The Making of a Public Demand
Sei Raater Kotha Bolte Eshechhi- Tale of the Darkest Night- is a documentary that narrates the brutal murders carried out by the then West Pakistani Army around the Dhaka University campus on March 25, 1971. First screened on March 25, 2001 in the Dhaka University, winner of Bangladesh Documentary Film Festival, 2003 and runner-up of South Asia Film Festival, 2003, this documentary is a memento of the inhumane torture and hardship we, the Bangladeshis, have endured to become an independent nation. Director of this epic documentary, Kawsar Chowdhury, a noted actor and documentary film director, talks about this masterpiece and the message it conveys.
What inspired you to make this documentary?
|Kawsar Chowdhury during the making of the film.
It was not something preplanned. On March 25 of 1993, Shaheed Janani Jahanara Imam organised a rally from the Central Shaheed Minar to the mass grave at the Jagannath Hall of Dhaka University at quarter to twelve at night, about the time the genocide of 71 took place. I was informed about the event earlier in the afternoon and I went there to video shoot the event. Here I should mention that I have an audio-visual archive which contains collections since 1981. So, I was filming the event in the middle of the night and I saw this woman with her eight or twelve year old daughter beside her, in the rally. Like all the others, she and her daughter were holding candles. Being curious I asked the lady what she was doing there. And she answered that on March 25, 1971, she was her daughter's age and she was living with her family in the Dhaka University campus; she said she could hear the gunfire, the outcries and feel the fear; the next morning she saw the deadbodies of the murdered Bengalis on the grounds of the campus; she wanted her daughter to know all of it; she said, “shei raater kotha bolte eshechhi”. That was the striking point. She could have told the story to her daughter at home or during breakfast or as a bedtime story; but she chose to take her daughter to the epicentre of the genocide and unravel the ferocity of that night. I thought if a woman could bring her child in the middle of the night to spread the truth, what was I doing as a man? And I am saying this with all due respect to women. It was then, on that very night of '93 that I decided to make a documentary that begins with this event and then flashbacks to the March 25 of 1971 and then comes back to the future and ends near the mass grave at the Jagannath Hall.
How did you get hold of the eye witnesses?
It was all part of my research. Finding the elements, the witnesses of the history is sometimes easy and sometimes troublesome. For me, it was a mix. Finding one of the eye-witnesses, Idu Miya, turned out to be really tough. While interviewing other witnesses, one name came across very frequently- a book-seller then, Idu Miya. Almost every interviewee talked about how Idu Miya saved his/her brother or husband, how he quenched the thirst of a dying family member on that ominous night. So I became curious about this Idu Miya; why and how, of all people, this book-seller stood strong beside the victims that night and wanted to include him in my film. He didn't do anything for fame or recognition; whatever he did he did it out of love and he didn't even know what a godly act he had done that night.
I found Idu Miya after two or two and a half years since I started interviewing eye witnesses. My search for Idu Miya started from Neelkhet, went through searching for an 'Imdu Miya' in Jinjira, then to Shirajganj, to Nilfamari and then back to Dhaka. Everywhere I found a trace, I left him a note begging to meet me at my address. Then, on one fine day, a shabby short man knocked on my door; I saw him and hugged him out of my raging emotion. Idu Miya was taken aback because he didn't know half of the story. It was 1999 and I had started working in 1993. Anyway, I told Idu Miya about my intentions. His reaction was, “are you crazy? Do you think they will spare you if you start unearthing the history?” By 'they' he meant the anti-liberation elements. I told him that I might get into trouble but I am taking him with me no matter what and eventually, he agreed to be my partner in crime.
What gave you the idea of reconstructing some scenes of 25th March?
I wouldn't day I reconstructed the history, I'd rather say I had it re-enacted because history cannot be reconstructed. I hadn't planned to do so and that's why I had shot most of the interviews during night time when the real genocide had occurred. I did that to bring in the essence of that night; shooting at night also helped me get rid of the vestiges of the present time- like the poster or ads on the walls and the building around.
However, during a meeting when I was thinking about re-enactment, one of my crew, Ruhul Taposh, now an established director, suggested that I go to the military for help. Though I had dropped the idea then, I received an opportunity to ask the military for the purpose while making another documentary on UN missions. Major Nasir helped me through this and I asked the then army chief, late Mustafizur Rahman, for military help. Thus, with the help of the army, I re-enacted the night.
The anger and wrath in the Paki soldiers, how did you bring that in your film?
I was a cub and then a boy scout. After I grew a bit older I joined the UOTC (University of Officers' Training Co-op) and had an opportunity to fight in the Liberation War. I had seen how bayonets were charged and how people were killed. My two older brothers were freedom fighters and I had seen the Liberation War closely. I was a Matric (now SSC) student and I have the memories of that time. I used my own experience and knowledge to picture the Pakistani army in the documentary.
Could you tell us about some memorable moments while making the movie?
The whole movie is close to my heart and every moment of it is memorable. But two of them are really worth mentioning: first one was when I was shooting a scene where Pakistani Army was shooting Bengalis and throwing them in a mass grave. So, to shoot that scene, I was requesting the staffs of the Dhaka University to act for the scene. I found a young man to act. When I held is hand to bring him on the spot, his mother started screaming and crying. She yelled, “You dare not take my son. You have killed my husband in 71 and now you want to murder my son? You dare not touch him!” The fact was that, the woman's husband was similarly brought to the very spot and shot dead on March 25, 1971 and the woman could not bear the trauma all over again. That very incident shook me and became an indelible memory. The second incident happened when I was shooting a grenade-charge scene in the Jagannath Hall. While taking that shot, the bed in the room caught fire. I wanted to financially compensate the student, who owned the bedding. When I was going to hand the young guy the money, he started crying. He said that it was an honour for him that I had taken the shot in his room and the burnt bedding was his souvenir. He said, “Sir, we didn't have a chance to see 71. This sort of experience takes us closer to 71 and I am lucky to have one.” See, we often stereotype the youth for having no feelings about our history. But, most of our young generation do care about the history. It's just the few who don't and unfortunately they are so loud that we only hear them.
Did you face any difficulty while screening the film in Bangladesh in 2001, after the general election?
Well, not directly, but I had gone through hell during that time. Whichever hall I booked, they cancelled the reservation at the eleventh hour, without any reason. Audience faced trouble to come to the halls and watch the documentary. The auditorium that held my show suddenly started having load-shedding exactly during my show-time. Then, when Professor Muntasir Mamun was held and Shahriar bhai of Ghatok Dalal Nirmul Committee was arrested, I had to suffer too. I was victimised, really.
Do you think your movie can be used as a document against the culprits behind the genocide, as it has the interviews of eye-witnesses?
A large group still exists who stands against bringing justice to the victims of the genocide and they are very active about their mission. Still, I believe the present government has made a commitment to bring the culprits of the genocide under judicial trial. And as our law accepts video-tapes as evidence, such tapes of Colonel Rashid and Colonel Faruq were used in the trial of Bangabandhu murder case, this documentary can prove to be useful for the judicial proceedings. See, I do want the murderers of those innocent people punished and that's why I brought this up in the documentary; so let's hope for the best.