Catherine Masud started her career researching international development, then became a filmmaker and an activist, seldom walking onto the media stage, and hence into our consciousness. She has given us many gifts. These gifts will not be measured in money. They will and must be measured by the happiness and welfare of those who suffer in silence for human dignity and fulfilment.
From the few to the many
“When I was 4 or 5 years old, one night my father asked me to go outside and look at the sky through his telescope. 'See? That's Saturn. We are not the only planet. The sky is full of other suns and planets,' he said. Those words would leave a deep impression on me,” says Catherine Masud sitting in her living room brightened by paintings of Hashem Khan and Zainul Abedin.
Born in Chicago in the same neighbourhood as Obama's, she grew up with children with diverse ethnic, religious and racial backgrounds. Her father was a professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago and mother, a family therapist who is still practicing. Hiram Bingham, her great-grandfather, an archaeologist who found Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Incas in South America served as a member of the United States Senate. She had been to UK, France, Mexico, Guatemala, India and Nepal before turning 18. “One of my uncles is married to a Guyanese woman of Indian descent. Another uncle is married to a woman from France,” says Catherine. “So for me to have ended up in Bangladesh marrying somebody from this country is not so unusual.” Occasionally she speaks fluent Bangla and it is hard to imagine she was not born and raised here. This morning she is wearing a black cotton sari with blue and yellow border.
A rebel with a cause
As a student of Development Economics and Fine Arts (Painting) at Brown University, she joined the major student movements of that time--- put pressure on the South African regime to end apartheid and protest the nuclear arms build up under the Reagan Administration. “Brown had a diverse environment and it was also more politically progressive than other Ivy League schools,” she recollects. “In the annual student council election we passed a referendum requiring stocking the university health services centre with cyanide pills which students could use to commit suicide in the event a nuclear war broke out. It was a huge media event and eventually spread to other universities in America.” While at Brown she was also involved with a student organisation called the Overseas Development Network. “For the purposes of doing a one-year research project overseas, with the eventual aim of completing a PhD, I wrote to various NGOs in different countries and ended up in Bangladesh in 1986,” she says.
From development economics to films
While doing her research, she met a lot of artists and writers like S M Sultan and Ahmed Sofa and through those connections she met Tareque Masud. “Tareque was working on Adam Surat, his documentary on Sultan,” she states. “He wanted my help with an English version of the film. This is how I got involved in films and Tareque and I fell in love. That was in 1987.” After getting married, they went to the US in late 1989. Her family had not met him yet. It was during that time they heard about Lear Levin, the American cinematographer who shot the cultural troupe that travelled around the country motivating people with patriotic songs. The duo used this footage to create Muktir Gaan. The rest is history.
Swimming against the current
Muktir Gaan started with Bangabandhu's 7th March speech and it included Ziaur Rahman's radio announcement in the opening few minutes of the film. They tried to be as non-political and fair to history as possible. “But the film got stuck at the censor board because the censors thought the film had not given enough importance to the radio announcement,” says Catherine. Finally they were able to convince the censors and it was released in December 1995. “We had rented all the 35mm projection equipment; we had brought a collapsible screen from Singapore,” she says exuberantly. “The lines got longer and longer and it was completely beyond our control. At one point, the film was carrying us; it wanted to go where it wanted to go and the audiences wanted to go where they wanted to go. What could we do but just follow?”
The experience of showing Muktir Gaan led to their next film Muktir Kotha, an oral history documentary with a subaltern view of the War, as told through the stories of ordinary villagers. And then came Matir Moina. It won the International Critics' Prize at Cannes in 2002. American film critic Elvis Mitchell in the New York Times called it “One of the finest films of this year or any other.” Just before the premiere they got a letter from the censor board saying the film had been banned. “Matir Moina in many ways extolled the beauty of Islam in Bangladesh.” says the filmmaker. “Here was Bangladesh's chance to say to the world: look, we have a pluralistic and tolerant society and the Islam we have in Bangladesh is open and engaged and in dialogue even within itself. That was the time to say this, when most others were saying that all Muslims are out to fly planes into skyscrapers in major western cities. Instead, by banning the film, the government actually fed into that stereotype. But it was short-lived and they realised it was a mistake. Over the years our journey has not been easy. But if we gave up then there would be no Muktir Gaan and there would be no Matir Moina.” In addition to humility and warmth, she displays strength of will and blunt practicality.
