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A Song for Mujib—Shyam Benegal on his Latest Film

Arvind Das |
The noted filmmaker discusses the syncopation of a happy domestic life for Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the tragic flaws of heroes.
The noted filmmaker discusses the syncopation of a happy domestic life for Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the tragic flaws of heroes.

Image Courtesy: Wikipedia

Well-known filmmaker and Dadasaheb Phalke award-winner Shyam Benegal’s biographical movie on Bangladesh’s first president, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, “Mujib: The Making of a Nation”, was recently released in Bangladesh and India. It was a collaborative project of the Indian and Bangladesh governments. Journalist Arvind Das has spoken with Benegal about the film during the early stages of its making. He caught up with Benegal again after the biopic’s release. They discuss the music in the movie, the all-new experience of directing a film in Bangla, and about how public life can influence character and attitudes. Edited excerpts:

Arvind Das: You directed “The Making of the Mahatma” (1996) and “Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero” (2005). How difficult was it to direct a biopic on the father of Bangladesh?

Shyam Benegal: Oh, in fact, it was easier [than making the other films]. Mujib’s daughter, Sheikh Hasina, is the present Prime Minister of Bangladesh. So, [I ended up] meeting her and listening to her about her family and particularly about her father, mother and brothers, all of whom were assassinated. This film is about them, so you get to know their political and domestic personas. We get to know them through their relations, roles which outsiders are not likely to know.

AD: “Mujib: The Making of a Nation” was a collaborative project of two nations—the governments of India and Bangladesh. What were the resultant pressures you faced, or were there possibly any red lines drawn by either government when you set about this project?

SB: None, none at all. As a matter of fact, I was told, ‘You make the film the way you perceive, the way you think, and the way you believe.’ I was told I should make the film in the way a character would [ordinarily] develop. And there were enough materials available to do this. Mujib had kept diary notes during his frequent jail sentences and incarceration. He had a kind of literary flair like Jawaharlal Nehru, who wrote three books in jail.

AD: Renowned Malayalam film director Adoor Gopalakrishnan once told me that he could not direct a Hindi film because he did not understand the language well enough and would not be able to direct the actors. You have always made your movies in Hindi/Hindustani. But “Mujib: The Making of a Nation” is originally in Bangla. Did you face difficulty in directing actors?

SB: No, different people think differently. Their perceptions are also different. For me, I never had a problem of this kind. I don’t know Bangla, but I had very, very good language advisors. Like most Indian languages, Bangla also has local idioms. For instance, if you are a Bengali from West Bengal, your idioms are not necessarily the same as those of Bangladesh. You will find that happens with Hindi, too. There is an idiom: language changes according to how you drink water. Say, for instance, Dakkani, spoken by people living in Hyderabad. They always say, ‘Hussain Sagar ka paani peeta hai.’ The Dakkani of Hyderabad is different from that spoken in Mysore.

AD: Although Mujib, the movie, is about the times and struggle of Mujibur Rahman and the birth of a nation, its striking feature is the lilting music and songs. They reminded me of your musical films like “Sardari Begum” (1996) and “Zubeida” (2001). Please tell us about the songs in the movie.

SB: There are three songs in the film. One is the opening sequence, a rural Bhatiyali song, Abujh Majhi, about the wonderful landscape of Bengal, its richness, and so on. The second is a wedding song (Ki Ki Jinish Enecho Dulal). And the third one is a marsiya. When someone of eminence dies, you have a mourning chant in a poetic form known as marsiya. It is about Mujib himself, and the words are, ‘Where have you gone?’

AD: Let us talk some more about Ki Ki Jinish Enecho Dulal. It has different words in Bangla and Hindi. In the Bangla version, there is a reference to Sita’s sindoor (vermillion) and syncretic culture.

SB: This is the song sung for the bride-to-be. The man who will marry her brings sindoor to apply on her maang [parting in the hair] and that sort of thing. It is also a traditional song, sung just before the nuptials. We changed it in the Hindi version, but in the Bengali version, it is the same. Again, this is part of the tradition.

AD: How has the film been received in Bangladesh?

SB: It is doing extremely well and going strong. It opened in 170 cinemas all across Bangladesh. Bangladesh does not have many cinemas, so they are using school halls. They are adding to the number of cinemas in the country. The film has become a runaway hit.

AD: While watching the movie, I felt there was no contradiction or conflict in the character of Mujib. He came across a loving family man…

SB: Unlike a large number of very famous politicians, Mujibur Rahman’s domestic life was not an unhappy one. If you look at other people, for instance, Nehru—he lost his wife very early, and he did not know her too well because he was in jail for most of the time. Even [Mahatma] Gandhi is accused of having neglected his family. His eldest son said as much to him to his face. 

These things happen to people who are not only eminent but driven by a certain kind of idealism, as Nehru, Gandhi, and others were. Mujibur Rahman was the same way. But, strangely enough, his rapport with his family was not so alienated. He was very close to his wife and had a happy domestic life, although he was put in jail an umpteen number of times, much like Gandhi and Nehru.

AD: Also, I didn’t find any criticism of the politician, Mujib, even though, before his assassination, he had taken all powers into his hands.

SB: There is a kind of tragic flaw in all heroes. Shakespeare’s plays have that feature, too. So, you have tragic flaws even in Mujib. When you get power, it has a way of alienating you from your people. What happens is that when there is a threat to your life, you create differences around yourself. It means that in some way, your ability to perceive what people are thinking about you [diminishes, or] you will not hear it at all. In other words, you have been insulated from all of that. Also, people around you are not likely to say anything that may make you upset or angry. It happens to all of us; it is not unusual.

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