deserves some of the criticism she is getting on the substance of the movie. But the movie by all account deserves to be shown.

There is still time. Let’s criticise the film to pieces. But let us protest any restriction in showing the film — be it official or unofficial.  Even if we hate the film, let us protest any attempt on censorship. Let us allow our people to make up their own minds about the film by letting them go and see it. More importantly in this process, let us aspire to make a better film – much better than Meherjaan – that captures the true essence of our great Liberation War.

 

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