Suruchi Gupta

Bangladesh Liberation War: Camera’s Eye

by on Mar.18, 2011, under Experiences, Miscellaneous

A scene from one of the documentaries

The Bangladesh Liberation War, as shot by cameramen and directors on the warfront, remains largely undocumented in terms of what it was like for them to be there as information carriers. I have tried to tap in the same field, with much difficulty, and wish someone becomes more interested in the field, and try to document it, from whatever sources are still alive and traceable. The underwritten is a copyright of HT Media Ltd.  It was published on HT City supplement of March 18, 2011.

Historic moments and touching scenes from the Bangladesh Liberation War (March 26, 1971-December 16, 1971), fought between the then East Pakistan (Bangladesh now) and West Pakistan (Pakistan now) are set to be screened by way of five documentaries today at Nandan II. Films Division and Nandan will hold the one-evening festival titled- ‘Bangladesh: Nine Months To Freedom’. These include National Award winning Nine Months To Freedom (70 minutes) by S Sukhdev, Refugees 1971 (10 minutes) and Human Tragedy (10 minutes) by Benoy Roy, Home Coming (10 minutes) by Prem Vaidya and Durbargati Padma (20 minutes) by Ritwik Ghatak.

“While Nine Months… and Durbargati Padma have been screened before, the other three have not been screened publicly in India or outside ever. These documentaries, containing real and rare footages of the war, were not screened till around 1998 on request from Bangladesh High Commission, as they may have hurt the feelings of people across borders. Post 1998, when we got the permission to screen them, people lost interest in them,” informs Sumay Mukherjee, Films Division.

Another still

It was interesting to find that these documentaries (mostly) were shot and commissioned as newsreels by the Film Division, which alone had the access to warfront in those days, unlike today, when media brings live footage of anything and everything in no time, on television.

“No foreign media was allowed at the site then. We (those going to cover the war from Film Division) were given security by the Mukti Bahani,” says Prem Vaidya, the only surviving director among the four, who was then a producer at Films Division. He says, “We Indians could mix easily with the Bangladeshis and enter the border.” No doubt, that Vaidya then has a tinge of pride in his voice as he shares that for carrying out this role as a documentary-newsreel maker, the Films Division awarded them cash prize, “a prestigious thing in those days, even if the sum was not great.”

Still from Refugees 1971

Vaidya also informs that Nine Months… was an ‘independent’ film, unlike his Home Coming. He explains that in those days, a panel at the Films Division commissioned films, if independent directors proposed. “Sukhdev had produced it too. He was not on Film Division payroll for it,” he says.

Though the films have been digitised for future generations, there is not much documented information available with the Films Division on the circumstances in which the documentaries were shot or compiled (at later dates from newsreels – as, for example, Nine Months… was released in 1975, while the footages used in it were shot in 1971, including some that are part of other documentaries too).

Says Vaidya, “Nine Months… is the most wonderful film of this war… Sukhdev shot a sequence of a young (refugee, shot during indiscriminate firing by the army,) girl being operated with a bullet hole in her head, with her brains visibly pulsating through it. It was a horrible sight, and he endured the shoot.” (For those who are not aware, the sight of blood -for a common man- on the war-front or in an operation room – which I experienced as a journalist few months back – often makes one giddy, pukish and deeply disturbed).

A still showing SIGNING THE INSTRUMENTOF SURRENDER, DEC 16, 1971

The documentaries comprise footages like dragging of dead bodies across field (NMTF), or that of skulls neatly arranged in rows (NMTF), Indira Gandhi and Mujibur Rahman signing the cooperation agreement in 1972 (Home Coming), pathos struck faces of refugees (Refugees 1971), among others.

“One anecdote which I overheard his friends saying, was that he was asked by a journalist, ‘what did you gain from making this film?’ He had replied, ‘I got a heart attack,’” shares Shabnam Sukhdev, Sukhdev’s daughter, a teacher, residing in Pune now. Soon after returning from the shoot of the documentary Sukhdev had suffered a massive heart attack, Shabnam informs.

“All that stress during the war, I think it did affect him at a very deep level. He edited the film himself, almost like a maniac, editing it day and night. He dint even have a moviola, or a steenbeck. He just had a syncrometer, which didn’t even have a monitor. He knew exactly what he had filmed. He was sitting in his living room and cutting it, just by looking at it,” says Shabnam.

A still from NINE MONTHS TO FREEDOM

“After the heart-attack, he got a lot of comedy films to see on 16 mm in his room, because I believe he suffered from a bit of depression, and watched a lot of Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, and the likes to cheer him up, because it was a very traumatic experience living that war,” she adds.

Sharing his own experience of the war-front during capturing its footage, Vaidya says, “Though I had witnessed the India’s partition in 1947 too, the Bangladesh war was the most pathetic scene I have witnessed in my life. People returning to their homeland when they dint want to, the torture, the indiscriminate firing by the Pakistani army… it tears you apart to see such misery.” The stills of documentaries I have, only support this statement.

 

Still of a PROCESSION LED BY POET SUFIA KAMAL

Vaisya says that he worked alongside Sukhdev at the time Sukhdev was taking the war’s footage. “After the war was over, Sukhdev was so moved, he wanted to take his film to West Pakistan to show them what they had done in East Pakistan,” he says. I am informed that this emotion was so strong, that Sukhdev wanted to undergo the requisite change of being a Muslim from a Punjabi, so that he gained entry on the West Pakistan land then. Whether this statement is true, no one can establish.

These movies – apart from Dubargati Padma – informs Mukherjee, cannot be sold on DVD, and, can be screened only in select countries (read: countries which are not detrimental to its security and peace). Copies of these are however available with film institutes across the country.

