Given the massive brutality and genocide of the Pakistani military, your depiction of the military operation is, if anything, understated. Did you consciously make this choice?
I made that choice quite naturally. I am not sure why, but I cannot watch a film with the slightest blood, I cannot see a film with violence. We tried to create a sense of violence without literally showing it. You get the audience to feel it rather than actually showing it. It is such a stereotype that in any movie that has to do with war you show too much. The other thing is that it was a conscious choice to make a gentle film - the gentleness is the core of the film, an appeal for tolerance, harmony and peace. You cannot show it in a contradictory way by exposing violence.
There is another aspect of it: many films, if not all, made in Bangladesh to date on 1971 show in a more commercial, exploitative way, excessive violence, including rape. Such things have been shown so much. So Clay Bird is in a sense almost a natural reaction to this tendency, it stands in opposition to this excessive showing of atrocities and violence. We thought that it is not necessary to replicate the same tendency.
The genocide committed by the Pakistan Army is a war crime and that is very much expressed through the film and is condemned in the film too. That is important. We do not need to be graphic. That is what our contemporary media does: reproduces graphic violence. It is a vicious circle: in reality, there is violence, and the media reflects violence. This creates an insensitivity, a numbing of human sensation, this is why people do not care about what is happening in the world, about all this violence. It is important to show people being affected by violence, the devastating consequences it has. Whereas if you show violence itself, you may make people more violent, and we have tried to stay away from that.
The boatman in your film (who is also like a sadhu figure) makes a very interesting comment about the Qazi, Anu's father, that the Qazi in the film once used to dress like an Englishman, before he was, as it were, born again. What did you intend to suggest here, given that you do not really explore this transition in the film?
First of all this was very autobiographical. It comes from the story of my father. He studied in the most Western elite school in Calcutta - Presidency College - and he was more Western than Westerners, a self-declared atheist, a Hindustani classical vocalist from a very so-called secular, liberal, Westernized family.
This is the whole paradox: it is not madrassah-educated people who become fanatics. It is not half-literate madrassah students who become the most militant Islamists; it is the most Western-educated people who are becoming militant. This is not limited to Islam or Muslim societies; you see the same kind of thing in Christianity and Hinduism. More Western, educated people are becoming born-again Muslim or born-again Christian or born-again Hindu. Both my lived experience and the film reflect the fact that it is not traditional believers who become problematic but the born-again variety who do. You can find examples in Western countries too: new Christians (such as in the White House!) are much more militant.
Catherine Masud: In fact it is the madrassah-educated boy who becomes a filmmaker!
There is another similarity between the Qazi character and my father: I saw my father during and after the war going through a major transformation. He had this hard, solid belief which mellowed a lot over the years. Similarly, by the end of the film, the Qazi's naïve belief that Muslims cannot kill Muslims is completely shattered, devastated. This is exactly what happened to my father. He became so much less imposing, so mellow, so shaken in his beliefs that he withdrew me from the madrassah. He sent me to a regular school after that.
People mature from experience, from a deeper understanding of religion. When you know the least about faith, when you suddenly become religious, that is when you have this zeal and fervor, because you are relatively ignorant about the new ideology you have embraced. When you know more, you gain more wisdom, and that is what happens with the Qazi character in the film.
You mentioned this already and I wanted to ask you about it: Clay Bird has been compared to Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali. How do you respond to this comparison?
It is a tradition to make conscious reference to another work of art, to pay tribute to another work of art in one's own. I wanted to tell a parallel story in a sense of a Bengali Muslim family, as I mentioned earlier. My film is a tribute to that great master, Satyajit Ray, and his work.
I am very proud to have my work compared to Satyajit Ray's, of course. It can also be used as shorthand for people to understand - if people know that my film is something like his, they have a way of understanding it. There is also a tribute, as I said - the simplicity is something I borrowed from Satyajit Ray, I am indebted to him. We tried to avoid pretentiousness, showiness: in the film there is no great acting, lighting, great spectacles. Nothing. It is a very simple, linear, under-told story.
In addition to this conscious effort to make reference to Pather Panchali, other things are coincidental. My personal life, for instance, is much closer to Pather Panchali than to Clay Bird. In Pather Panchali, Durga was older than Apu; in reality, Asma (the same name in the film as in real life) was my elder sister. But for scripting purposes, I made her younger.
I saw Pather Panchali for the first time - I was not able to watch any films during my time at the madrassah - when I was about 14 or 15 and it was one of the first films I had seen. I was taught in the madrassah that cinema was something horrible and vulgar with songs and dance, which is of course mostly true! So I had this antipathy against cinema. But when I saw Pather Panchali, one of my earliest films, it was incredible, something so close to my story. My relationship to my sister was very similar to what was shown in that film - she was always very active and restless, she loved nature, she wanted to go out all the time, and I was very coy, docile, very soft and gentle. The father was also like my father - a totally callous and oblivious male! The mother in the film not only keeps things running in the family, the whole struggle and burden is on her. That reminded me of my mother as well. And the craving for life, the zest for life that I saw in my sister is also there in Durga. Also the landscape, the festivities… I grew up with these beautiful, Bengali pagan festivities.
So it is also coincidental. But then again there is a major departure in our film, something that is not there in Pather Panchali (for obvious reasons) which is the theological dimension. Also, Clay Bird has as its backdrop the birth of a nation which is so interesting because it is not just the coming of age of the main character, but also of the nation. It is a film about a time, a nation, and also about a little boy and his family. So these things represent a bit of a departure from Pather Panchali.
Who else would you identify as influencing your work?
I am influenced and inspired by everything, every film I see! But definitely, among many, I am inspired by the simplicity and economy of both Abbas Kiarostami, the Iranian filmmaker, and of Ozu, the Japanese filmmaker. Any filmmaker who prefers simplicity impresses me. I am not into gimmicks or spectacles. And I am certainly not a fan of violence in film either!
What are you working on now? Do you plan to make another feature film?
Yes. We just finished shooting a new feature film called Anthar Jatra. We have not decided the English title yet, but the literal translation is "Inner Journey." Again, it is a story about a single mother and her son.
Thematically, it touches very contemporary phenomena, particularly issues of identity - complexity rather than crisis - of the generations being brought up outside their homelands (in England or in America). It is set in Bangladesh, where the mother and the boy happen to return after 15 years. Their soul-searching, their dislocation, their identity, all of that is explored.
The return for the mother is very complicated. She has been divorced and feels a lot of bitterness. Her ex-husband then dies and she has to return to Bangladesh to bring her son for the funeral. So it is a very complex return for her. And for the boy, it is like rediscovering his country.
So it is really about the questions confronted by the diaspora. It is a very important subject which has been addressed in literature and in cinema in other parts of the world. Since we spend a lot of time abroad, we went through some first-hand experience as well, so it is based on some actual stories.
It will hopefully be released by July this year.
Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh of Asia Society