Filmmaker Shyam Benegal talks about ‘Mujib: The Making of a Nation,’ based on the life of Bangladesh founder, which premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival today

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“I’m a Bengali. I’m a human being. I’m a Muslim, who only dies once, not twice,” asserts a fiery Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (1920-1975), the founder of Bangladesh played by Arifin Shuvoo, in the trailer of Shyam Benegal’s Mujib: The Making of a Nation, which premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) today (September 13). The Bengali culture, including its language, was an intrinsic part of his identity; Bangabandhu (a friend of Bengal) — the honorific by which its first president is still known — had fought for Bengali autonomy tooth and nail, eventually creating a separate country for his people, which was carved out of Pakistan after the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. “Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was first and foremost a Bengali nationalist,” Benegal (88), the trailblazing auteur and a pioneer of the parallel/new wave cinema in India, tells The Federal. “Although it’s not the language I know, it was important for me to make the film in Bengali, and not in Hindustani.”

A co-production between the Bangladesh Film Development Corporation and India’s National Film Development Corporation, it is the first-government-produced biopic of Bangabandhu, made with the budget of 83 crores Bangladeshi Taka. The screenplay has been written by Benegal’s longtime collaborator Shama Zaidi, and Atul Tiwari, who worked with him on Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero. While most actors are from Bangladesh, the film features a clutch of talents from both countries: Nitish Roy (art director), Pia Benegal (costume director), Dayal Nihalani (associate director), Nujhat Yasmin (executive producer), Mohammad Hossain Jaimy (line producer), Sadhana Ahmed dialogue writer, script supervisor, and dialogue coach), casting directors (Shyam Rawat and Baharuddin Khelon) and Shantanu Moitra (music director).

A director prepares

Mujibur Rahman’s daughter Sheikh Hasina — Bangladesh’s Prime Minister since 2009 — had declared the year 2020-21 to be celebrated as ‘Mujib Year’ to mark the centennial birth anniversary of the founding leader, who was assassinated, along with 13 members of his family, during the coup d’état in 1975. It was done at the behest of Mujib’s long-time political associate and commerce minister, the right-winger Khandaker Mushtaque Ahmed, who replaced the former’s secular government with an Islamic government. When Benegal was approached by the Bangladesh government to make the biopic (it was supposed to have been released much earlier, but the pandemic played spoilsport), a realisation hit him. “I knew very little about Mujibur Rahman,” admits Benegal, who explored new dimensions of storytelling and filmmaking through documentaries on Satyajit Ray (1982) and Jawaharlal Nehru (along with Russian director Yuri Aldokhin, 1984) and, later, The Making of the Mahatma (1996) and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero (2005).

“I am not quite sure why I was asked. The only logical thing I could think of is that I had made biographical films before. I think that could have been the reason. But my previous films were about people of our country — its freedom fighters and leaders — who had put India on the world map,” says Benegal, who said yes to the project, but since he didn’t know enough about Bangabandhu, he set out to get a grip on his subject. He read every single book about him. He also went to Dhaka, revisiting the places where Mujibur Rahman had lived. “When I did that, it even got me all the more excited about the subject,” he says.

Sheikh Hasina plans to release the film worldwide, ahead of the general election in January 2024; the film will be dubbed in Indian languages, and released with English subtitles in the rest of the world. Having decided to make the film in Bengali, Benegal didn’t realize that there would be other complications. “The Bengali spoken in Bangladesh is slightly different from the one spoken in West Bengal. Bangladeshis are very proud of their language and they feel that it is much purer than ours. The fact that they created a nation on the basis of the language is a very rare occurrence anywhere in the world,” says Benegal, who had to subsequently work on roping in the actors who spoke the right dialects: “Just as there is no one Hindi, there are different dialects in Bengali. Each dialect has different accents and expressions. I chose to make the film in the dialect spoken in Dhaka.”

An ‘emotional’ tribute

Once the language issue was sorted, the core question for Benegal revolved around cast: “My feeling was that nobody would do justice to the film other than the actors from Bangladesh. The country boasts of brilliant actors because it has a vibrant theatre movement. I didn’t have to worry about accents or dialects, etc. They were resolved quite easily. The problem for me was the fact that whatever language they would speak, I would not be able to understand it myself,” says Benegal, who had an excellent advisor in Sadhana Ahmed, Bangladeshi playwright, screenwriter and performing artist who has written the dialogues for the film; she accompanied Benegal on the sets, helping him navigate the linguistic barriers.

