VARIETY, May 18th, 2002

The Clay Bird (Matir Moina)
By David Rooney

Documaker Tareque Masud makes a confident transition to narrative drama with "The Clay Bird". The filmmaker returns to his childhood in the politically turbulent period before East Pakistan gained independence and became Bangladesh. This accomplished, emotionally involving film-an intimately observed story of divisions within a family that reflect the wider clash between moderate and extremist views-will have universal resonance as it echoes other secular and political conflicts throughout the world. Its wealth of cultural and folkloric detail also should help secure festival interest as well as modest exposure on the arthouse fringe. Joint opener of the Directors' Fortnight marks the sidebar's first-ever selection from Bangladesh.

Action takes place in the late 1960's as a democratic movement gained force in its bid to overthrow military rule. The attempt succeeded in 1969 but the martial law government that followed disregarded the subsequent democratic election results. This led to a violent civil war that brought an estimated 3 million casualties among Bengali freedom fighters and created almost 10 million refugees before independence was finally achieved in 1971.

Against this backdrop, stern orthodox Muslim Kazi (Jayanto Chattopadhyay) becomes increasingly concerned about the influence of his free-thinking young brother on the former's preteen son Anu (Nurul Islam Bablu). Disturbed by the boy's enthusiasm for the village Hindu festivities, Kazi packs him off to a madrasah, or Islamic school, where he is trained in the rigorous ways of monastic life. Miserable and lonely, Anu befriends underdog Rokon (Russell Farazi), feeling a kinship with his outcast status.

When Anu's younger sister takes ill and dies after homeopathic doctor Kazi refuses to have her properly treated, the children's grieving mother Ayesha (Rokeya Prachy) grows further apart from her stubborn but confused husband, who has forced a life of traditional confinement upon her.

The increasing divide between them parallels the political clash in the country and the emergence of opposing views within the madrasah. Bittersweet final act takes place as the Army descends on the village, with Ayesha's decision for her own and her son's future transmitting a spirit of hope and independence.

Ideas such as the conflict between and Islamic beliefs and armed violence occasionally are addressed in slightly didactic dialogue. But the script-written by the director and his American wife Catherine Masud-deftly uses the family drama to mirror the nationwide political ferment, outlining the historical context clearly and accessibly stating its case for tolerance with subtle eloquence. Music also is used resourcefully for the central themes, via Bengali oratorical duets and other songs performed in village concerts.

The drama builds a gentle, fluid rhythm, shifting between family's home life and Anu's time in the madrasah while keeping the political picture in focus through street protests and radio broadcasts.

Pic is handsomely shot in soft natural light and warm interiors with a leisurely, graceful camera style.

Showing a strong personal connection to the material, director Masud coaxes lovely, natural performances from the inexperienced child cast as well as poignant work from the adult leads.

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Copyright © 2002 Novita Rahman