Once upon a time in Dacca
Watching Inglourious Basterds — Quentin Tarantino’s Spaghetti Western set in the Nazi-occupied Europe — reignited one of my longstanding daydreams: a big screen epic on Bangladesh’s Liberation War. I wrote last year about various logistical difficulties of making an epic movie on the Liberation War. Keeping those issues in mind, I think it is still possible to write a reasonable script. This post outlines some ideas.
We limit the movie largely to an urban setting. While limiting the scope — by setting it in Dhaka (then Dacca), we are not showing the massive population displacements, missing one of the biggest dimensions of the War — this allows us to make a lot more tractable movie.
This also gives us more scope to explore other dimensions of the War. Let me stress that I want to make a War movie. Therefore, I want sequences of actual combat. In the occupied city, such combat was in the form of guerilla actions by the Mukti Bahini. And those actions will have a prominent role in the movie.
In fact, the movie’s very first chapter will be on this. Titled ‘…strike terror in their hearts…’, this is the only part of the movie set outside the city. We will begin in Melaghar, India — the head quarter of Major Khaled Musharraf. Major Khaled is raising a number of crack guerilla units to carry out high profile operations in the occupied city. The aim is to raise the profile of the resistance in the world media, and at the same time, strike terror at the hearts of Pakistani occupation forces.
This is actually quite factual. Major Khaled did train guerilla units that carried out bomb attack in Hotel Intercontinental (now Sheraton), blew up Siddhirganj power station, assassinated key collaborators (including former East Pakistan Governor Monem khan), or engaged the Pakistanis in gun battles (one at Farmgate, described in Jahanara Imam’s Ekatturer Dinguli).
Guerillas involved in these actions were men who knew the city very well (typically students/teachers of Dhaka University/BUET/Dhaka College/Medical etc). Azam Khan the rock singer, late Shahadat Chowdhury of Bichitra, or Rumi Imam (Jahanara Imam’s martyred son) are examples. One of our key characters — Babul Chowdhury — is one of the guerillas. And it is when his name comes up for consideration at Major Khaled’s head quarters that we move to the second chapter: ‘…stop this empty rhetoric of nationalism…’.
Babul is a young Dhaka University teacher and a leftist intellectual who, as late as March 1971, thinks Sheikh Mujib is an agent of the CIA, that the Bangladesh movement will strengthen Indian hegemony and weaken the prospect of a China-backed people’s revolution, the only way to freedom. Babul is a fine orator, with a cult following among his students, despite his views being completely at odds with the prevailing zeitgeist.
Babul Chowdhury is based on a side character from Sunil Gangopadhyaya’s Purba Paschim. He is fictional, but there were many like him in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Babul Chowdhury’s misdiagnosis of the political issues facing the country is a big part of the story of the Bangladeshi left’s continuous march to self-inflicted oblivion.
So, in the second chapter of the movie, we see Babul Chowdhury arguing his case in a political adda. We also see him hobnob with a Pakistani army officer. And we get a sense of the mood of the city in the fateful weeks leading up to the 25 March massacre. It is that massacre that will cause Babul to join the war.
(to be continued)