Tanvir Mokammel has never shied from difficult subjects. In the 30-odd years that he has been making movies, the Bangladeshi filmmaker has addressed the most urgent issues plaguing his country, such as the aftermath of the 1971 war of liberation, the changes in Bangladesh’s riparian landscape, adult illiteracy, unsafe working conditions in garment manufacturing units and clashes based on religious and linguistic identities. His latest, Simantorekha (The Borderline), is a Bengali documentary that explores the impact of Partition on both sides of the Bengal border and is being screened in Mumbai this weekend as part of the Godrej India Culture Lab’s event ‘Remembering Partition’. In an email interview, the 62 year old discusses why the story of the division deserves to be remembered and how an artist can tell the truth without being persecuted.
Why did you feel the need to make Simantorekha?
The 1947 Partition haunts me. I’ve heard so many stories from my parents about the Partition days. The year 2017 is the 70th anniversary of the Partition of 1947. So I thought this may be an appropriate time to look back at that tragic part of our common history.
In India, we talk about a generation of people who are “unburdened by history”. Is such a history always
Amnesia about one’s history never serves well at the end. It is true that even god cannot change the past. Partition happened and what has been done cannot be undone. But it is important to learn the lessons of the history, in this case, the history before and during 1947. We cannot change our geography. We have to learn to live together, to live in peace and harmony. Unfortunately, the old saying is proving itself again. That is, we learn from history that we do not learn anything from history. The way communalism has been increasing, in all the three countries in our subcontinent, saddens me.
Could you talk about your experience while shooting for Simantorekha in refugees camps?
We shot in some of the main refugee camps in West Bengal — Cooper’s camp, Dhubulia camp, Ashokenagar camp, Bhadrakali camp. Besides, we also shot in Dhandakaranya refugee settlement in Madhya Pradesh and in Chattisgarh, and also in the Andamans, where some refugees from East Bengal were resettled.
The experience to shoot in those refugee camps was deeply saddening. Some refugees who are still languishing in those dilapidated and forlorn camps have been dubbed as ‘PL’ or ‘Permanent Liabilities’. Condition of these refugees, especially some hapless old women, is really miserable. They have become ‘Permanent Liabilities’ of humanity and their condition hurts my conscience.
You have written critically about the commercial cinema of Bangladesh. Do you think the state could have done more to support cinema ?
The commercial cinema in Bangladesh has remained as crass and philistine as it had always been. But in the alternative film scenario, there are some positive ventures. Some good films are being made in Bangladesh. Cinema in Bangladesh, as in other countries, is a business and a government can hardly do much in this sector. The Bangladesh government does one good thing. It provides a grant called Onudan, through which it provides some fund to four or five well-meaning films each year. This grant is a good support for young and struggling filmmakers. Some worthy films have been made with this support.
The global perception is that it is a dangerous time in Bangladesh to be a free-thinker or hold a critical stance. Would you agree ?
Can’t disagree much. Some incidents of recent times may make someone think that it is not safe in Bangladesh to be a free-thinker. But I think, it is partly true. I’ve been making films, both fiction and documentaries, on very sensitive subjects for decades. But never ever was physically threatened. It depends on how you package your stuff. If artistically placed, you can make society swallow some bitter pills as well.
You alternate feature films with documentaries. Which form is closer to your heart ?
For me, fiction and documentaries are not an either/or thing. I love both kinds of cinema. When I make a film, it generally comes as an idea. There is perhaps a sensor inside me which decides what will be a better mode to express that particular idea — through fiction or documentary.
But generally, I try to make a documentary after I’ve made a fiction film. The reason is, though my fiction films are known to be realistic, yet I know that a script has been written, sets have been made, dress and props have been collected, some actors are performing the characters, so an element of artificiality remains somewhere. If you keep on making fiction films one after the other, you may get lost in that artificiality and become a bit airy. But as soon as you begin to make a documentary, you are brought down again to the very crude realities of everyday Bangladesh — the traffic jam, the corruption, the low wages, the sufferings of the common people, all the hard realities of our mundane existence. It brings you back to your root. And for an artist, I believe, it is very important to remain rooted in your soil, in your time.