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A celebration of innocence and harmony

THE "CLAY bird" ("Matir Moina", 2002) cannot take wing, but neighbouring Bangladesh came off with flying colours in this first feature by documentary filmmaker Tareque Masud who turned the burning issue of religious zealotry into a lyrical tale of childhood. The film has been critically acclaimed, and won honours (Marrakesh, Best Screenplay; Cannes, Fipresci Prize).

A scene from "The Clay Bird" directed by Tareque Masud (below).

Village child Anwar is sent to a city madrasa by his born-again Muslim father, Kazi, who clips his wife's wings in this new avatar. He bans participation in community gatherings, whether a boat race in a Hindu festival, or Sufi songs performed in the village square. He will not tolerate his son's gifting a toy bird to his sister, and lets her die rather than take allopathic drugs.

There is another clay bird here. Liberal humanist Uncle Milon fails to see the plight of his sister-in-law as he brandishes his nationalist ideals among friends until they laugh, ``You are as addicted to Marxism as your brother is to homeopathy, both are from Germany."

Milon dies defending his people from the Pakistani forces, while the bemused Kazi, who insisted that a Muslim will never harm a Muslim, faces cruel disillusionment.

Watching the seething events in the years before the birth of Bangladesh (1971), the bemused child Anwar finds solace in the grim madarasa with misfit friend Rokon, who survives on fantasy. In contrast to bigotry, one of the teachers does explain that unlike the spread of Islam through the sword in Arabia, the Sufis converted people in the subcontinent with their message of loving kindness. The thought is underlined in the long, open-air song sequences, but actualised in the warmth of the village community.

The tenderly lit, poignant visuals protest against violence by celebrating innocence, peace and harmony. The effects of intolerance need no scenes of war; the despoiling of a child's hidden treasures — a snail, a shell, a mirror — is enough, as is the close cropping of Anwar's hair before he enters the religious school.

The clay bird is a Sufi symbol of the soul-trapped-by-the-body, struggling to break free. Besides, burdened with dogma, how can it take wing? The film does not denigrate Islam. It extols Allah as `Rahman and Rahim' — the Gracious, the Merciful.

Excerpts from an interview with Tareque Masud:

"The film is about the coming of age — for myself and for my nation. It ends when war begins. The setting is full of turmoil, polarities, impending horrors, but I wanted to stay away from politics, judgment and messages. I am against fanaticism and extremism, and all for a pluralistic world.

``The characters are drawn from life. Kazi is like my father, who suddenly turned orthodox, confining mother to purdah, and making her the focus of all his experiments. ``The orphan Rokon remains an outcast not only because of his class, but also because he is intelligent. He cannot dream of a real home as Anwar can, so creates fantasies of a `special' place and friend. As a child I was Anwar, as an adult I am Rokon, I make films to shelter myself in my fiction, try to find some vision within to find meaning in what I do. Believe me, with all the transience, frustrations and crises in life, this is a universal experience! ``I am critical of Uncle Milon. He fought for a geographical territory, while my mother was fighting for human rights. He was indifferent to her struggle. Nor could secularist Milon see the wisdom in the boatman's statement, `True religion does not blind you, it opens eyes.' It brings real freedom, mystic bliss, nirvana...

``This is not an abstruse philosophy for my people. Mysticism from the Buddhist, Vaishnava, Iranian and the Baul traditions flow into our everyday popular culture. Sufi verses like those in the film are performed through the night for huge audiences.

``The Kazi syndrome is an urban phenomenon, a reaction to what is happening in Iraq or Afghanistan. But Bangladesh will never yield to religious fundamentalism because tolerance is part of our mainstream culture. Sufism safeguards us against extremism.'' — G. R.

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