A Child Copes With Dad's Zealotry
April 5, 2003


This is probably an unusual — but perhaps apt — time for Tareque Masud's intelligent drama, "The Clay Bird," an offering of the New Directors/New Films series and easily one of the finest pictures of this year or any other. Masud's expansive fluidity is rapturous, inspired equally by the floating equanimity of Satyajit Ray and the work of the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, who deftly uses ritual behavior to provide social commentary.

Set in Bangladesh in the 1960's, "The Clay Bird," showing tonight and tomorrow at noon, questions the nature of dedication to Islam. It doesn't attack fealty, but eventually rebukes zealotry by showing a boy's reaction to his father's recent total immersion.

Anu (Nurul Islam Bablu) is sent off to a religious school by his father, Kazi (Jayanto Chattopadhyay). Kazi — who once "dressed as an Englishman," one of his friends says — doesn't want his son tainted by the outside world. His obedient though doubtful wife, Ayesha (Rokeya Prachy), quietly expresses through frowns her concern about Kazi's close-minded new seriousness. She gently reasons with her boy, and the bright Anu resigns himself to his new life.

At the school, despite the rigorous discipline meted out by the teachers, there's the cliquishness and hierarchical behavior found among any group of young people. The boys initially ostracize the new kid but eventually accept him.

Anu gravitates toward the one boy who will never be accepted: the oddball Rokon (Russell Farazi). Rokon can't suppress his enthusiasms, and he hasn't learned how to play up to the teachers by pretending to go along with the program, as the other boys have; they've already picked up the duplicity that adults often mistake for maturity. (They have to conceal much of themselves, since they're allowed to play only when practicing martial arts.)

The loss of innocence is only one of the motifs here. Anu's sister becomes sick and suffers even more when Kazi refuses to let his wife give her antibiotics. He's wedded to homeopathy and prayer as treatment.

Rokon is constantly rebuked by almost everyone. At one point, he's punished by a teacher for using his left hand to write; it's thought to be disrespectful. But Rokon keeps to his ways; his naturalness represents sacrifice, the biggest casualty of zealotry. He loves his imaginary friends and runs off to hiding places where he snacks on desserts that he claims to have received from a nonexistent playmate.

The school does have one teacher not bound to rigid ideology: Ibrahim, who recognizes Anu's decency and takes as much interest in Rokon's well-being as he can under the circumstances. But it's hard when Rokon is plagued by a buzzing in his ears, occurring at the worst times, as when one of the instructors delivers a grim sermon on the conviction needed for Islam.

Masud's sensitivity gives the film a pungent emotional clarity; he recognizes that naïveté isn't a province only of childhood. Kazi's a naif, too, and learns the hard way that following a path without independent thought is a fool's errand. He's ultimately devastated when he learns of the civil war and Muslims attacking other Muslims: the revolution is coming and it claims Kazi's way of life. His brother, the bespectacled, curious Milon, can smell change in the winds and waxes rhapsodic about it. (He slips the medicine for Anu's sister to Ayesha and gets scolded by Kazi for his love of "Hindu nonsense.")

"The Clay Bird" is not without a sense of humor. Milon has his strongly held beliefs, too; he's devoted to Communism and its ideals. Such a need connects these men as brothers, and it's gently mocked: "Kazi's homeopathy and your Marx party, both came from Germany," one of Milon's pals says. It's also evident that Masud loves all his characters, even the small-minded ones — the sign of a real director. It's no small achievement to make a picture that extols the necessity for clear, free thought while dramatizing the barriers that challenge such a capacity.


Directed by Tareque Masud; written (in Bengali, with English subtitles) by Mr. Masud and Catherine Masud; director of photography, Sudheer Palsane; edited and produced by Ms. Masud; music by Moushumi Bhowmik; art directors, Kazi Rakib and Sylvain Nahmias. Running time: 98 minutes. This film is not rated. Shown with a 10-minute short, Nilesh Patel's "Love Supreme," tonight at 9 p.m. and Sunday at noon at the MoMA Gramercy, 127 East 23rd Street, between Lexington and Third Avenues, as part of the 32nd New Directors/New Films series of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the department of film and media of the Museum of Modern Art.

WITH: Nurul Islam Bablu (Anu), Russell Farazi (Rokon), Jayanto Chattopadhyay (Kazi) and Rokeya Prachy (Ayesha).

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Copyright © 2002 Novita Rahman