Music is very important to the film. Could you say a little bit about the songs and the music, what tradition they come from, what their relevance is to the themes you discuss?
First of all the songs are about a living culture, not just the culture of the 1960s. This is a great tradition that took its inspiration from a combination of different influences including the Islamic Sufi traditions of literature (specifically Sufi poetry), Vaishnava mysticism and Buddhist mysticism. Before the Buddhists were driven out of South Asia by the Brahmins, East Bengal was their last refuge and since a lot of Buddhist culture remains, there is a lot of Buddhist music. It is called 'Baul' in Bangladesh, which is rapidly gaining in popularity now. Most striking is the fact that there are a lot of women singers. The women who appear in the film as singers are not actresses but actually real singers. They are called 'Boyati' singers and are very popular. Unlike in the film, where you see only three or four minutes of them singing, many of them sing for several hours at a stretch: frequently from 10:00 pm to 6:00 am, and much of the song is frequently improvised.
Baul culture is becoming more popular and having a big influence on young urban bands. These bands are finding great inspiration in Baul culture, and are remixing a lot of Baul Sufi songs. You see this in other South Asian countries as well, but Bangladesh has a very distinct Baul culture, which is being revived by this young generation's work. It is striking that the egalitarian philosophy of Baul music is not only having influence in rural areas but also among the urban, educated middle class, which I think is wonderful. It is the best thing that could happen with this great tradition.
The beauty of the Bengali countryside has long played a role - say, from Rabindranath Tagore onwards - in Bengali nationalism. Your film, too, celebrates the magnificence of this countryside. Do you see yourself as part of that tradition?
In some ways, yes and in others, no. In contrast to the cities, the countryside in Bangladesh is beautiful but that is of course true in any country. There are films that deliberately make an effort to show beautiful landscapes. This is a trap. Bangladesh has a wonderful, diverse landscape, despite being a relatively flat land. However, I do think we deliberately avoided getting into the trap of showing the physical beauty of the country. What we tried to capture was the inner beauty of ordinary people in villages, an inner beauty born of their culture. They are not stars with beautiful faces but ordinary hard working peasants with their own beauty. It is not a lyrical film in that sense. We focused more on the culture - the festivities, the recitations, the village fairs, Eid - and inner beauty than the landscapes. In other Bengali films - with all due respect to great masters like Satyajit Ray - there is a tremendous tendency towards lyricism and romanticizing the village or rural Bangladesh and we consciously avoided that.
When films are made in Muslim-dominated countries, it seems that we copy not only the style and technique of Hollywood and Bollywood, but also the cultural content. Very rarely will you see a South Asian film showing the culture of a Muslim family, or Muslim rituals. Initially even we shied away from that. But then with this film, we tried to capture the complex fabric of Muslim culture through everyday life: family, the prayer, wuzu, and the other rituals of this Muslim family.
Pather Panchali to me is a great inspiration. I am a great admirer of Satyajit Ray and his simplicity. I consciously tried to reproduce this simplicity in The Clay Bird. Pather Panchali captures wonderfully the life of a lower-middle class Bengali, Hindu family. In a very modest way, we tried to capture the life of a lower-middle class Bengali, Muslim family. To get a complete picture of all of Bengal, you need to see both these depictions together. Clay Bird alone would not represent all of Bengal, and as close as they are to me, I cannot portray Bengali, Hindu families and societies. Whether I am a practicing Muslim or not is a separate issue, but it is very important that I am a Muslim because I can reflect and portray with some accuracy the experience of growing up and living in the context of a Muslim, Bengali family.
You linger as well on the old architecture of the mosques and madrassahs, as well as the ghat that is adjacent to it. What does this architecture mean to you?
It is mostly very subjective - it is taken from my experience as a child and it reflects very much a child's way of looking at such architecture. From my tiny village I went to this town with wonderful but strange and overpowering architecture. It has stuck in my mind, this imposing architecture - which has at the same time its own beauty - perhaps because of the sharp contrast with the fluid, riverine village that I came from.
One of my earliest memories from the madrassah was of fog on the huge steps in front of the madrassah. As a little boy, the steps looked imposing and big, and the fog created a kind of mystery. At a subconscious level, while making the film, I probably wished to reproduce the architectural motifs and rituals from my childhood. The steps in the film were very similar to my actual madrassah. I sometimes made things difficult for my crew because I was obsessive about creating certain situations like the early, pre-dawn fog on the steps. It was not a Hollywood film where you could create fog; we had to wait three nights for the fog to appear! I remember returning to the madrassah from a rainy monsoon day and seeing this fog - the image was imprinted forever in my mind. I wanted to recreate that: the dark overcast sky, a little breeze, drizzling rain, and a flood of water. When my sister died, in fact, the next day, we could not find the grave anymore because it had become submerged under water. The architecture and the visuals that you see in the film come from all these personal memories.
To the unfamiliar, the repeated shots of the boys making ablutions at the ghat immediately brings to mind Benares on the ganga or Ganges, and the Hindu pilgrims who perform their ablutions there. Is this an association you sought to explore?
It was not a conscious association but that is the beauty of such shared symbols. The commonality is not only with Hindu religious rituals, but also with Christianity's baptism, the significance of water… There are other commonalities that have been referred to in the film. The story of Abraham's sacrifice, for example, is alluded to in the teacher whose name we kept as Ibrahim, a unifying factor for Judeo-Christianity and Islam - a gesture towards the concept of belonging to the same book shared by Islam, Christianity and Judaism. We generally only talk about the conflicts between religions but there are so many commonalities which are equally striking; they are basically the same thing with the façade of difference.