Song of Freedom: An End to Revisionist History

Mukthir Gaan (Song of Freedom) is thefirst-ever full-length feature film on Bangladesh's 1971liberation war. In 1971, the Bengali revolt against Pakistanidomination and the subsequent army crackdown captured worldheadlines on an unprecedented scale. The papers enthusiasticallydubbed it "The Bengali Holocaust". For a war-wearygeneration in the West, already on edge from Vietnam warprotests, the "genocide" in the Subcontinent inflamedpassions and triggered agitation against US arms policy,blockades against Navy ships, and guerrilla theatre in front ofthe White House and Hyde Park.

Yet, for an event that inspired suchpassionate, and seemingly selfless (unlike Vietnam, there were noAmericans coming home in body bags) acts of defiance in the West,the Bengali liberation struggle disappeared from radar screenswith unseemly haste. There were no collected "guerillapoems", no romantic novels with heroes parachuting into themiddle of occupied Dhaka, no anniversary articles in the New YorkTimes.

The media disappearing act was helped bythe fact that the liberation struggle's charismatic leader SheikhMujib turned out to be an inept administrator, and his 1975assassination left no larger-than-life leader to glamorise.Ultimately, media sources moved by their usual logic. With theend of the war, there were no more dead bodies—reporterssimply got bored and moved on.

Feeding Frenzy

Filmmaker Lear Levin, whose work is thecore of Mukthir Gaan, discovered the brevity of media attentionspan the hard way. When he set off to make a film on Bengaliguerrilla camps in India, the struggle was the cause of themoment. Protesters had set up camp inside mock cement pipesoutside the White House (representing the Bengali refugeeshuddled in construction pipes in India); Bill Moyers and hismerry men had created human flotillas to prevent US Navy shipsfrom leaving harbour; Chicago was treated to the bizarre sight ofa sari-clad white woman on a crowded street carrying outguerrilla theatre depicting the "Rape of Bangladesh";George Harrison and Joan Baez had both written hit songs withBangladesh in the title; and presidential-aspirant Teddy Kennedywas clobbering Nixon over arms shipments to Pakistan.

By the time Mr Levin returned with over 20hours of footage from India and Bangladesh, however, the mediaand the public had moved on. Cambodia, Watergate, the continuingstruggle in Vietnam, and a host of other events had conspired tomake the obsession with Bangladesh one of the brightest, yetshort-lived, moments in the history of media feeding-frenzies.

Disheartened by his inability to findcommercial buyers for the footage, Lear Levin consigned his filmstock to a Brooklyn basement. As the myth goes, a chance remarkat Tareque and Catherine Masud's wedding in Dhaka led them on the20-year-old trail of Mr Levin. In New York, the Masuds hit thejackpot when they not only found Mr Levin, but also obtainedpermission to use the footage without any royalty. Compared tothe exorbitant prices the filmmakers had to pay for the fewminutes of archival news-reports obtained elsewhere, Mr Levin'sgift was a windfall that made the film possible.

A process of reverse script-writing thenbegan, with the Masuds extracting sequences from 20 hours offootage to piece together a story of a travelling band of Bengalimusicians collecting funds for the war effort and raising thespirits of the guerrillas. Along the way, the husband-wife teamfound assistance from a variety of activists in the Bengalicommunity in the US, including invaluable help in raising theseed money from fund-raisers. For a community that is stillstruggling for economic stability in the US, being instrumentalin a forty-thousand-dollar project was no small achievement.

Lyrics and Chants

The finished film is the story of a singingcultural troupe travelling through refugee camps and eventuallycrossing the border into liberated zones of Bangladesh.Interspersed with this is invaluable documentary footage,including Sheikh Mujib's famous speech of 7 March 1971("This time the struggle is for freedom"—the firsttime the cautious Mujib echoed the radical student factions'long-running demand for total separation from Pakistan). Alsohere is the spectacle of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who precipitatedthe crisis by rejecting the Bengali victory in the 1970 Pakistanelection, tearing up a United Nations resolution and stormingout—with a listless George Bush, then Ambassador to the UN,looking on.

The troupe's song performances are gems offolk history, and the enthusiasm of the refugees at various showsis captured with a minimum of intrusiveness. A standout is thekirthan-style song where actor Swapan Chowdhury alternately goesinto a trance and dissolves the chorus into an orgy of applause.This song's lyrics are also the film's sharpest barbs at the roleof the Nixon administration in trying to send the Seventh Fleetto the aid of Pakistan:

But now the Pak army flees for their lives and
with them flees the Seventh Fleet
Then Yahya Khan cries out
Tell me, oh tell me,
where did Uncle Sam go?
But now the thugs flee,
And with them flee the collaborators
Then General Niazi cries out
Tell me, oh tell me,
where did Uncle Sam go?

