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The East

The East emerges as an exciting piece of filmmaking from the independent scene’s hott —Matt Anderson (review...)

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“No true religion — be it Hinduism, Islam or Christianity — will ever make people blind. True religion opens people’s eyes.”

So says Karim Majhi Boyati (Shah Akam Dewan) the sufi boatman in Tareque Masud’s The Clay Bird. That’s as close to a summation as I could get for this excellent film from Bangladesh (the first Bangladeshi-language film nominated for an Oscar) about the evil of striving for “purity of thought and deed” when it leads you to irreligious and inhumane ends.

I’m a little hesitant to use the word ‘dazzling,’ but it is the best description of the color and imagery in this film. Was it the light? The film stock? The wonderful camerawork by cinematographers Sudheer Palsane, Ranjan Palit, and Maksudul Bari? Whatever it was, this film is a knockout. There are some stock footage moments of misty green riverside temples, hazy orange sunsets and dreamy blue moonrises but they are so right and so pretty that criticizing them is beside the point.

All in the Family

A Hindu woman and a Muslim man have two children...
A Hindu woman and a Muslim man have two children...

In an autobiographical way, director Masud tells the story about Anu (Nurul Islam Bablu), a boy in 1960’s Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) who is sent from his village by his Islamic fundamentalist father Kazi (Jayanto Chattopadhyay) to a madrasa (Islamic school), to save him from the dangers of the local heathen Hindu influences.

The father is a hard-line absolutist kind of guy in everything he does which includes his vocation of dispensing homeopathic medicine. There is no room for deviation in Kazi’s world. In fact there’s not much room for the world at all. Every time he finds an open window in his home, he closes it. He wasn’t always this way, and in his more moderate youth he married Ayesha (Rokeya Prachy), a Hindu woman who bore him two children, Anu and his younger sister Asma (Lameesa R. Reemjheem).

Ayesha is the long-suffering wife who married too young and who obeys her husband even when she knows him to be wrong. Her dedication to her children keeps her at home, though she allows Kazi to raise the children — or at least Anu — as Muslims.

Her only friend is Kazi’s younger brother Milon (Soaeb Islam), an educated young man who’s fault lies in being a dedicated Communist. He’s dedicated, but without the rigid puritanical zeal of Kazi. Milon befriends his niece and nephew and takes them to the village celebrations. Milon is perhaps just a bit too nice. In fact, he’s almost creepy in his niceness. I thought his character would have been better served if his anti-Pakistani militancy made him more callous, but that’s a minor point that may belie my Western tendencies.

The Times They Are A-Changin’

When Kazi can no longer stand the village’s traditional Hindu temptations, he sends Anu off to the madrasa. Ayesha and Milon object but do not interfere. Anu descends into a Bangladeshi version of Tom Brown’s School Days. His education may make him a strict and observant Muslim but its going to do more harm than good. Ibrahim (Moin Ahmed), a sympathetic junior teacher, tells Anu that he’s not being taught the true meaning of Islam, which he says is to try to be a better person. Ibrahim stands in contrats to the strict headmaster who is trying to force Anu (and the rest of the world) to simply conform to religious rules, but without any understanding of their meaning or purpose.

At the madrasa, Anu meets his only friend Rokon (Russell Farazi), an outcast amongst the other students. He’s an orphan that marches to his own drummer, plays catch with an imaginary ball, and has constructed a special retreat where he spends his time alone. In a school where conformity is paramount, Rokon is doomed.

When little sister Asma falls ill, Kazi won’t allow ‘Western’ antibiotics to be given to her and she dies. Anu comes home for the funeral and when he returns to the madrasa, Rokon’s health is failing too. But the stiff-necked head master has only his dogma to treat Rokon, in this case dunking him in the river until the “demon within him” leaves. This is the last straw for Anu, and he leaves. Too ill to come with him, Rokon tells him that in any case he is an orphan and has nowhere to go.

As Anu travels home, the Pakistani army has arrived in East Pakistan to suppress the separatist movement and they ruthlessly attack the civilian population. Milon the Communist leaves to fight the army in a futile gesture at “the bridge.” As the villagers prepare to flee into the jungle, Kazi tells them they have nothing to fear from their Muslim brothers in the Pakistani army. The villagers know better and leave, as does Ayesha and Anu. Kazi stays behind. To no one’s surprise the army overruns the village and destroys everything including Kazi’s home. Miraculously, he survives but his faith is shattered. While he stands by, dazed and unable to do anything, Ayesha leads Anu away. They will find a way to survive.

Asides

While all this has been transpiring, there are several asides in the film where we go to concerts attended by the villagers. These concerts are for religious instruction and are in contrast to the rote drills of the madrasa . The charming thing about Clay Bird is that they are being sung to the film’s audience as well. Perhaps the most instructive performance is a musical dialog between a man and a woman who examine, in song, both the Hindu and Muslim way of doing things, pointing out that both have some faults and some advantages. This echos the sufi boatman’s thought that religion should be about making you a better person.

I think the message here is that the world is a dynamic place, and adhering to any rigid system of belief will be your undoing. There is also the declaration that Islam is not a monolithic ideology, and that there are Muslims as appalled by fundamentalist dogma as any unbelievers; both are ideas that any American full of crusading zeal against “Islamic Fascism” would benefit by knowing.

I can recommend this film both for it’s beautiful images and open examination of Islamic thought. It’s a pity that it won’t be shown on American television any time soon.

DVD Extras

This DVD comes with a set of well-made extras. There is a charming “making of” short film that consists of Tareque Masud and his wife Catherine Masud (who is also the producer), sitting at the editing keyboard, talking about scenes and reminiscing about making the film. It’s a little contrived, but at the same time genuine enough to be worth watching.

There are also interviews with the actors. These are particularly interesting in the cases of the young boys who played Anu and Rokon. These two are the real deal. Russell Farazi (Rokon) admits that he has the same tinnitus (ringing of the ears) that afflicts Rokon in the film.... but hopefully not with the same outcome. And we discover that the actor who plays Kazin, who is a Muslim, was raised in a Brahmin household, and the actress who plays the Hindu Ayesha was raised a Muslim. The world’s a funny place.

I found the difference between the English and French trailers to be fascinating. To me, the English one was almost a parody of a foreign film trailer. Together they are an interesting study in how different (and how important) the editing of a trailer can be.

Picture and Sound

The photography — in particular the color — is astounding. The music is wonderful and some of it is included as a separate extra in the bonus section.

How to Use this DVD

Watch the film and then go back and pick up the extras. If you have a DVD drive on your computer, you can also read a PDF file that has a wealth of information on the film and some helpful historical notes on Bangladesh.