Rubaiyat Hossain’s debut feature film MEHERJAAN, a family saga set in the times of war, is quite an impressive achievement in cinema from Bangladesh. Its multi-layered story-telling and cinematic eloquence render a probing and heart-breaking tale about the spoils of war and loss of humanity.
The story of MEHERJAAN, which recently won awards for the Best Debut Feature film and Best Female Director at the fifth New Jersey Independent South Asian Cine Fest (NJISACF), unravels in flashbacks and voice-overs by an older MEHER (Jaya Bhaduri) as she recounts it to her young niece, Sarah (Nasima Selim), who is the illegitimate child of her cousin sister Neela (Reetu Abdus Sattar) raped and impregnated by a Pakistani soldier during the raid on Dacca University at the break of the Bangladeshi war of independence in 1971. Sarah, one of those children of war, was adopted by a German couple at the end of the war. After 38 years, SARAH has come to Meher, now an unmarried sculptor, to dig up her history and seek an identity.
What really makes Rubaiyat’s film an enriching experience for us is that she, may be for the very first time in any film from Bangladesh I have seen, gives us a three hundred and sixty-degree perspective on the 1971 war of independence by illuminating moral and humanitarian issues, and opposing contemporary political philosophies and political parties with programs bent on merely exterminating each other rather than stay unified in fighting a common enemy, by exploring the essence of “love for the other” and the loss of innocence as manifested in two of its leading characters Meher and Neela respectively.
The raped, violated Neela has only one goal in life – she wants to kill and mutilate Pakistani soldiers, whereas, the sheltered dreamer young Meher (Shayna Amin) falls in love with Wasim Khan (Omar Rahim) — a wounded deserter from the Pakistani army who saved young Meher from being sexual prey for a convoy of Pakistani soldiers.
So that the reader of this review doesn’t misconstrue the film as being merely about Meher’s falling in love with an enemy soldier, let me stress here that, it is not only a story about Meher and Neela, it’s also about Khwaja sahib (Victor Banerjee), the widower patriarch of the family (and Meher and Neela’s grandfather), who decides to move his family out of Dacca at the beginning of the Pakistani invasion, and settle in the idyllic life of his ancestral home in a remote village probably out of the reach of the raging war. Khwaja Sahib sits on a chair in the lawn in the morning and afternoon – no visitor can venture into the inner quarters without being stopped by him. He protects and guards the family he built with great care. In one evocative scene, the patriarch goes to a local pond on the way back from Masjid to wash his hands and face, and as he climbs up the stairs leading away from the pond, he notices a spider’s web – he touches it with love and care so as not to destroy it – after all, he himself has nurtured and built his own family with equal love and care. Political agents of all colors come to him seeking his support for their cause, but, the incorrigible patriarch keeps supporting the fight for an independent Bangladesh. With the very firing of a bullet shattering the tranquility of this idyllic atmosphere. Khwaja Sahib’s martyrdom is brilliantly and most appropriately rendered by Rubaiyat as the fall of an icon.
The bloody aggression of war shakes up every member of Khwaja Sahib’s family. Even his mentally handicapped daughter, Salma, fancies marrying a freedom fighter who would, at the end of the day’s violence, come to her seeking consolation and love.
Meher is mindful from the outset that history won’t judge her love for the wounded Pakistani soldier, for whom she has found a shelter in the hut of one villager, with any sympathy, but, still she carries on with it. Rubaiyat uses the lush greenery and vastness of the countryside for scenes in which Meher and Wasim Khan rendezvous from dawn to dusk thereby contrasting these with others like an impressionistic painter – the doomed lovers playing in the divine landscape built with supreme love by our Creator!
MEHERJAAN reminded me of the famous Italian filmmaker Vittori De Sica’s 1970 masterpiece THE GARDEN OF FINZI-CONTINIS.
I will be waiting for Rubaiyat’s next film with greater expectations.