Reviewing women-centric cinema in Bangladesh

This week in North Philly Notes, Elora Halim Chowdhury, author of Ethical Encounters: Transnational Feminism, Human Rights, and War Cinema in Bangladesh, writes about female representation in Muktijuddho films.

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A modern remake of Ajoy Kar’s 1961 film Saptapadi, Shameen Akhtar’s film Rina Brown (2017) unfolds intimate geographies of love and loss among individuals from India, and West and East Pakistan. One of few independent women filmmakers in Bangladesh, Akhtar offers a tale about unfulfilled dreams of love and freedom, set in contemporary Bangladesh (or, Dhaka City), that traces the return of Rina, an Anglo-Christian, to the now-independent nation that she left during the Bangladesh Liberation War (or, Muktijuddho). Forty years after the war’s end, Rina comes back to participate in a seminar about women in conflict. She seeks out her adolescent love, Darashiko, a Bengali Muslim freedom-fighter-turned-business-executive. Over the course of a long afternoon, the two reminisce about the fading aspirations of the nationalist struggle and its unreconciled trauma.

Though Rina’s past is indelibly linked to the history of Bangladesh, she is now a stranger whose suffering is incomprehensible to the post-war generation. As the couple look out on the sweeping urban landscape of Dhaka City, and think about what could have been, a vacant footbridge bereft of pedestrians serves as a metaphor to all that the war has torn asunder and imaginary borders, intractably entrenched. War changed everything, yet as Darashiko expresses forlornly, “We could not change the country.”

The poster for Rina Brown

I begin with this vignette from Akhtar’s film—a woman-centered Muktijuddho film—because it highlights what the essays in Ethical Encounters strive to do: reimagine a Muktijuddho gender ideology that through visual culture engages with, disrupts, and incites a new imaginary for gender justice. The collection defies conventional readings of the aesthetics and politics of Muktijuddho narratives. They tell stories of the birth of a nation from its margins, constructing a ‘Bangladeshi’ identity that embraces Bengali Muslims, as well as non-Muslims and non-Bengalis, coalescing into a national cinema that crystallizes an emergent Bangladeshi modernity. Yet at the same time, this modernity also relies on a middle-class and masculinist reading of the nation and its history. Ethical Encounters, inspired by women-centric cinema in Bangladesh, illuminates a feminine aesthetic as well as the politics of disruption and agency, healing, and reconciliation.

The poster for Meherjaan

The attempt to memorialize the varied experiences of women in the Liberation War is a way to advocate for and ingrain their complex, agential roles into the national history. Notably, instead of primarily focusing on state-level negotiations or masculine combat, films in this genre highlight the intimate, domestic, or “feminine” sphere as the site of struggle and meaning. By a “feminine” sphere, I mean those spaces that are usually considered feminized—and thus subordinated—within dominant patriarchal ideology. However, reframed, they can also be read as portrayals of nonconformity, mutuality, and solidarity. By allowing the viewer to remember, imagine, and work through traumatic events such as war and conflict through a feminine aesthetic, cinema can encourages appreciatiation of the moral choices and interpretive acts of women, previously consigned to only the “feminine” sphere, cast as passive victims or witnesses. Women in these films instead make unexpected, sometimes jarring, choices: nursing a wounded enemy soldier; seeking the assistance of a sympathetic Pakistani soldier after having been raped by others like him; and embracing a child of rape even when the nation rejects them. Recognizing these moral choices is a legacy of the war that viewers learn to appreciate through the cinematic medium, and these films are an evolving archive where diverse women’s stories are memorialized, as significant and precious as the memorials and museums the state erects to commemorate martyrs.

These films redefine what humanity, loss, and justice mean for victims, and reconfigure relationships between viewer, witness, and ally. They point to the open wound that 1971 still is, especially for women. This foundational trauma remains constitutive of the nation, and Muktijuddho cinema plays a pivotal role in constructing—and disrupting—the gendered subjectivities beget by the war’s legacy. Women’s cinema, and human rights cinema, capture more broad, transnational visions of feminist filmmaking. They recast the relationships of women to war—as plunder of the nation, as dislodged women from that nation—and question the terms of what constitutes the human in these fraught circumstances.

Ultimately, women-centric Muktijuddho films emplot global human rights narratives and aesthetics that defy reductive and monolithic renditions of social reality. They offer complexity and nuance beyond just a tussle between victims and aggressors, loss and triumph, and colonization and liberation. Simultaneously, they strive for more ethical recognitions, drawing on a multiplicity of histories, struggles, and experiences. Woman-centered films provide an alternative reading toward decolonizing notions of agency, freedom, and justice; they imagine a new kind of feminist knowledge-making.

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