he entire country, or at least the chattering classes, is buzzing with the release of the controversial new film, Meherjaan, written and directed by debutant filmmaker Rubaiyat Hossain that tells the story of a young Bangladeshi girl falling in love with a Pakistani soldier during the 1971 liberation war.
The director has attempted to present a counter-narrative of the war that does justice to the complexity of the times and that calls into question the established heroic nationalist narrative that has dominated discourse about and representation of the war. An honest and nuanced discourse about 1971 that acknowledges this complexity is long overdue, and if the film helps prod us in that direction it will have performed an important service. Nor should using a (apparently chaste, I couldn't help but note) love affair between a Bangladeshi girl and Pakistani soldier as the focal point of the counter-narrative be seen as necessarily objectionable.
The theme of trangressive love and the role of the personal and the political in a time of war is a well-mined one, and, in this context, is central to the point that Hossain wishes to make. Meherjaan calls to mind The English Patient, which in turn can be read as a counter-point to perhaps the most celebrated of modern love stories with war as a backdrop, Casablanca. The English Patient turned the central moral of Casablanca — "it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world" — on its head by positing that, even in a time of war, matters of the heart take precedence over the grand narratives and imperatives of history.
Intrinsically, there is nothing wrong with importing this sensibility into the 1971 context, but it can equally be argued that to posit such a love story as the focal point of a film that the director has stated is intended to provide a female narrative of the war, ultimately does a disservice to the very female narrative that the director professes it is her goal to give voice to. The question can be asked: who does Meher speak for other than the director?
The narrative hinges on the relationship between Meher and Wasim Khan, but neither are sufficient vessels for the film's ambitions.
More interesting, to my mind, in terms of providing a counter-narrative, was the character of Meher's grandfather, superbly portrayed by Victor Banerjee, an old-school Muslim zamindar, who abhors bloodshed and tries to stay true to his principles and beliefs, walking a tightrope between the occupation forces and their local collaborators and the freedom fighters. For me, any dissatisfaction with the movie was in the end not so much thematic as they were artistic and conceptual.
Although the film is beautifully shot and scored, I didn't find its evocation of time and place convincing. For the most part, it did not succeed in taking me back to 1971 or persuading me that there was a war raging in the background. Perhaps this was deliberate and the film meant to evoke Meher's reality (after all, the story is told through her flashbacks and diary entries) and this was how a love-struck teenage girl did experience the war. But this brings me to my central conceptual complaint about the film. The narrative hinges on the relationship between Meher and Wasim Khan, but neither are sufficient vessels for the film's ambitions. They both struck me as somewhat on the dull and insipid side. Meher comes across as a shallow, callow teenager (her cousin and aunt are much more interesting), while Wasim, though noble and decent enough, struck me as kind of a stiff, no real depth or fire or charisma, that I could detect. This is not the stuff of grand passion, and for the love story to work as an appropriate counter-point to the times, it needs to be more than puppy love between an unreflective and self-involved teenager and a wooden and inarticulate young man.
Nevertheless, the film as a whole was thought-provoking and strangely compelling, and even days after seeing it I find myself thinking about it and turning it over in my head. If the director's goal was to make her audience think, to question, to re-examine, and to open up the space for a full and honest (and doubtless painful and contentious) discourse of 1971, then she succeeded magnificently.
*This article was edited on 01/02/11 after an error was discovered in the original matter. We are sorry for any inconvenience caused.