The story was inspired by actual events that occurred in 2005 and 2006 with the rise of extremist groups. Runway was their response to the simplistic interpretation that extremists were just motivated by ideology. “I think it came out of a certain amount of uncertainty and confusion over one's place in the world---a metaphor, a visual metaphor that to us was the runway,” she explains. “The planes land to take off to connect Bangladesh to the rest of the world and the planes themselves are prime examples of modern technology. But juxtaposed against them are these poor people living in shanties, their cows grazing on the grass under the shadow of the planes. On the surface it appears to be a story about extremism but it's much more than that. ”
Making Significant Changes
Catherine Masud is a founding member of South Asian Children's Cinema Forum, a multi-country body for the promotion of children's cinema in the region. As a part of a policy initiative she is doing extensive research on the state of children's cinema as well as films in general in South Asian countries. “There are many shortfalls in film policy in this region, that is doing more to destroy the film industry than helping it,” she says. An exorbitant ticket tax of 150 percent, dating back to the British period, was the first barrier to growth in the exhibition sector. Despite an attempt to revive the industry by reducing this tax in the late 1990's from 150% to 100%, it remained one of the highest cinema taxation rates in the world. There was little left from the sale of tickets to go back to the halls for reinvestment, or to the producers and distributors to cover their expenses and make profit. “People point at FDC and say they cannot make good films and that's why the industry is collapsing. But that is a very simplistic analysis,” says the tireless activist. Carrying on the work of late husband Tareque Masud's “save the cinema halls” movement, she lobbied the government to institute reforms in the film industry, which led to declaration of film as an official industry, zero taxation on tickets, introduction of tax holiday for new theatres, and discount on electricity for the halls, much like what they have done in India since 2000. The new status qualified the film industry for institutional financing from banks and various types of tax subsidies. Consequently, a lot of entrepreneurs became interested in opening up theatres with modern digital projection equipment. Jamuna Park in Gulshan and Star Cineplex have introduced their new digital screens. Bengal Foundation has opened up a new cinema wing and they are starting to lease old theatres in the country with a plan to refurbish them and install new high quality projection equipment and create a kind of art house cinema hall for the urban, educated middle class. “You have to start with the theatres. If you do not have an audience, there is no point in making films,” says Catherine.
Custodian of history
Without history, a society shares no common memory of where it has been, what its core values are, or what decisions of the past account for present circumstances. “We have collected a huge amount of materials on the Liberation War. I think it is my responsibility to organise all these materials and make them accessible to people,” she says with conviction. After Tareque passed away, she set up the Tareque Masud Memorial Trust. Through Prothoma Prokashan, the Trust has already published two books— Cholochitro Jatra, a collection of Tareque's writings on cinema and Tareque Masud: Life and Dreams. There are two more coming out soon —Cholochitro Lekha and Cholochitro Kotha. “We are digitizing all our documents, audio cassettes and video tapes, and cataloguing all these materials for our archive,” she says ardently. “I have been working with ULAB to transcribe all of Tareque's interviews. It's a huge job.”
Setting a precedent
Of the two main types of legal recourse available for victims of road accidents—the criminal case and the civil case, it is the former, against the responsible driver, that gets all the attention in Bangladesh. But reckless drivers are almost never charged, and the victims are almost never compensated. Usually they just walk away and accept their fate. “I was not willing to accept it,” says Catherine who lost her husband in a road accident on August 13, 2011. “Under the Motor Vehicle Act of 1983 the victims of road accidents are empowered to make a civil claims case against all responsible parties—the vehicle owner, the insurance company and the driver. Despite the existing law, there are no legal precedents for this type of case in Bangladesh, and a team of lawyers and interns led by Dr. Kamal Hossain worked for months to put together the case—two cases actually, one by the family of Tareque Masud and the other by the family of Mishuk Munier. Although we filed it in Manikganj where the accident occurred, last week the case got transferred to the High Court on an exceptional basis as per Article 110 of the Constitution, taking into consideration its importance to the general public. The driver had no licence and the vehicle did not have a speed control seal on the engine, mandated by law. He was speeding when he hit us. But he too is a victim. Drivers are paid according to the number of trips they make, rather than getting a salary. So they try to make as many trips as possible. The driver who hit us was sleep deprived. Organising human chains, beating up the driver or calling for the resignation of the minister is not going to solve this systemic problem. This case has wider implications. The lawyers for the Rana Plaza victims are using the template we put together for this case to make claims for those victims also.”
A lot on her plate
She likes to sketch, play piano or watch documentary films. “But after work and taking care of a very young child, I don't really have much time for these things these days,” bemoans the mother of a three and half year old boy. “I have been working on a few documentary films for the last couple of years. One is about how Runway was made. And there are several unfinished documentary projects I have been trying to complete. One is on the language movement. Another is on a village in Faridpur. Recently I have been working with the Foreign Ministry and Ministry of Liberation War Affairs to make a documentary about the contribution of foreign nationals to the liberation war. I have also been working on a short film on women's struggle in getting justice in Bangladesh. Kagojer Phool, a feature film on the partition of India is in pre-production .”
The unforgettable fire
Many people assumed that she would leave Bangladesh after Tareque had passed away. “At face value, it seemed like the easy thing to do. But it's hard to walk away from all these years of work,” she says stoically. “Besides, I think Tareque would want me to pick up where he left.”
Some have called her an angel. But maybe she is just too human to leave us.
Photos courtesy: Catherine Masud