There is no love lost between veteran Bangladeshi filmmaker Tanvir Mokammel and the censor board. The latter has clamped a ban on his new one-hour documentary Karnaphulir Kaanna (Teardrops of the River Karnaphuli), an expose of the state-sponsored discrimination against the Chakma tribals of the Chittagong Hill Tracts bordering India and Myanmar.
Mokammel, 51, has repeatedly taken on the political and religious establishment of Bangladesh ever since he debuted in the mid 1980s with Hooliya (Wanted), an experimental 28-minute documentary based on a political poem by poet Nirmalendu Goon.
Mokammel’s second film, Smriti Ekattor (Remembrance of `71) ran foul of the censors because it documented the killing of Bengali intellectuals by Islamic fundamentalists during the 1971 Bangladesh war of liberation. It was duly banned.
|Tanvir Mokammel's documentary ran into trouble for exposing state-sponsored discrimination in Bangladesh.|
The same fate befell his very first feature film,
Nadir Naam Modhumati (The River Named Modhumati
), which located the
story against the backdrop of the war of liberation. “It was a very small film completed with great difficulty,” Mokammel recalls. “So I went to court to fight for my right to screen the film for the public.”
Mokammel achieved his aim against all odds after a protracted battle. “The case went on for two years,” he says. “It still is the only film ever to be released in Bangladesh after being banned. Civil society in Bangladesh isn’t strong enough. It is not possible, therefore, to mobilise public opinion against the decisions of the censors.”
The filmmaker has obvious reasons to be disillusioned with the way censorship operates in his country. “The censorship process in Bangladesh is pretty insane,” says Mokammel. “In this day and age, you can send your film to any corner of the globe through the Internet. Moreover, the domestic audience is mature enough not to need any form of protection.”
Despite the troubles that have stalked Mokammel at every point of his career, he hasn’t budged an inch from his chosen path. Not just Karnaphulir Kaanna, all his recent films have addressed themes that have been controversial. He has consistently upheld the syncretic traditions of Bangladesh that have been lost in amidst religious bigotry and political myopia in recent decades.
The award-winning Chitra Nadir Paare (Quiet Flows the River Chitra) traced the plight of a fictional Hindu family of East Pakistan that refused to migrate after the partition of 1947.
Lalsalu (A Tree Without Roots), made in 2001, is based on a major novel by Syed Waliullah revolving around a Mullah who exploits innocent residents of a remote Bangladeshi village to establish a false shrine.
Lalon (2004), an extension of his 1996 documentary Achin Pakhi, is a feature film on the life of the 19th century Sufi bard Lalon Fakir, the guru of successive generations of Bengal’s fabled Baul troubadours.
Mokammel is currently working on a long documentary on the Bangladesh war of liberation. “Most of the key players and witnesses are either dead and gone or are very ill,” he says. “Their exploits haven’t been documented on film. I am trying to do that based on interviews with the survivors.”
Any plans for a new feature film? “Well, I won’t make a feature until next year,” he says. If all goes well, that film will be no less interesting than Mokammel’s previous work. “It will be an adaptation of Antigone set in the context of the 1971 war of liberation,” he reveals.
Constant run-ins with the censors notwithstanding, Tanvir Mokammel’s cinema flows on like all the rivers that have run through his films.