Mrityunjay Devvrat’s “Children of War” captures the nine months of torture that led to the liberation of East Pakistan.
Art and politics seldom get intertwined on screen in this part of the world but when they do, the results are often explosive. Releasing later this month, debutant Mrityunjay Devvrat’s feature film “Children of War” is set to open the wounds of the 1971 Bangladesh War.
“It is a fictional account of real events,” says Devvrat. As a child, the young filmmaker lived in Dhaka in the early ’80s with his parents, who were working there, and stayed in a house which was only a few lanes away from former Bangladesh President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s mansion. “I have been in touch with my friends from the country and they shared with me stories of brutality inflicted on women in the so-called rape camps.”
He delved into AAK Niazi’s book on the subject and studied the Hamoodur Rahman Commission’s report to get an idea of events. Niazi headed the Pakistani assault in East Pakistan, as Bangladesh was called before 1971, and the Commission was formed by the Pakistani Government to look into atrocities committed by the armed forces. “The problem is that most of the books on the subjects are banned,” says Devvrat, who has made a few documentaries.
The situation, feels Devvrat, was not different from what happened in Hitler’s concentration camps. “The shocking factor is not the atrocities that the people went through but the fact that nobody talks about it even after three decades. What happened to the kids born in these camps?” he asks. Unlike the India-Pakistan Partition, even Indian cinema has largely steered clear of the subject. Ritwik Ghatak’s “Titash Ekti Nadir Naam” did refer to new realities in rural Bangladesh but that was more of an exception.
Devvrat has drawn from the BBC archives to reconstruct the areas. Then there is Zahir Raihan’s documentary on the subject. The filmmaker, who fled to India during the war, disappeared when he went back to his native country in search of his family. Devvrat alleges that the idea of the Pakistani army was to impregnate as many Bangladeshi women as possible so that the demography of East Pakistan could be changed. “Though Muslims, they considered themselves superior and wanted to teach the Bengali populace a lesson.”
But not everybody was part of Mukti Bahini. There were Razakars who helped the Pakistani forces quell the uprising spearheaded by Sheikh Mujib’s Awami League in a dehumanising way. The violence that we see in the promos is in sync with the statistics: 400,000 women were raped, three million people were killed and 10 million sought refuge in India. You can argue about the numbers but the fact that we do not read about it in our school textbooks is baffling. Of late there have been some noteworthy works on the events in fiction but nobody has tried to reach popular imagination.
Devvrat sees a Cold War conspiracy in keeping the issue out of the public eye as Pakistan was a strategic partner of the U.S. On the question of India getting involved in the internal affairs of a neighbouring country, “It was not an internal problem,” asserts Devvrat. “It was a human problem and it was affecting us and millions were taking refuge in India. . Had something similar happened in Canada, would the U.S. look the other way,” asks the filmmaker. In the same vein, he adds that the film doesn’t focus on the politics actually. “It captures the plight of common people during the war.” He didn’t have the budget to justify the scale so he has kept the dimensions of the canvas in check. “There are three strains in the narrative and from them evolves the bigger picture. Raima Sen represents the plight of the Bangladeshi women, Farooq Sheikh is the intellectual voice who helped the revolutionaries and Pavan Malhotra is the face of the torture.” With Abdul Quader Mollah, a key ally of Pakistani forces, recently sent to the gallows, the film acquires a contemporary relevance. “I and many in Bangladesh see it as the hanging of Ajmal Kasab. Of course, there is still support for the fundamentalist factions but that was there in 1971 as well. It is a complex problem.”
The rules in Bangladesh didn’t allow Devvrat to shoot the film there. “I wanted the film to be shot in real locations but we were told by the administration that you ought to have a certain number of local people in cast and crew. I couldn’t do it and had to find similar locations in the North East, in Haryana, Delhi and outer Mumbai.”
He says it is unfortunate that Pakistan has banned the film. “The authorities in Pakistan should see the other point of view as well.” It didn’t have an easy run with the authorities in India either. It was initially titled “The Bastard Child” but the name was changed after the Central Board of Film Certification objected to it. Devvrat still feels that the title represented the theme but agreed to change so that the film could be released.
Devvrat hasn’t taken the expected film festival route to create a buzz. “I don’t want the stamp from western critics. If it is good, the word will spread.” He says it is a big lie that big production houses are helping independent films. “They only come into the picture when the film is made and is applauded in foreign film festivals. They don’t help an independent filmmaker from the production stage,” he leaves us nonplussed.
Playing the butcher
Playing a character based on the likes of Tikka Khan, Pavan Malhotra says he had to develop a kinky feeling for the character of the Pakistani officer who relishes torturing. “The character is an interpretation of the butchers in uniform. He has justified to himself that what he is doing is for religion and culture. We often misinterpret the battle for domination as the war between religions. More often then not, it is about cultural and linguistic dominance. Otherwise, Babur would not have fought with Ibrahim Lodi.”
Known as an actor who doesn’t have any particular style or mannerism, Pavan says he develops style and mannerism for a character and then buries them with the film. “I have played an underworld guy many times but Salim in ‘Salim Langde Par Mat Ro’ was different from Tiger Memon in ‘Black Friday’ and Memon was different from the sedate underworld guy in ‘Don’. I have often seen actors commenting that they don’t want to repeat themselves in the role of a police officer. I find it funny. No two police officers or journalists are alike. It is up to the writer to conceive them differently and for the actor to interpret it distinctly.” It seems like a historical fiction which can reach a mass audience but the gaze can be voyeuristic. “No, it is not. Also, it is a matter of perception. How will you see the whipping of a young female slave in ‘12 Years a Slave’? Is the director showing us a piece of history or is he manipulating the audience into crying,” he asks.
Real and raw
“To me, it was an educative experience,” says Raima Sen, who gives a face to the hundreds of women who were violated during the repression. “The film has become all the more relevant as the war crimes tribunal is at work in Bangladesh.” Raima says she had heard stories about the persecution of Jewish women but it is difficult to feel the plight of such women until you go through the experience in the concentration camp. “The character in the film doesn’t have a clue either. So I didn’t prepare for the role. I wanted to keep it real and raw. I told Devvrat, I will emote spontaneously as I go through the torture scenes. It is a case of clever casting. I learnt a lot in the company of Pavan and Tillottama Shome.” The performance took a lot out of Raima. “I had to spend a month in New York to take the character out from my system.” Raima, who is known for her intense roles in Bangla films, is surprisingly cast as bubbly and funny characters in Hindi films. “It is still difficult to break the image. I hope the film will change the perception about me as well.”