Soulful story of loss

The acclaimed film Matir Moina (The Clay Bird), which was banned in Bangladesh (for a few months), is now available on DVD, writes Malavika Karlekar

Director Tareque Masud with a child artiste from Matir Moina
Director Tareque Masud with a child artiste from Matir Moina; and stills from the film

THE award-winning Bangladeshi film Matir Moina is as much a political documentary as it is a child’s perception of loss and estrangement, and a sensitive portrayal of a woman’s resentment. It is also, as director Tareque Masud said, self-therapeutic.

He was speaking after a special showing of the film at New Delhi’s India International Centre on the occasion of the recent Indo-Bangladesh Track II dialogue.

It is the story of Masud’s own childhood, set against the backdrop of a country on the verge of traumatic changes. In Matir Moina, the son of a born-again Muslim (known as the Qazi, portrayed by Jayanto Chattopadhyay), a homoeopathic doctor, Anwar (Anu) is sent off to a madrasa by his father to counter pagan Hindu influences such as dances and virile boat races during a puja.

An exacting regimen, much religious instruction, and the early morning wake-up call of "prayer is better than sleep" replace the carefree pace of village life. Here, Anu befriends Rokon, who is different — and is discriminated against by teachers and students. Rokon has a secret hideaway where he leads a life of fantasy, he speaks of a special friend and hears resounding noises in his ears.

Rokon is obviously severely disturbed — and the film-maker is to be commended for sensitively portraying how institutions can destroy young minds. Rokon’s eyes mist over as he more than once repeats that the madrasa has to be his home for he knows no other. Anu watches helplessly. Neither cries — and like Sayajit Ray whom he admires, Masud has excelled at making silences and facial expressions say it all.

In the meantime, Asma, Anwar’s sister, falls dangerously ill – her obdurate father will not allow allopathy. The poignant yet reproachful eyes of his long-suffering wife, Ayesha (portrayed by Rokeya Prachy), say it all as she sponges her dying child. If viewers are reminded of Durga in Pather Panchali, they have also to remember that countless girl children in South Asia die due to lack of appropriate care. In fact, the director told the audience that his sister, too, died in exactly the same way.

A heart-broken Anwar goes back to his madrasa where the children are privy to a debate between a teacher and the multi-purpose Halim on the true nature of Islam in Bangladesh. The influence of Sufism on popular Islam and of a lived religion as against that of the book are discussed animatedly with lively interjections on how balls of clay that the boys are making are more hygienic to use than the western toilet paper – and certainly more readily available when there is a water shortage!

The syncretism of Islam is brought alive through a vibrant performance by a male baul and woman boyati singer. She sings of the bird that is chained to the physical body and longs to be free — and of those who believe in inequality, lock women into marriage. Anu had brought back a clay bird for his sister who had hidden it immediately, fearing her father disapproval. It is perhaps not only idols that the Qazi would eschew but also the symbolism of the bird.

As the director pointed out in an interview, the clay bird is a Sufi symbol of the soul trapped in the body. The Qazi was a man who lived by the book, one who believed that a Muslim would not kill another Muslim. His brother, Milon, on the other hand, is drawn to the liberation struggle, much to his older brother’s annoyance. But Milon believes in the larger picture of freedom—he shies away from the anguish of his sister-in-law, Ayesha, his childhood playmate, who, in a touching scene beneath gnarled mango trees reminds him of their little games of years long ago.

Ayesha has her say in the end when, with her daughter dead and son gone to the madrasa and Milon lost to the fold, her husband suggests that she should go out of the four walls of her home and visit her brother. She does not go — but says, "you are all leaving — only I am left." The `I’ who in the end looks out of the jagged edges of a window of their burnt home and decides to leave with her son — while her confused husband is left to sort out his dilemma on the role of the good Muslim even as Pakistani guns fire in the background.

There is no overt horror in the film – in fact the director is known to shy away from violence on celluloid – but only off the screen portents of blood and gore. It is here that the film loses a bit of its tension, metaphors and tropes at times overtaking actual events. Rokon’s hideout is discovered by his bullying peers, who smash a rusted looking glass he has carefully preserved: we see a fractured visage of Rokon in its shards.

At the pond – so important in films set in rururban Bengal – a man tells Anu of his daughter back home who would swim in the village pond and come out with her hair wreathed in blood-red flowers. An old man whom we do not know, wakes up in terror from a nightmare, calling out his daughter’s name. . . And when the army finally arrives, Anu finds his way mysteriously into his mother’s arms in the nick of time.

They both flee, only to return next day to find a shattered Qazi in the shell of what used to be their home. Rokon, of course, has been left behind in the madrasa.

Tareque Masud’s father did not stay behind but was persuaded to flee as the Pakistani army arrived to raze villages, rape and plunder. Many years later, he also saw his son’s film, a film that at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival won the FIPRESCI International Critics’ Prize for the Best Film and Best Screenplay in the same year at the Marrakesh Film Festival. In 2003, it won the best film award at the Karafilm Festival in Pakistan.

However, even as the international press was lauding it, the Bangladesh Censor Board banned the film in May 2002 because it was deemed too religiously sensitive. A national and international uproar ensued, the argument being that Matir Moina was a "sensitive portrayal of a multi-cultural and multi-religious Bangladesh" (Daily Star).

In an interview with the same paper, Masud spoke about his intent of trying to counter propoganda about madrasas by dredging his own memories: "... As a former madrassah student, I have portrayed not only the religious tolerance and broadmindedness of Bangladeshi society but also a positive, credible and objective picture of the country against the negative propaganda of western media about madrassahs".

Ironically, Masud’s film was finished (though not viewed) before the events of 9/11 overtook the world. The ban on Matir Moina was lifted in October 2002 and it is now available on DVD, adding to the growing repertoire of alternate films from the subcontinent that use ‘real’ situations and individuals.