Saturday, 3 September 2011

Birds of paper and clay and memory: Tareque Masud (1956-2011)

About two weeks ago, Bangladeshi film director Tareque Masud died in a head-on collision on the Dhaka-Aricha highway. He and his team were on their way back to Dhaka from Manikganj where they had gone to check a location for his next film, Kagojer Phool (Paper Flowers), a film he had waited long to make, say his friends. But I only learnt of his tragic – and very untimely – demise last week. Ashfaque 'Mishuk' Munier, noted cameraman and media professional, was also killed in the accident. Catherine Masud, Tareque’s wife, producer, co-writer and editor for more than two decades, was seriously injured.

I only met him once, in November 2010. But Tareque Masud entered our cinephile worlds long back, in the summer of 2002, when his feature film Matir Moyna (Clay Bird) appeared on screens all over France, bearing with quiet grace the laurels of the International Critics’ Prize (Fipresci) it had won at the Cannes Film Festival. It repositioned Bangladesh – and, to some extent, the Subcontinent – on the global cinema map, at least in France, at least that year.

Critics spoke of it with surprised awe, fellow artists from Bangladesh rejoiced and the larger diasporic community glowed with vicarious pride that cinema from the Subcontinent would not be labelled solely as the “all-singing, all-dancing spectacle” of the Bollywood behemoth. This, if I remember right, was also the year Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas had fulgurated in the non-competitive section at Cannes: no two films could have been more different.

Matir Moyna, like many other films by Tareque Masud, did initially face problems with the censor board in Bangladesh: it dealt with the still-polemical story of the build-up to the Liberation War, the polarisation between a culturally vibrant, secular Bangladeshi society and religious extremism that was a growing political tool. All of it told through the memory of one child, who loses his greatest joys as his father’s orthodoxy grows to parallel that of the larger powers; a child whose sense of identity is jostled even over his name, the Hindu-ish undertones of “Anu” being repellent to the orthodox imam in his madrasah.

What I remember most about Matir Moyna is the truthfulness one felt in the voice of Anu and my complete and immediate immersion in his world. The voice of the film – soft but unafraid, polychromatic and so rich in musical and visual detail it felt like multiple, complementary canvasses for ears and eyes – was, I found later, very much a reflection of the personality of its director.

For meet him, we did: the entire creative team of Desh. It was our last night in Dhaka, and early next morning – very early, to avoid being caught in the predicted violence of the hartaal Khalida Zia and her BNP had threatened the country with –  we were all to fly out of Bangladesh after an intensive 10-day stint in the country. Tareque Masud was someone a few of us had wanted to meet. Thanks to an introduction from Eeshita Azad, our wonderful liaison at the British Council in Dhaka, JiaXuan, the enterprising Akram Khan Company tour manager, managed to speak to Tareque just as he returned from his ancestral village. Tareque immediately invited us over, and offered to organise a private screening of his new, unreleased film, Runway. We shot across to their house in the quieter suburbs of Dhaka, tired as we were.

In those ten whirlwind days of travel by plane/van/car/boat/foot across a good part of the country, we had met many a soul whose art, sustained action and commitment moved and humbled us profoundly – photographer Shahidul Alam (founder of Drik, the country’s premier photo library and agency), textile curator Ruby Ghuznavi (founder of Aranya, which has revived almost-defunct indigenous dyeing/ weaving techniques), musicians and actors, journalists, otter fishermen in Gopalgonj, potters in Khulna, and shipmakers in Saderghat, among so many others. For the equivocal citizens many of us are, this sense of rootedness, of engagement was quite an eye-opener.

There could have been no sweeter nor more fitting end to our trip than that evening spent with Tareque Masud. Watching a film with its director is a wonderful experience, one I had taken for granted during childhood but cherish now, and, sure enough, we piled question after question on Tareque, about Runway, his new film, “the most accessible one” they had made, he told us. Runway is a mild but telling exploration into the rise of contemporary extremism, and the links between unemployment, corruption, violence, religious fundamentalism and the accompanying loss of democracy, women’s rights and music. There was the same gentleness in dealing with the full spectrum of characters, even the archetypal bad guys; the same refusal to be ponderous. Runway was also, perhaps, much more hopeful; perhaps unbelievably so. But heaven knows we could all do with some hope.

We wouldn’t be able to meet Catherine, he told us regretfully, for she had stayed on in his parents' village with Nishad, their infant son, their “personal miracle”. But cinema was their other, older child whom we did meet. That evening, he was full of pride and joy, because they had got permission to organize public screenings of Runway, and make it accessible to people all over the country, remote villages, distant towns et al – even in places without cinema halls. What I remembered, will remember most is just that: his passion for cinema, his love for the stories of Bangladesh, his eagerness to link both together, cinema and Bangladesh.

My thoughts are with Catherine and Nishad Masud, like those of so many of his well-wishers and friends. He touched my life very fleetingly, lightly like the paper flowers he wanted to talk of next. But his memory will remain, and his films will continue to tell his stories, their stories. Which, for so many reasons, are also our stories.