Dreams devoured: The tragic disappearance of Zahir Raihan
Eminent novelist and filmmaker Zahir Raihan left for Kolkata after the Pakistani military crackdown in Dhaka on March 25, 1971. He played a crucial role in the cultural front of the Liberation War. His elder brother Shahidullah Kaiser, renowned novelist and journalist, refused to depart Dhaka during the war, saying that if everyone leaves for India, who would fight the Pakistani army from within the city? But three days before the surrender of the Pakistani army, Shahidullah Kaiser was abducted from his house by pro-Pakistani Bengalis. On his return to Dhaka after independence, Zahir Raihan was devastated when he heard about the abduction of his brother.
As the body of Shahidullah Kaiser was not recovered, Zahir Raihan held to the belief that his brother was alive. With a view to identifying and capturing the people responsible for the murder of prominent Bengali intellectuals, he formed an investigating committee and started collecting information about the killings. After a few days, an unknown caller informed him over the telephone that Shahidullah Kaiser was being kept prisoner in a house in Mirpur. At that time, Mirpur had a large Bihari population, a section of whom actively supported the Pakistani army during the Liberation War. At the end of January 1972, Bangladeshi security forces were given the responsibility of maintaining law and order in Mirpur.
Zahir Raihan was the only civilian who accompanied army and police units to Mirpur on January 30, 1972. As they stood in an open area, some assailants suddenly started firing at them from nearby houses using heavy weapons. Most of the Bangladeshi soldiers were hit by bullets. A group of attackers then hacked the wounded soldiers with machetes and dragged their bodies away. On that day, the Bangladesh army lost 40 members, including an officer, whose bodies were never found. A few soldiers who managed to escape said that the sole civilian accompanying them was also shot when the firing began. We suspect that the civilian was Zahir Raihan. Thus, the most celebrated Bangladeshi filmmaker of that time and one of the finest novelists of our country disappeared so sadly in independent Bangladesh, never to be seen again.
Zahir Raihan's tragic disappearance was a serious blow for the endeavour to produce socially-committed films in the newly-liberated country. He departed this life when his filmmaking was at its most political. His politically-aware temperament was also evident in his novels, where he addressed the tribulations and miseries of people tormented by class division and political oppression. From his teenage years, he became associated with the Communist Party. He actively took part in the Language Movement. On February 21, 1952 he was one of the 10 students who first ventured out into the streets in a procession, violating Section 144. He was arrested and taken to prison at that time, along with many other students.
His 1969 novel Arek Phalgoon depicts the dauntless protest of Bengali students against the oppressive regime in order to establish their mother tongue as the state language. In the same novel, he mentioned the brutality of the British colonisers who arranged for public hangings of native soldiers in Dhaka in 1857. His 1970 novel Aar Koto Din begins by condemning murder in the name of religion, colour, nationalism and culture in different corners of the world. In this novel, he refers to the ruthlessness inflicted on helpless people in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps, in Hiroshima, Jerusalem, Vietnam, and the colonised African nations. Having seen the perpetuation of exploitation and repression in the social milieu in which he produced his literary works, Zahir consciously took the side of the oppressed. His novels did not allow the readers to escape from the troubled reality. Instead, he disturbed the readers by providing painful portrayals of social injustice, thereby raising their consciousness and motivating them to protest against unjust social circumstances.
It was, however, not very easy in the 1960s to confront burning social issues in films in the-then East Pakistan. As the military administration was not tolerant of political criticisms in cinema, Bengali filmmakers did not dare depict the troubles and turbulence of contemporary reality. In that decade marked by worldwide social movements, politically-alert and formally-innovative films were in vogue throughout the world, whereas rather than exploring present-day problems, Bengali films made in East Pakistan revolved around popular stories from local folklore, mythical and historical themes, and entertainment-based narratives showing romances between young boys and girls.
In some of those films, the sufferings of the people were shown through a great deal of sentimentality instead of indicating the class guilty of capitalist exploitation. In spite of making a few films using audience-pleasing elements, in Kokhono Asheni (1961) and Kancher Deyal (1963), Zahir Raihan dispensed with popular filmic devices, taking the risk that the majority of viewers who are constantly fed mindless entertainment might dislike these films. In his article titled "October Revolution and Soviet Cinema", Zahir Raihan states that in a bourgeois society, at the time of granting money for producing films, the capitalists order that the films must conform to their values and protect their class interests. Zahir asks: How can the directors, then, make artistically-innovative, socially-conscious films in such a system?
But in the aftermath of the mass uprising of 1969, neither the pressure from financiers nor the displeasure of the military authorities could deter Zahir Raihan from performing his duty as a socially-conscious artist—he chose to come to grips with contemporary reality head on. He made Jiban Theke Neya (1970), a feature replete with political overtones, where he denounced the country's despotic rule through an allegorical narrative. It was the first film made in East Pakistan that portrayed the politically volatile situation of contemporary society. On the level of form, the film also made a departure from tradition by deploying documentary footage, real photographs of mass protests, paintings depicting the sufferings of Bengalis, placards containing political statements, historical and cultural symbols of Bengali resistance against the Pakistani government, patriotic and rebellious songs, and consciousness-raising dialogues. The military administration tried to ban this film in its pre-production stage. But due to popular demand for the release of this film, the authorities could not stop the screening of Jiban Theke Neya.
The subject matter of the film inspired Bengalis to resist injustice and oppression, and the following year, the Bengalis fought the Pakistani army bravely in the Liberation War. Eminent filmmaker Alamgir Kabir rightly observed that, "politically, Jiban Theke Neya played a role that no other film in the history of cinema had ever played in shaping the destiny of a nation." During the Liberation War, Zahir Raihan made his impassioned documentary Stop Genocide, which was an angry denunciation of the atrocities and genocide committed by the Pakistani army in Bangladesh. Despite having insufficient technical facilities, he made his seminal documentary aesthetically-developed and politically purposive.
He ingeniously juxtaposes the sounds of gunshots and the mournful high-pitched cry of a baby, the expressionless face of a rape victim and the anger-filled face of a middle-aged man condemning Yahya Khan, an octogenarian Bengali woman trying to flee from Pakistani atrocities and the still image of a tank. By showing the appalling plight of Bengali refugees, photos of the gory massacre of innocent civilians, and the determination of Bengali freedom fighters, the documentary made the world aware of the Pakistani military brutality in Bangladesh and the courageous resistance of the Bengalis. Stop Genocide showed that for an imaginative filmmaker, advanced technical means is of little importance for making a critically-acclaimed film.
Just before the Liberation War, Zahir Raihan started making Let There Be Light, a multi-lingual film based on his novel Aar Koto Din. The novel is an indictment of man's inhumanity and cruelty to man out of racial and religious hatred. But he could not finish this very important film. During the Liberation War, a group of Bengali filmmakers led by him suggested some guidelines for the nationalisation of the film industry and for ensuring the production of thought-provoking films in post-independence Bangladesh. But the hoped-for changes in the realm of Bangladeshi cinema did not materialise without the bold presence of Zahir Raihan.
Except for a handful of occasional breakthroughs, Bangladeshi films have not been able to attract global attention thus far. Will our contemporary filmmakers be inspired by the courage, political awareness and cultivated aesthetic taste of Zahir Raihan and make films that would be groundbreaking, both artistically and politically? Instead of drawing on cliched elements and incorporating inconsequential and escapist subject matters, will our new filmmakers attempt to turn Bangladeshi films into the sort of socially-meaningful artistic creations that Zahir Raihan dreamed of? That remains to be seen.
Dr Naadir Junaid is professor, Department of Mass Communication and Journalism, University of Dhaka.