Watch Mujib with a Tablespoon of Salt
The film stands on Arifin Shuvoo’s performance
Whenever there is an attempt to make a biographical fiction film on a famous and historic political leader, it is certain that (a) it will not be a politically neutral film, (b) it will glamorise the leader on whom it is based, (c) it will romanticise his personal life, and (d) his negative actions and qualities as a political leader, human being and a committed worker with strong political ideologies will either not find any mention in the film or will be sidelined.
Shyam Benegal’s Mujib – The Making of a Nation is no exception, never mind that it is directed by one of the greatest filmmakers of India. Biographical fiction is nothing new as a genre for Benegal, now 88 and suffering from age-related issues. He has given us some great films like The Making of the Mahatma (1996) and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose – The Forgotten Hero (2005) remembered for the honesty with which he presents the characters as human beings, along with their negative and positive traits, without needlessly romanticising them or trying to present them as being larger than life.
This is not to deny Mujibur Rehman the larger-than-life identity he built over the years, which is a fact. But to raise questions on the sudden silence that befalls the film once he assumes the post of president by announcing in a public speech that from that day on he will be the president of the newly formed independent republic Bangladesh. How and why did he declare his presidency himself?
The ‘silence’ is about the film’s steering clear of detailing Mujib’s work for the nation from the time he became president till the time of his death. It is also about the conspiracy by the leaders of the coup that designed and executed his assassination and their reasons that led to this national tragedy. It includes how the fifteen major members who were directly involved in the assassination were sentenced many years after Rehman was assassinated along with his family. On 26 September 1975 the martial law regime introduced an Indemnity Ordinance which gave legal immunity to all persons involved in the coup of 15 August 1975. Mujib’s assassins continued to enjoy immunity from prosecution for 26 years. This could have been used with graphics before the credit titles came up when the film ended. But it was not.
Other omissions – the active participation of the Indian Army which helped the Mukti Bahini fight the Pakistani military attack sent to destroy the movement towards an independent Bangladesh focused on Bengali as the lingua franca. And the actual massacre that happened when Pakistani tanks rushed in to smash the rising power of the Awami League headed by Mujib. Just clippings of an interview of Indira Gandhi taken by Khushwant Singh that pays lip service to Bangladeshis’ struggle for Independence. Was Mujib not part of it? Or did the film decide to focus only and only on the ‘great’ Mujibur Rehman?
Mujib – The Making of a Nation does not reflect the historical authenticity that Benegal is known for. Part of the blame for a near-promotional tribute to Bangladesh’s assassinated and most glorified and awarded president may be sourced back to the film being a co-production of the respective Ministries of Information and Broadcasting of India and Bangladesh, and part of this may be placed on the political intentions of the governments of the two nations. It throws up a rather glorified picture of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman.
The film opens with Mujib returning from Pakistan after having been imprisoned for nine months in a Pakistani jail in 1972. He arrives right in the midst of millions of crowds waiting to receive their leader, who they hold solely responsible for giving them an ‘independent’ nation, the gift of their language, Bengali, as the lingua franca of the entire nation, and his dedication to make the new nation, named Bangladesh, an independent, peaceful and secular one.
The voiceover that narrates the story with links between the present and the past is assumedly that of Mujib’s wife, Sheikh Fazilatunnesa Mujib, aka Renu, portrayed beautifully, if not too sweet and syrupy, by Nusrat Imrose Tisha. This critic watched the Bengali original stripped of the inefficacies of the dubbed version in Hindi where the voices are dubbed by others and not by the actors themselves. This was an advantage, Bengali being her mother tongue.
Bengalis among the global audience who have heard and read about the Great Calcutta Killings are reportedly very unhappy for the film’s investing Suhrawardy with a larger than life ‘positive image’. History tells us again and again that Husseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, who was Prime Minister of Bengal ruled by the Muslim League at the time, is widely ‘believed to have engineered “The Great Calcutta Killings” through meticulously planned misuse of government machinery on a colossal scale. It is also reported that in order for the Islamic mayhem to go unchecked, Hindu officers were sent on leave and Afghani and Hindustani Muslim officers replaced them in 22 out of 24 police headquarters of Bengal and in a majority of the police stations of Calcutta.’ (Anil Sarkar, ‘The Great Calcutta Killings – How Calcutta Would have been Lost Forever,’ India Facts, August 15, 2020.) But there is no evidence of Mujibur Rehman, whose mentor was Suhrawardy until the latter’s death, of having been involved with the Great Calcutta Killings. The turmoil lasted four days from the 16th to the 19th of August, 1946.
What holds the film together from beginning to end is the outstanding performance of National-Award winning Bangladeshi actor Arifin Shuvoo, who injects life into a synthetically made film so well, enriched by the costume by Piya Benegal and the makeup and his natural body and height, which make him an incredibly real version of the true Mujibur Rehman. Shuvoo has given an award-worthy performance and the film stands firmly on its feet by the power of his performance. The actor playing his younger brother looks much older than Mujib and this scars the film in a certain way. The national song of Bangladesh, composed by Rabindranath Tagore, “amar sonar bangla, aami tomaye bhalobashi” is never played in full but only in some strains, and sometimes embedded in the background score.
The sound track with sounds of gunshots being fired and war tanks rushing in with West Pakistani soldiers is a bit too loud that hampers the serious tone of the film. There are many speeches gathered from the ones Mujibur Rehman actually delivered over the years. His gift of powerful oratory through a speech delivered on 7 March 1971 is enshrined in Unesco’s Memory of the World Register for its historic value.
There are several song-dance numbers in the film drawn from the folk cultures of Bangladesh which give it the effect of a colourful – ‘touristic’ – film naturally veering away from the subject – Mujibur Rehman. All said and done, Mujib, the film, is a selectively fictionalised account of one of the greatest political leaders of the 20th century, targeted mainly at the mainstream audience in India and Bangladesh rather than being a politically historical film for the global audience. Do the elections round the corner in Bangladesh have a role to play behind the film being made by the Indian and Bangladeshi governments instead of by an established producer from either of the two nations?