DHAKA: A Bangladeshi film about a love affair set in the country’s bloody 1971 liberation struggle against Pakistan has stirred up heated debate, prompting the distributor to pull it from cinemas.
Meherjaan: A Story of War and Love, which features some of south Asia’s biggest stars including Victor Banerjee and Jaya Bachchan, wife of Indian movie legend Amitabh Bachchan, was released last month to critical acclaim.
But the plot, charting a romance between a local girl and a Pakistani soldier, has hit a raw nerve in Bangladesh, where a new war crimes tribunal has just begun prosecuting suspected collaborators.
“I fought in the liberation war but after we released this film, my fellow freedom fighters called me a collaborator and traitor,” the owner of the film’s distribution company, Habibur Rahman Khan, told AFP.
“We’ve stopped distributing the film because critics said it degraded the sufferings of the Bangladeshi women raped in the war,” he said.
In the film, Meherjaan, a Bangladeshi girl, falls in love with a Pakistani soldier who gets court-martialed for refusing to participate in war crimes and atrocities.
A barrage of criticism in the Bangladeshi press and on the Internet said the film’s romantic storyline undermined the suffering of the estimated 200,000 Bangladeshi women raped by Pakistani forces during the war.
Bangladesh’s government says three million people were killed by the occupying forces and local collaborators in the nine-month struggle that saw then-East Pakistan emerge as an independent Bangladesh on December 6, 1971.
“Meherjaan has insulted the spirit of the country's liberation war and our history,” said four writers, including a woman who was raped by Pakistani troops, in a joint article in the Prothom Alo newspaper.
“Under the guise of a story about love and war, it's a film about insult and deception,” they wrote.
Pakistani war crimes are a sensitive issue in Bangladesh, but public feeling has intensified since the government set up the International War Crimes Tribunal in March last year.
The tribunal aims to try the local collaborators for crimes including genocide, arson, rape and looting. It has arrested five people, all of whom are also leading opposition figures, in the last six months.
The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has dismissed the trial as politically motivated.
The government has not yet said whether the court will pursue cases against individual Pakistani soldiers, but private campaigners have provided the court with a list of 195 army officers accused of atrocities.
The film, because of its positive depiction of a Pakistani soldier, has been “unofficially banned”, Farzana Boby, an assistant director on the film, told AFP.
“It is unfortunate. All we have tried to do is to make a good film. It has been pulled even though it was drawing bigger crowds than any other major hit film in Bangladesh,” she said.
The crew and directors have also become targets of hate-campaigns by people who cannot tolerate a “different narrative of our liberation war,” she said.
“They are angry because our story does not follow the dominant theme of the struggle. To them, all Pakistanis were butchers during the war. There cannot be a good-natured Pakistani soldier who rebels against the army,” she said.
Some industry professionals have lamented the angry reception the film has been given.
“It’s unfortunate there is such a huge controversy over such a good film. We live in a democratic country and everyone has the right to tell their own story,” film director Chasi Nazrul Islam told AFP. “We get stronger if we listen to all voices.”