Once upon a time in Dacca

Posted in fantasy, history, movies by jrahman on September 7, 2009

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)

6 Responses

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  1. Udayan said, on September 9, 2009 at 1:21 am

    Well, in the spirit of war movies tackling the same story from both London and Hollywood, there has to be some input from Bollywood and Tollywood too. Keep working on your Dhaka version, I’ll try to flesh out what happens in India.

    Bollywood’s version probably has the Mukti Bahini guerrilla falling in love with the daughter of a Pakistani general who ends up shooting her father; all the Bangladeshi characters have as their dialogue heavily Urdu-laced Hindusthani (the hero;s “yeh watan ko azad kar dunga … inshallah” forms the tagline for all the trailers) with the Pakistanis speaking in English. One spectacular dance scene will have bombs going off synchronized with A R Rehman’s score against the Dhaka skyline.

    Calcutta’s output will be restricted to a TV serial filmed indoors covering the war led by the Mukti Bahini hiding in different parts of the city; they are side characters, and the people whose homes they stay in form the nucleus of the plot. There will be lots of sighs, staring out of the window at the blue sky while wondering if the birds have no borders why do we; Nazrul recitation on the soundtrack linking the scenes and at least one epiphany moment where one of the protagonists realizes suddenly when speaking to the lungi clad liberation fighter hiding in his attic, “achha, bhebe dekhechen? amader jol ar apnader pani, kono tophat nei …”. The mukti bahini guerrilla gets his only dialog in the whole production in response: “Ji, dada, ji.” The original version will have an elderly dhoti clad grandfather figure weeping at the thought of his ancestral homeland while watching hoards of refugees flooding into the city, but the West Bengal government will force this scene to be cut before it airs.

    But of course, no-one in Bangladesh will be happy with any of these; there are no Bangladeshis involved in any aspect of the production, and output from both cities ends with the Indian army marching victoriously into Dhaka. The Bollywood version actually shows this with scenes of jubilant Bangladeshis filling the screen; there will be a confusing moment for Bangladeshis watching the movie, as for about a minute, all you hear is “Bangladesh Zinadabad” with posters of Mujib flashed around by euphoric crowds. The Calcutta version has the protagonist entering a room and announcing sombrely, “Betar-e shunlam, juddho shesh” followed by a silent fade out.

    • jrahman said, on September 9, 2009 at 4:02 pm

      Hey, don’t knock Bollywood! It’s latest, Kaminey ( has Bengali brothers named Mujeeb and Shumon, speaking perfect Kolkataiya slangs I’d rather not type, appearing as deus ex machina to break a Mexican stand off in the climax. What true blooded Bengali, from either side of the border or beyond, won’t love that?


    • Quadir said, on September 21, 2009 at 11:42 pm

      one of the most hilarious entries i hav ever read….its so tru about how indians would like to portray the war

      cheers mate! seriously i burst out laughing couldnt help myself

  2. Mahmud said, on September 13, 2009 at 4:49 pm

    Waiting for the next one 😀

    • jrahman said, on September 17, 2009 at 10:12 am

      Soon my friend. 🙂

  3. […] back to basics it will be.  Over the fold, for record, my initial idea.  Two posts on this are here and […]

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