Other songs are familiar patriotic songs,mixed with chants of "Destroy the Pak invaders". Thelyrics alternately affirm love for the land and proclaimuniversal brotherhood—themes popularly identified withBengali nationalism of the late 1960s:

From Jessore, Khulna, Bagura, Pabna,
Dhaka they hail
Not Hindus, Not Muslims, they are all

The sad irony of these lines and thepresence of a large number of Hindu performers in the culturaltroupe seems to have escaped audiences at most screenings. Giventhe recent surge in Islamic iconography in Bangladesh politics(with even Sheikh Mujib's formerly 'secular' Awami Leagueadopting visibly Muslim trappings), and the gradual diminishingof the Hindu presence in Bangladesh's cultural-politicalscene—the film is a sad reminder that although the 1971liberation struggle was celebrated globally because of itssecular beliefs (one League poster proclaimed: "Hindus,Christians, Buddhists, Muslims of Bengal are all brothers"),subsequent governments of free Bangladesh failed to approach anyof the ideals declared on the battlefield.

The troupe's puppet theatre illustrates howPakistani leaders like General Yahya Khan were transformed intolarger-than-life villains. Here we see villagers—who hadnever even seen a picture of Yahya—chuckling at a cowardlyand perpetually drunk puppet with the universally recognisedmoustache and military cap. Filmed at night by the light of abonfire, these vivid scenes are remarkable in the context offootage that is now over 25 years old. Also powerful are theDantesque sequences where the camera goes roving down thehallways of refugee camps.

The weak moments in the film are the scenesof the singers relaxing off-stage, where the dialogue is clearlystaged. These are also the points where the lines betweendocumentary and make-believe become blurred. Although the filmclearly states up front that it is a "film based on footageshot by Lear Levin", the overall production maintains adocumentary realism, with the exception of the few staged scenesof dialogue.

Offering a contrast to this is the parrotthe troupe collects on its travels. Troupe members try to teachthe bird Bengali, starting with the ultra-dainty "Whenevening comes slowly" couplet (one wag at a screening calledthis symbolic of the Bengali middle class—playing theirelegant games while Dhaka burnt), and ending up with the sloganmade famous by Sheikh Mujib: "Joi Bangla!". The parrotfails to learn either the gentle lyrics or the streetchant—in real life, not everything happens on cue.

Middle Class Liberation

Mukthir Gaan succeeds as an affectionateportrait of the travelling musicians in war-torn Bangladesh. Thesubtext that is not explored in the film but is neverthelessclearly present on screen, are the class differences among theBengali refugees and freedom fighters. The troupe members are,for the most part, from middle-class backgrounds. Yet, here inthe course of the film, they mix with village refugees, farmersand foot soldiers. There is some awkwardness in theseinteractions, as when the troupe embraces a group of soldiers ata liberated zone. In these few moments, one of the fundamentalcontradictions of the war effort is visible on screen.

The Awami League's anti-Pakistan posturingwas the expression of a nascent middle class frustrated in theface of competition for resources with the Punjabi- andUrdu-speaking middle class. But when the war broke out, theconflict mutated into Bengali vs non-Bengali—classdifferences were temporarily forgotten as peasants fled acrossthe border in the same cattle-carts as their city-bred"betters".

Throughout the nine months of conflict, themiddle class leadership repeatedly declared the struggle to befor the "Workers and Farmers of Bengal". But as soon asthe war effort was over, each faction retreatedto its own camp.With a nation of their own, the Bengali middle class prospered,the peasantry who returned across the borders of "free"Bengal found their status unchanged.

Most of the cultural troupe members are nowwell-placed members of Bangladesh society, but a search for someof the peasants seen on screen would probably place them in thesame straw huts they lived in before the war. Not surprisingly,conspicuously absent in the New York screenings of Mukthir(attended by this writer) were the city's large Bangladeshiworking class population. Ritual celebration of the war remains amiddle class phenomenon—the only class that was truly"liberated" in 1971.

Too Much Authenticity

The challenge faced by the Masuds inputting the film together paled in comparison to the difficultiesthey confronted in attempting to release the film in Bangladesh.Inevitably, the film ran into the inter-party conflict thatcharacterises the Bengali political establishment's approach tothe history of independence.

Narratives glorifying the liberation warhave traditionally helped the Awami League, whose strongestnostalgic connection to the voting population is through its roleas leader of the liberation struggle. The League's traditionalnemesis, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), attempts toweaken the AL's hold on "pro-liberation" sentiment byemphasising their founder Gen Ziaur Rahman's links to thestruggle. A long-running and often raucous debate—played outin newspapers, speeches and parliament—focuses on Zia'sfamous declaration of independence on Chittagong Radio. Insymbolism-obsessed Bangladesh, Zia's radio announcement isbrandished as proof that he first declared independence, althoughthe AL repeatedly points out that the announcement was made inSheikh Mujib's name.

