Shyam Benegal to direct Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s biopic ‘Bangabandhu’, an Indo-B’desh production

Shyam Benegal to direct Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s biopic ‘Bangabandhu’, an Indo-B’desh production

Pictures courtesy: Instagram@arifin_shuvoo

Nonika Singh

“You can kill a man but you can’t kill an idea.”

MUCH like a Greek tragedy, the life of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the first President of Bangladesh and later its Prime Minister, is as much about victory as it is about an unfortunate twist of events that led to his assassination and finally a legacy that endured. As his inspiring story of epic proportions is about to leap onto silver screen in a Bengali film by stellar director Shyam Benegal, here’s a look at what all has gone into the making of the biopic ‘Bangabandhu’.

An event in Indian High Commission at Dhaka to mark the joint production of ‘Bangabandhu’

The journey of Bangladesh’s ‘Father of the Nation’ from real to reel can’t possibly be a simple retelling of events. As Atul Tiwari, who along with Shama Zaidi has written the screenplay in English, says, “When the man at the helm is Benegal, you can only expect tomes of research.” The fact that Mujib’s daughter Sheikh Hasina, the current Prime Minister of Bangladesh, has been instrumental in creating 12 volumes of research on her father and has been witness to many events has ensured that facts are not a casualty. Indeed, a father’s life as seen through a daughter’s eyes can be problematic and a rather sentimental viewpoint. Tiwari agrees but says by no account is the film “a tale told by a daughter”. Rather, to bring in greater objectivity, they have factored in many voices, including that of Kamal Hossain, architect of Bangladesh’s Constitution, who later became one of Mujib’s detractors.

The cast of the film with Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina and (above) her father, ‘Father of the Nation’ Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, during a visit to India in April 1974. From The Tribune archives

In an Indo-Bangladesh production if you believe that the government interference would be enormous, Benegal insists that he has the complete freedom and support of the Bangladesh government to make the film as he desires, for creative liberty is an integral part of the filmmaking process. Benegal, who has given us some superlative biopics like the ‘The Making of the Mahatma’ and ‘Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero’, does not believe in inventing facts. Yet, a film has to be told like an engaging piece of fiction — with a beginning, middle and end. As Tiwari adds, “In movies, there is always a hero through whom you tell a larger story. A biopic is no different.” Only here you can expect the birth of a nation also through the journey of a man. Yes, at one level it would be a political, social and cultural document with complete attention to details, but would equally be a human story as well.

Shyam Benegal and Atul Tiwari on the sets of the film.

Benegal views Mujib as a quintessential family man. Tiwari pitches in, “He was one of those rare men who hailed his wife as his political guru.” Arifin Shuvoo, the Bangladeshi star who got the lead part after five rounds of auditions, dubs Mujib as a “limited edition”. A man so transparent and one with no filters that the more Arifin delved into his character, the more he realised how Mujib and he are like North and South Poles.

Yet, today he says with pride how Mujib’s truthfulness and spunk to call a spade a spade has rubbed on to him too. What made Mujib, who led the movement of Bengali cultural and linguistic identity, unique was also his abiding faith in secularism. As Benegal puts it, “He did not equate nationalism with religion.” In fact, it was due to his secular beliefs that the Muslim Awami league was rechristened as the Awami League.

More than any other trait, Benegal can see commitment as the common factor between Bangladesh’s ‘Father of Nation’ and our own. Tiwari did not feel the need to draw any obvious parallels while writing the film, as “viewers are intelligent enough to make their own interpretations”.

Call it fait accompli, India’s role in creation of Bangladesh can only be duly acknowledged. The1971 war scenes are yet to be canned and will be shot in Bangladesh once the Covid-19 situation improves. But, says Tiwari, “Unlike the popular sentiment that we gifted freedom to Bangladesh, we will stick to the inalienable fact that freedom is not a gift and individuals involved must have the quest to seek it.” Whether ‘Bangabandhu’ will end up showing Pakistan in bad light or not, he quips, “This is no Pakistan hai hai film, but it can’t possibly condone that country for not paying heed to the genuine demands of its Bengali population.” In the same breath, he reminds how the freedom of Bangladesh exacted a much higher price in terms of human lives, far outnumbering the number of people India lost in its nearly 200 years of freedom struggle.

In the hands of Benegal, the film may not be a hagiography but nor is it likely to be unnecessarily/ brutally critical of the man voted as ‘The Greatest Bengali of All Time’ by a BBC poll in 2004. Arifin feels that no actor is good enough to play Mujib. However, to direct a film on him, he feels there couldn’t have been a better choice than Benegal. “Here is a director who knows exactly what he wants. His vision is crystal clear. Instead of dwelling upon the technicalities, he looks for authenticity and emotional heft.”

Though casting director Shyam Rawat went out of the way to select nearly 15 noted actors from Bangladesh, the Director of Photography did find Arifin’s broad shoulders a bit of a hindrance. Recalling the moment, Arifin remembers what Benegal said, “He put his hand on my shoulders and said ‘don't worry, just get into the character’.” Benegal, on his part, considers Bangaldeshi actors a terrific value addition. His decision to opt for actors from Bangladesh has not only been sagacious but also practical, as the film is shot not just in Bengali, but has the dialect and accent spoken in Bangladesh as well.

Culture specific to the T, as Benegal has a penchant for getting even a thaali or a lota used in the film just right, the narrative is bound to have a universal resonance too. To be dubbed in several languages, the story of Mujib is likely to work at the world level. For the citizens of Bangladesh, which is where the film is likely to premiere, Tiwari already has a disclaimer ready. “If inadvertently there is any mistake of information/interpretation/understanding and if we end up hurting people, let me say we are as proud of Mujib as Bangladeshis are.”

Of course, there is ample reason to be proud of Benegal, who, at 86, has as astute an eye as when he began to make celluloid history in the 1970s with social commentaries like ‘Ankur’. Ask him from where he finds the energy and he shoots back, “Why? Do you want me to retire?” God forbid, nobody would wish so. Right now he is busy building new bridges in the history of India-Bangladesh friendship. He also reveals political biopics have come to him by accident and he didn’t set out consciously to make them. But if ever there is a cinematic measure of a political man, trust Benegal to do full justice. Related to Guru Dutt but inheritor of Satyajit Ray’s worldview of cinema, he has mastered the art of capturing micro and macro, the ‘I and we’, in the same frame.

The director’s cut

Mujib was very transparent, open and did not hide anything, which is a great quality but a bit of a disadvantage when you are a political figure. In the biopic, you get to see the politician, the leader and the human being , who was a quintessential family man. The film won’ be a birth-to-death story, but more of his political maturation and the values that he stood for. — Shyam Benegal

Perfect choice

Arifin Shuvoo, Bangladeshi actor

“Benegal’s vision is crystal clear. He looks for authenticity. I had to pinch myself when I met this god of cinema.” Arifin Shuvoo, Bangladeshi actor who plays sheikh Mujibur rahman

Central figure of the bangladesh liberation movement

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was born on March 17, 1920. He fought against discrimination of Bengalis in East Pakistan and was the central figure behind the Bangladesh Liberation Movement and the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. He indirectly announced independence of Bangladesh on March 7, 1971. On March 26, 1971, the Pakistan army launched Operation Searchlight and he was arrested. During his absence, many Bengalis joined the Mukti Bahini. The Indian armed forces defeated the Pakistani forces during the war in December 1971. Mujib was released from Pakistani custody and served as the first President of Bangladesh briefly and later as the Prime Minister. He was assassinated on August 15, 1975, by renegade army officers during a coup.

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