CAN one solve a problem without discussing it first? Is there a way to reconcile multiple perspectives without first articulating them? Must debates about history, politics and identity remain in the domain of governments and their policymakers? While watching the controversial Bangladeshi film Meherjaan last week, I found that the answer to all these questions is a resounding no.
The film gained notoriety soon after its January 2011 release in cinemas across Bangladesh. Depicting the love affair between a Bangladeshi woman and a Pakistani soldier during the 1971 war of independence, Meherjaan was criticised by Bengalis for making light of the horrors of that war, distorting history and creating a too-sympathetic portrait of the Pakistanis. The film ran for about a week before being withdrawn from cinemas by media distributors.
Having seen the film, I confess I found little more to complain about than shoddy editing and poor acting by characters in cameo or marginal roles. On the whole, Meherjaan tells a compelling story — one that raises important questions and has the potential not only to explain and depict tensions between Bangladeshis and Pakistanis, but also begin to resolve them.
The film emphasises a woman’s perspective to relay the horror and moral rollercoaster ride that was 1971. While the love story between the Pakistani soldier and the protagonist Meher is fore-grounded, the subplot revolving around Meher’s cousin Neela, who has been raped by Pakistani soldiers, steals the show. Neela’s distress and desire for vengeance drives the film, and the consequence of the brutality inflicted upon her — an unwanted child — is an apt symbol of the lingering questions that have yet to be addressed by Bangladeshis and Pakistanis.
Given Neela’s evident trauma, the critique that Meherjaan doesn’t acknowledge the horrors of the 1971 war is an over-simplification. Every scene of the film is permeated by the fear and moral ambiguity that wartime necessitates. In addition to the heroine’s own anxieties regarding her emotions for her enemy, we see characters express emotions that force the audience to draw distinctions between individuals and states, human impulse and security policy.
Indeed, Meherjaan captures well the fervour — and attendant confusion — of a nation at war, providing an apt context for the young protagonist’s muddled emotions: there is the Aligarh University-educated feudal who is still so traumatised by the violence that plagued Bengal during the 1947 Partition that he has no appetite for another conflict; Bengalis who side with Pakistan, oppose the independence of Bangladesh, and serve as informers for the West Pakistani recruits; and the Mukti Bahini, some of who naively fight for a better future without really knowing what it entails, and others who quickly lose sight of alleged enmity with West Pakistan, and turn on their own. By weaving these multiple perspectives together, Rubaiyat Hossain, the film’s director, paints a portrait of the complexity of war. She also concludes the film by leaving it open to interpretation whether the West Pakistani soldiers or the Mukti Bahini are responsible for the death of one character. This narrative device makes an excellent starting point for a conversation about agency, complicity and guilt on the part of various stakeholders during the 1971 war.
Films such as Meherjaan can embrace multiple perspectives that, when juxtaposed, throw up difficult questions about conflict because they have the luxury of not being ‘official narratives’. Films are works of fiction, products of the imagination that invite interpretation, rather than propaganda that discourages debate.
As such, films have long been acknowledged as a means to facilitate dialogue and understanding between conflicting parties, particularly those with incompatible versions of historical events. It is no wonder that the Sarajevo Film Festival, which launched while the war in Bosnia was still under way, thrives to this day: it creates a space for parties to the Balkan conflict to tell their stories, thereby allaying the anger that festers when one’s position or experience is not articulated or acknowledged.
In tense contexts, films become mirrors that reflect the experiences of communities, while allowing members of the community to get enough distance from their situation to analyse the bigger picture. The production process itself serves as a venue for meaningful interaction between parties to the conflict: Meherjaan is unique in drawing its cast from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. The filmed interactions of these diverse cast members become a tool for conflict resolution, the ability of the actors to collaborate on the film set auguring what may also be possible in the real world.
At the cinema in London where I saw Meherjaan, Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis came together in the audience. Their mutual curiosity about the film — despite the media hype around its supposedly controversial narrative — indicated a willingness to engage with different perspectives and revisit the contested history of the 1971 war with an open mind. What better forum could there be, then, for sparking a debate about the contentions that arose during 1971?
The thought-provoking content of the film thereby transforms the passive act of watching a film into a bold statement about the willingness to engage — with the issues, the distrust, the moral ambiguities, and the other party’s point of view.
The Bangladeshis thus did themselves a disservice by imposing an unofficial ban on Meherjaan. They passed up a rare opportunity to have an important conversation about the events of 1971, one that could help explain and reconcile the past.
There is a lesson here for Pakistan too: rather than block films and other artifacts (websites, theatrical plays, novels) that explore difficult and controversial perspectives, one should support and protect them. They may be the only tools at the disposal of Pakistani society to stem the rising tide of hate, religious intolerance and ethnic differentiation.
The writer is a freelance journalist.