Mukthir Gaan stepped into this chargedbattlefield and ran immediately into the BNPgovernment-controlled censor board. With its footage of Mujib'sspeech, and shots of soldiers yelling his name, the film wasblocked as a partisan and doctored version of history. Thesequence with a radio playing Zia's speech soothed the BNPstalwarts, but here the film ran into the unique problem of beingtoo authentic. In recent years, the BNP had started publicising astaged version of the speech with the reference to Mujib cut out.But here was the original tape, recovered in Germany from aformer employee of war-era Free Bengal Radio, with the referenceto Sheikh Mujib as "great national leader" intact.

In the end, several factors worked infavour of the film. In 1995, the BNP government was engulfed bystreet protests as part of a two-year opposition campaigndemanding neutral elections. Facing diplomatic and militarypressure to yield to the election demands, the government seemedto have lost appetite for a showdown over Mukthir Gaan.Newspapers such as the popular Bhorer Kagoj played a key role byrunning feature stories with stills from the film. The CensorBoard clearly recognised that newspaper reports were buildinggrowing public awareness of a film that was being called a"masterpiece", but facing suppression from the Board.

A Bengali writer, who assisted with thefilm, is of the opinion that the presence of an American,Catherine Masud, served as a powerful deterrent to thescissor-wallahs. This was no local production from strugglingartists—the Masuds were well connected in New York, andthere was no doubt that Catherine Masud would mobiliseinternational opinion if the film did get banned. Alreadysmarting from the Taslima Nasrin debacle in 1994, where the BNPhad seriously underestimated the scope of internationalattention, the government was anxious to avoid anotherconfrontation. In the end, the film received the long-awaitedscreening certificate with no visible compromise from thefilmmakers.

As feared by the government, the filmbecame a massive propaganda windfall for the Awami League.Mukthir Gaan was shown to wildly enthusiastic and overflowingcrowds all over the country. Screenings were preceded by throngsof young men yelling "Joi Bangla". Showings at the armycantonment theatre, Garrison, were attended by the Army ChiefGeneral Abu Saleh Md. Nasim (who was later fired on charges oftrying to engineer a pro-Awami League coup) and enthusiasticjawans. The Awami League, quick to recognise the huge publicityvalue the film had for them, distributed the soundtrack tocampaign offices. Begum Zia's government made a half-heartedattempt to ban the film, starting with the Intelligence Forces'attempt to withhold issues of Bhorer Kagoj carrying in-depthcoverage of the film. By then, however, public awareness of thefilm was too high for them to proceed further.

Revisionist History

Beyond the artistic value of Mukthir Gaan,the release of the film is a landmark event in a countrystruggling to build a coherent version of its history. Over thelast two decades, every government has suppressed discussion onthe liberation war to protect its own vestedinterests—sometimes the civil servants who stayed in theirposts through the war, sometimes army officers who feared thatglamorising the war would help the Awami League, and sometimesthe Islamists of Jamaat-e-Islami who had actively helped thePakistan army in 1971 by forming militia and death squads.

Now, following on the footsteps of MukthirGaan and Channel 4 (UK)'s celebrated War Crimes Trialdocumentary, there is a renewed interest in documenting theliberation war. This upsurge coincides with the Awami League'srecent election victory—its first time in power sinceMujib's 1975 assassination. Suddenly, there is a rush to proveoneself a die-hard Mujib-ist. You may expect a flood ofdocumentaries and books on the late leader to follow.

Certainly, a history of Bangladesh'sliberation needs to include the Awami League's and Sheikh Mujib'srole in the struggle. But in the midst of all the fanfare, willanyone raise the uncomfortable questions about the inherentcontradictions of a war fought with peasant cannon-fodder, yetled by the bourgeoisie-dominated Awami League; about thedeep-rooted distrust between the leftist guerrillas and pro-Mujibfactions; the tacit understanding between Indira Gandhi and theAL about the need to destroy the Naxalite-influenced SharbaharaParty; and the subsequent persecution of Jasad (JathiyobadiShamajthanthrik Dal, or the National Socialist Party) and otherleft forces which represented the only opposition at that time tothe post-1971 Mujib government?

Without an analysis of all sides of aremarkably fluid struggle, a renewed interest in the history ofBangladesh's independence may not be substantially different fromthe propaganda exercises of the past.


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with the Masuds extracting sequences from 20 hours offootage to section calm a adventure of a travelling bandage of Bengalimusicians accession funds for the war accomplishment and adopting thespirits of the guerrillas. click this weblink A action of about-face script-writing thenbegan, with the Masuds extracting sequences from 20 hours offootage to section calm a adventure of a travelling bandage of Bengalimusicians accession funds for the war accomplishment and adopting thespirits of the guerrillas.

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