July 4, 2003



As good fortune would have it, Monica Ali's novel Brick Lane, speaking so eloquently of the Bangladeshi experience in Britain, arrives at the same time as an outstanding new movie about Bangladesh itself.

This is a first feature from documentarist Tareque Masud, autobiographical, but refreshingly without egotism or conceit. It's a vision of childhood with its own beguiling simplicity and gentleness, alternating an intense family chamber drama with breathtaking crowd scenes and giant setpieces. It is quietly superb film-making, and Masud makes it look as easy as breathing. The affecting story he has to tell is positioned alongside both the political trauma of Bangladesh's emergence as an independent state from the wreckage of East Pakistan and, perhaps most remarkably, a critique of Islam, offered without rancour or sensation, but enough to get the movie banned until relatively recently in Bangladesh.

Kazi (Jayanto Chattopadhyay) is a doctor in a remote East Pakistan village in the late 1960s. In middle age, he has abandoned the worldly, westernised ways of his youth and embraced the severities of Islam, becoming fiercer and more distant with his wife Ayesha (Rokeya Prachy), his young son Anu (Nurul Islam Bablu) and ailing little daughter Asma (Lameessa Reemjheem) whose worrying illnesses he treats not with the medicines and clinical practices imported from the non-Muslim world but with only homeopathy - a stubbornness for which he is to pay dearly.

What enrages Kazi more and more is the subversive existence of his younger brother Milon (Soaeb Islam), a liberal intellectual figure forever campaigning with his excitable friends against the military's suppression of democracy. He is also a genial uncle to Anu, taking him for high-spirited little excursions to see the local Hindu festivals, high days and holidays, filmed with terrific intimacy but without ethnographic condescension. The boy is bewitched by their sheer, sensuous enjoyment of life - something that's in short supply at home.

So with cold ruthlessness, Kazi removes Anu from the influences he fears are poisoning his mind, and sends him away to the madrassah , a strict Islamic school and ideological boot camp combined. Poor Anu finds himself deeply lonely and scared, like many a new pupil at any boarding school in the world; Masud shows a sure and humane touch by having Anu find a kindred spirit in another boy, Rokon (Russell Farazi), with whom he plays melancholy fantasy games. This is someone else who is unable to fit in, because he suffers from tinnitus, tormented by sounds inside his head - leading to an awe-inspiring exorcism scene.

On his brief holidays home, Anu finds his village fraught with tension and anxiety at the coming violence, though his father assures family and neighbours that Muslim soldiers would never dream of using force on their civilian co-religionists. Anu brings back a poignant little present for his sister: a blue painted clay bird which he warns her to keep hidden from their father. The bird's existence is echoed in the songs performed by the musicians and troubadours: songs about the its spirit of flight and a yearning for freedom, imprisoned in its clay shell - these resonate in the life not just of Kazi's fragile daughter but also of his wife.

But it is in the madrassah, not at home, that Anu hears a compelling dissentient voice. A kindly teacher argues with his colleagues about the importance of the Sufis: figures who used the inspiring example of peace, and not arms or politics, to spread Islamic knowledge.

As a sceptical assessment of Islam's secular authority, The Clay Bird is at the very opposite end of the spectrum from, say, the macho and hostile spleen of Michel Houellebecq. The film offers a valuable and independent engagement with Muslim history, quite different from the ugly fight-to-the-finish promoted elsewhere in the media, and constitutes a nuanced riposte both to the dogmatic verities of religion and also to a species of Islamophobia that assumes the Muslim world to be crudely monolithic.

All this is encased in a powerfully accessible piece of storytelling: a classic tale for children and adults alike. Masud's film-making moves with such an easy swing and canny feel for narrative, contriving a down-to-earth, unassuming cinematic vernacular for narrating the adventures of childhood and the awful choices of adulthood.

It has been many decades since south-Asian arthouse cinema has been fashionable; now it's the movies from Iran, Latin America and the Far East that get talked about, and Satyajit Ray's work doesn't dominate the Top 10 lists the way it used to. Maybe The Clay Bird will reverse that - inspired, as it clearly and unapologetically is, by Ray. And it's not going too far to say that it has much of the ease, the visual rapture and sheer unforced naturalness of Ray's great picture Pather Panchali.

The Clay Bird has marvellous humour and flair, and compassion for children's sadness and their resilience in the face of life's trials. It is one of the films of the year.

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Copyright © 2002 Novita Rahman