The Dilemma of No Man’s Land

Matir Moina depicts the anxieties of the people of Bangladesh during the turbulent period preceding the War of Liberation
Souzeina Mushtaq Delhi

In the dimly lit, open air, Lodi, the Garden restaurant, people poured in, to watch the screening of an award winning Bangladeshi film, Matir Moina or The clay bird.

The film screening was organized by No Man’s Land, a New Delhi based dialogue and design studio to provide a space for South-Asian design, dialogue and culture. The date is significant for it was on February 21, 1952 that the indigenous people of East Bengal started the ‘Bhasha Andolan’.

In 1952, the students of the University of Dhaka and other political activists defied the law, which stated Urdu as the official language of Pakistan, including East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Since East Pakistan had a majority who spoke Bengali, they expressed their discontent and organized a protest against this new law. The uprising saw many demonstrators getting killed at the hands of police, which provoked widespread civil unrest led by the Awami League. After many years of conflict, the government finally granted an official status to Bengali language in 1952. As a tribute to the Language Movement and the ethno-linguistic rights of people around the world, UNESCO, in the year 1999, declared February 21, as International Mother Language Day.

The film, Matir Moina is set against the backdrop of unrest in East Pakistan in the late 1960s leading up to the Bangladesh War of Liberation. Partly based on director Tariq Masud’s own childhood, the film narrates the story of Anu, a young country boy who is sent to a Madrassah (Islamic school) by his deeply religious father, Kazi. Away from his family, in the strict surroundings of the Madrassah, young Anu befriends an eccentric boy, Rokon who is forced by the teachers to undergo an exorcism by ducking in the freezing river to cure himself. The film focuses on the transition of Anu’s life from a festive pagan village life to a strict Madrassah life in the wake of political divisions in the country.

Anu’s father Kazi used to be a “modern liberal who dressed like Englishmen” when he got married to Ayesha Bibi, Anu’s mother. Ayesha was just fourteen when he married Kazi who was much older than her. She used to play with Milon, Kazi’s brother and spend her day. Then suddenly things changed as Kazi bid an adieu to his former Englishman life and became a deeply religious man ‘who grew a beard and wore a skullcap’.

Torn between his religious duties and his family’s Hindu practice, Kazi risks his own daughter’s life, who falls ill and dies because of Kazi's refusal to use conventional medicine. In this setting, this family comes to grips with its culture, its faith, and the brutal political changes entering its small-town world.

Director Tariq handles the childhood of Anu with considerable skill and emotion, partly because it depicts his own childhood in the changing political times in East Pakistan. Audience can relate to the misery of the child who tries to adapt to the ideology of his religious father, the firm Madrassah Moulvis and the political development in his country.

But at the same time, Tariq, when dealing with the sensitive issue of religion fails to get out of the usual stereotypes that have become a part of what constitutes a Muslim in the eye of the ‘other’. Moreover, in a scene, he shows a Baul singer narrating a tale where Fatima, the daughter of Prophet Mohammad is cursing her son Hussain, which is factually incorrect according to the many historical accounts. 

As it touched upon the political developments, cultural complexity and religious overtones, the film was banned in its home country when it was released in 2002. Finally the ban was repealed and a DVD version was released in 2005. The film also won the Critics’ Prize at Cannes in 2002 and became Bangladesh's first-ever entry to the Oscars.

Director Tariq Masud died in a car crash in 2011. His wife, Catherine Masud who is also the producer of the film and a child, survives him.

TÊTE-À-TÊTE WITH SONYA FATEH

Sonya Fateh, a journalist, has been based in New Delhi since 2006. She has written on Pakistan, Afghanistan and India for various international and regional short and long-form publications. Fatah has also written from Pakistan, South Africa and Canada. She writes pakSlant, a bi-monthly column on Pakistan in the Times of India. She is working on her first full-length feature documentary, I DANCE. Sonya works on design and programming at No Man’s Land.

Tell us something about the No Man’s Land initiative.

No man’s land is a New Delhi based dialogue and design studio that will bring developments in design, dialogue and ideas from the nine countries/regions that neighbor India to the city of New Delhi. Our aim is to provide a space for South Asian design, dialogue and culture to thrive.

We are a team of four people. Two of us run programming and two run design space. Prerna Sood and Sucharita Jain work on design side of it and Sehrish Shaban and I do the programming part.

What is the whole concept of this initiative?

No man’s land is a trust and it was established with a view to create space for dialogue, discussion and ideas from the south Asian region in India. In India, most people are unaware of what is happening in the region beyond the very typical newspaper reportage. The country that features most in Indian newspaper reportage is Pakistan, and it always almost same kind of story. So our hope was to strictly appeal to our younger generation of Indian who don’t carry the baggage of South Asia’s brutal history, and who think differently and more openly about how we communicate and engage in this century.

The hope was to use social media platforms as well as online space to create dialogue awareness so that youth from all parts of South Asia connect with each other.

What is the aim of No Man’s Land? 

We want to give the children of tomorrow better future in terms of what they know and recognise of their neighborhood. If it can’t happen through physical interaction, it can certainly happen through engagement across barriers.

Yes, we do have forums like SAARC but there is lot of politics to governmental organizations. Our future generation will interact differently, think of ideas differently, present them differently and share them with more openness. Our younger generation is more plugged in rather than the older generation at some levels and do not carry the baggage of the past.

How do you engage with youth?

Movies are the most regular programmes that we do right now because of lack of funding. We do film screenings every month, and we try to show films all over the place.

What are the other activities?

The other things we do is called ‘Culture Speaks’. Culture Speaks is basically a programme where we discuss ideas. We can do this in a number of ways. For example, we had a discussion with foreign and Indian journalists collectively on a podium to discuss the reportage from south Asia in foreign media. That was a very engaging discussion. Then we had a two-day session on refugees which basically was meant to bring out voices of refugees. We had refugees trafficked for prostitution from Nepal, Bangladeshi illegal immigrants, Rohingya Muslims from the Burmese community and Tibetans to talk about their struggle. We not only shared the range of refugee issues but also the different ways in which these communities are politicized to various forms of support, within and outside. Third thing we did was photography. We had a renowned Bangladeshi photographer, Shahid-ul-Alam, who has been quite inspiring for the whole generation of Bangladesh.