The film, naturally, had to be shot in Bangladesh. But since it’s a very densely populated country, to shoot in Dhaka would mean that Benegal would have to commute for over two hours from his hotel to the location where he had planned to shoot it: “And even then I would not be getting what I wanted.” He then decided to factor in the studios in Dhaka. But the outdoor areas were not expansive enough for the elaborate sets. So, he settled on a better option: To shoot in Film City in Mumbai. There was a little hiccup though. “Bangladesh has a flat terrain, but we are on the edge of the plateau (Film City is part of the Western Ghats). Since the landscape had to resemble Bangladesh, we had to rely a lot on the studio work,” says Benegal. Although he did the shoot outdoors, he had to do multiple plates so that the film had flat grounds and it looked like a plane. Some parts of the film were also shot in Kolkata where Mujibur Rahman spent most of his time in the build-up to the Partition in 1947.

Benegal has said before that the film is his ‘emotional tribute’ to Bangabandhu’s legacy which seeks to provide an ‘uncompromising portrayal’ of his life and his role in the formation of Bangladesh. As per its synopsis, the film opens with the triumphant note of Bangabandhu’s return to ‘take charge’ as the leader of the new nation. It then goes into flashback and shines light on some big moments in his life as he grows from a young impressionable student to a leader, who receives apprenticeship under several towering figures, including Shaheed Huseyn Suhrawardy (1892-1963), a barrister who served as the Prime Minister of Pakistan from 1956 to 1957. It follows Bangabandhu’s life as an eager participant ‘in the hurly burly of politics of pre-independent India, through the trauma of partition, the creation of the two nations of India and Pakistan and eventually his unrelenting fight to create the nation of Bangladesh free from the clutches of Pakistan.’ His was a battle fought on many levels, including culture, politics, language and ideology. “He was a remarkable human being, fascinating in many ways. His life was full of achievements,” says Benegal.

A Greek tragic hero

In his director’s note, the filmmaker, who broke free from the masala/potboiler variety and explored a new ground with his debut feature Ankur (The Seedling) in, writes: “It is always difficult to make a biographical film of a personality near enough in the past for a large number of people who are still living, to have known him well and many who were influenced and continue to be influenced and affected by his enormous achievement of creating the nation of Bangladesh. Yet for all his achievements, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was not just a conscientious leader of the nation he created; he was equally a devoted family man, and a loving husband. To make him come alive on the screen without making it an uncritical hagiography was the biggest challenge.”

Besides showing him as a ‘visionary’ and ‘a man of immense courage’ who struggled for the liberation and independence of Bengalis of the erstwhile East Pakistan, Mujib: The Making of a Nation is also a portrait of a leader as a family man. “He was an extremely well-balanced human being: His family life was in absolute harmony with his politics. His wife (Begum Sheikh Fazilatunnesa Mujib) was a great help to him,” says Benegal. His voice acquires a sombre tone as he reflects on the heart-wrenching climax of Mujibur Rahman’s life.

On August 15, 1975, disgruntled members of the military stormed into Mujib's residence in Dhaka's Dhanmondi and gunned down almost everyone in his family: only Bangabandhu’s two daughters, Sheikh Hasina and Sheikh Rehana, survived because they were in Europe. Sheikh Russel, Bangabandhu’s son who was 10 at the time, was killed too. In a broadcast to the nation, Mushtaque Ahmed termed the young Army officers, who had murdered Mujib and his family, as ‘children of the sun’ who had saved the nation. As he ended his speech, he invoked the slogan, ‘Bangladesh Zindabad.’ It was a clear throwback — as Syed Badrul Ahsan writes in Sheikh Mujibur Rahman: From Rebel to Founding Father — to the times when politicians in East and West Pakistan were wont to employ ‘Pakistan Zindabad’, a non-Bengali expression, in their speeches. ‘Joi Bangla’, the old slogan which Bangabandhu had coined and used to buttress Bengali nationalist aspirations in their struggle against Pakistan, was put to an end.

The creation of Bangladesh marked the apogee of Bangabandhu’s achievement. However, just as it happens in classical Greek drama, this triumph ended in personal tragedy: the revolution consumed its hero, who ‘paid in blood for creating a free nation for his people’. “The culmination of his life has echoes of a Shakespearean tragedy and even a Greek tragedy,” says Benegal.

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