In a post-war society, distinctive and innovative filmmaker Alamgir Kabir embraced cinema as a medium for bringing change in the socio-political scenario of the country. His co-workers, compatriot filmmakers and students aptly call him Cholochitracharya for his enormous contribution to the cinema movement, writing’s on films, and documentation of the 1971 war for liberation, and for activism both home and abroad. This week the Star traces the remarkable journey of the maestro of Bangla cinema.
“It was around 6pm when we arrived at the Nagarbari ferry terminal after attending a film related programme in Bogra. Kabir Bhai parked the car at the edge of the ferry. Morshed (Filmmaker Morshedul Islam) went to buy the tickets.” Munira Morshed Munni, who is working as a photo editor at Drik Picture Library, takes a pause before continuing. As if she was trying to recall a blocked out incident from the past. Munira, more commonly known as Munni amidst friends and family, and film actress Tina Khan were feeling scared as Alamgir Kabir jokingly threatened to throw the car into the river. Suddenly, they saw a heavily loaded truck entering the ferry at a high speed. The truck's headlights flashed on their car's windshield. Kabir shouted at the truck driver to stop but it was too late. The driver probably had lost control truck by then, as he crashed into the car at high speed. Munni was the lone survivor of the accident. With the death of Alamgir Kabir, on January 20 1989, the country lost the loudest dissenting voice of its cinema.
Alamgir Kabir is usually remembered as one of the most significant directors who emerged in the wave of Bangladeshi post-war cinema in the early 70's. For Bangladeshis, however, Kabir was much more than just a distinctive and innovative filmmaker. By the time he made his debut documen-tary, 'Liberation Fighters', in 1971, he had already started his career as a journalist in the weekly Holiday writing innumerable articles on films including a book named 'Cinema in Pakistan'. For that very reason, film researchers have always described Kabir not as only a filmmaker but also as a teacher, a freedom fighter and a cultural activist.
Born in Rangamati in 1938, Kabir spent his early years in various small towns of the country as his family moved from one place to another. At the age of 22, Kabir went to England to study Electrical Engineering at Oxford University. While in the university Kabir became interested in the left movement in England and joined The Daily Worker, a newspaper of the Communist Party of Great Britain.
His stay in England was instrumental in shaping Kabir's revolutionary nature. The pre and post Liberation war scenario shaped his nature as a filmmaker and philosopher. Instead of blaming our colonial past, Kabir always emphasised on the pursuit of our region's individual identity, our unique language of art. In one of his writings, Kabir stated, “It is too late to put blame on our colonial past or cultural subjugation by the majority community of this sub-continent. Because we know now that given the right conditions and dedication from adherents of the art, even the most exploited nation could achieve true cinema with marked national character.”
In the early 60s, Kabir went for guerrilla warfare training in Cuba. As a reporter of the said communist daily, he took an interview of the Cuban President Fidel Castro. He also took part in the wars of liberation of Palestine and Algeria.
As an established film critic and writer, Kabir came to embrace cinema above all as an alternative form of self-expression. Self-expression, for him, was never merely a matter of aesthetics but always a matter of social and political discourse. In fact, in his social studies of film that he developed from mid 60s onward in two major books, “Cinema in Pakistan” (1969) and “Film in Bangladesh” (1979), Kabir defined cinema's purpose precisely as a way to social revolution for development.
He always carried a philosophical attitude to cinema – his works ranging from teaching, writing to filmmaking. What is the face of cinema in this particular region, he would ask. To define it, he emphasised on social consciousness as he wrote, “The aim of every art is to contribute directly or indirectly to social development and also to act as a catalyst in the process of social evaluation.”
Renowned filmmaker Tanvir Mokammel termed him as an auteur filmmaker, a filmmaker whose personal influence and artistic control over a movie are so great that they are regarded as the author of the movie. According to him, “Though the subject matter and backdrop of Alamgir Kabir's six feature films and a dozen short films depict diversity, there is a common criterion of all his films; Alamgir Kabir was an auteur filmmaker. He was not only a director but also a script and dialogue writer and cinematographer.”
Alamgir Kabir tried to make commercially viable, good quality films. Commercial film is a market sensitive sector and caters to an audience which is solely interested in entertainment. Kabir believed that such mainstream films would naturally be made but other types of films should flourish as well. However, his approach to film was different from his contemporaries. He incorporated animation, using negative films in a film roll, for the first time in Bangladeshi cinema.
Kabir translated his experiences as a communist activist onto the celluloid. In his acclaimed film, 'Shimana Periye', he tried to bring together two people from two different classes. The film was a kind of experiment, to see what would happen if two people from two different classes were stranded in an isolated island. Kabir tried to contrive a third meaning through creating affection and love between a modern bourgeoisie girl Tina and a poor peasant Kalu in the film. Here, the narrative might be fiction, but according to Freudian psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, this theme has a connection with truth. Subconsciously, says Jacque, people with lower social standing fantasise about mingling with people from the elite class.
The same sort of fiction appeared on the screen with another one of his films, 'Surjo Kanya'. Some critics embraced the movie, as it allowed a feminist voice to surface from the subjugated class. However, in the film the revolutionary female character appeared on the screen as a dream of the male protagonist, Lenin. The film didn't just translate the desires of a woman on the big screen but also focussed on the urge for freedom reflected through a male perspective. It was, thus, not merely a feminist film but also provoked a common need of people from every region, gender, age, race – the need for freedom.
From Palestine and Algeria to the liberation war of Bangladesh, the word freedom always inflamed Kabir's desire to fight. Hence, the word freedom would naturally appear in all of his six feature films, either in the form of a dialogue or interwoven into the narrative of the story. According to Tanvir Mokammel, no one can wholly understand the relevance and reality of Liberation War and the urge for freedom without knowing the days of turmoil of the 1960s. Alamgir Kabir superbly played his part both as a filmmaker and as a fighter both during and after the liberation war to free the country from social injustice.
In the early 80s, along with a group of youngsters, Kabir initiated the film society movement. He was considered a mentor because of his refreshing perspective of films. Late Tareq Masud in his memoir, “Cholochitrajatra”, admits that Kabir's contribution to his journey as a filmmaker was immense. When Tareq was making 'Adam Surat', Kabir stood beside him with all his resources. He gladly gave his 16mm camera to shoot the documentary on SM Sultan. According to Tareq, Kabir was always sympathetic to the filmmakers who didn't have money in their pockets to make a film. He wrote in his book, “He helped me in every way. To pay my gratitude I dedicated 'Adam Surat' to him.”
Alamgir Kabir's co-workers, admirers and students aptly call him Cholochitracharya. According to documentary film-maker and activist Manjare Hasin Murad, he felt completely and personally co-opted by the massive social, economic and cultural developments that were profoundly transforming people in the post-war society and was able to perfectly capture it in his cinema. Moreover he played a crucial role as a social reformist. And that is why Murad believes, “The word Cholochitracharya goes well with him.”
Renowned writer Syed Shamsul Haq, who was also a school friend of Alamgir Kabir, explains why the word Cholochitracharya suits him more than anyone else. He explains that the term “Acharya” is most often said to include the root "char" or "charya" meaning conduct. Thus it literally connotes one who teaches by conduct. He says, “Kabir had charismatic power. He was an intellectual filmmaker and a rare personality in our country. He wanted to create an innovative film language. And for that matter, I believe he deserves national recognition.”
Besides his extraordinary achievement in filmmaking, Kabir and his films still retain for us a sense of revolution that proposes both freedom and social justice that has rarely been seen in the works of any other artist in the country.