“There was request for screening Nine Months… at a festival in USSR in 1970’s. But Bangladesh High Commission requested India not to send the film, since it would have shown the brutality committed during the war in East Pakistan. Indian government agreed to comply with the request, although it never suppressed screening of these on its own land,” shares Vaidya.

A still and historic photograph of INDIRA GANDHI and MUJIBAR RAHMAN

I asked Shabnam if showing these films has relevance today, or if they should better be forgotten. “Absolutely not. I feel these films are very important and made in a period when the documentary movement wasn’t that active. Once again, Sukhdev was a pioneer in that movement. I feel that now. Earlier I was just a daughter, disturbed on not having her father around, busy all the time. But now, when I see the work, I see its value. May be as a daughter I should promote more of his work, but I am busy with my own life. But these documentaries should be shown more often. This forum is great. Film Division is showing it right?” she said.

Post this, she said more information on the director could perhaps be gathered from his close friends like director Tapan Bose- with whom he was associated closely, journalist Anees Jung, Gautam Ghose – who learnt filmmaking under Shukhdev and Suhasini Muley. (I did not contact any of them, since it breaks my heart to have more information than what will find space on page.)

I ask her how may I introduce her in the piece, and she say, “Shabnam, his daughter, for sure. That is something I have been running away for a long time now, and better face it.” – a statement, that spoke volumes I believe.

“We keep talking about Vietnam War, the Algerian War and other anti-colonialism wars, but seldom talk about the Bangladesh liberation war, which was uniquely fought on the premise of Bangla language. People hardly know what happened at that time,” says Sanjoy Mukhopadhyay, film scholar and academic, on the relevance of the festival.

Sanjoy shares that Ritwik’s documentary was encouraged and partly financed by Bishwajit Chatterji. “Durbargati Padma is more of a tribute, and not a documentary, in that sense of the term,” adds Sanjoy.

Still of a Soldier beating up unarmed

A relevant important fact, that Vaidya urges me to mention in the copy (which I could not ultimately, sorry) is, “In those days, in Bangladesh, since early morning, people in East Pakistan used to stay tune in to All India Radio’s Kolkata station, to hear the news. That was the only source of (reliable) information for them. The mornings began with Rabindra Sangeet.”

In my desire to get more information, I spoke with Kanta Sukhdev, Sukhdev’s widow, to know if remembered anything Sukhdev may have shared with her about the war post returning. An old lady, she says does not remember much. “I just remember that the war was so fierce, that one by one all the members and other cameramen on the warfront left the site and returned. But Sukhdev stayed on, all alone probably, till the end.”

An interesting fact I came across while speaking with Vaidya was: “In those days (1970’s and 1980’s at least, and may be earlier too), newsreels were the only mode of knowing what is happening in the country and outside. News enthusiasts used to visit theatres every Friday, where, prior to the screening of films, 10-minute newsreels were screened, as a recap of what happened around the world in that week. There was no live news on television in those days. All documentaries were of 20 minutes, newsreels of 10.” Remember, there was no television media then.

Why did it change? Vaidya, in a rather complaining tone, says, “The theatre owners, in 1980’s, across the country started demanding money from Films Division for screening the newsreels and documentaries. South ke theatre wale bade bigad gaye the (They had become unruly and demanding). There was a court case against Films Division, and the theatre owners won, ending in these weekly screenings.”

Again, I would have loved to find details on the same, but do not… now at least. Vaidya informs that these weekly screenings, “were watched by 60 lakh people around the country, according to a survey done by Films Division. The newsreels and documentaries were screened in 14 languages.”

I gathered bit of information on cameras and technology challenges for the directors in those times… but don’t intend to bug you more with this story. Although I hate to – since it takes away my credit a bit – I must confess that the information of the film festival happening came from Snigdhendu, who could as well have written about it. But since he passed it on to me, I could build this info into a story, my way! Thanks to Ms. Shabnam, and especially to Mr. Sumay who shared a lot of details and suggested me contacts I could speak to. A mention must be made of the National Film Archive of India, Pune, which helped me in finding Vaidya, but could not share any images with me. I found it worth slamming, that they, sitting on a rich collection of material, wanted a journalist to sign an indemnity bond of Rs. 200, among other time-consuming formalities, before they could find me photos/stills of these directors and documentaries. I expect you noticed that I have not spoken anything about Benoy Roy. And many other things…. Some other day, some other story…

Photos shared by Mr. Sumay, Films Division.

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6 comments for this entry:
  1. SUMAY MUKHERJEE

    My heartfelt thanks to you Suruchi for this great article.Hats off to your hard work,your research and your great intitiative. Wishes always.

  2. Pritam Majumder

    Thanks for the great initiative and good research work

  3. Abul Hayat Shiblu

    Suruchi,can you tell me from where you have got te documentary … I mean where you bought it or downloaded ?? Let me inform as soon as possible.I am from Bangladesh and I need your help … give me your reply in my mail ID …

    Md. Abul Hayat
    225 NIH,BUET
    Dhaka 1000
    Bangladesh

  4. Suruchi Gupta

    Hi. Sorry for this delayed reply. The documentaries are here in India. With the Films Division people. Mail me at suruchi.gupta@hindustantimes.com and i’ll revert with the appropriate person’s contact.

  5. april

    I am writing a screenplay about the Bangladesh Liberation War I need as much info as I can get I want to make an accurate movie on what really happened I think the world should know any help will be apreciated thank you for your time

  6. Nazia Afrin

    Hi, thank you so much for your insightful article. I am doing a research on the early documentation of Bangladesh Liberation War and I am constantly facing difficulties to find any information on the documentaries that were made during or just after the war and specially the Indian ones. I would be grateful if you provide me with some information and if possible some contacts.

    Thanks

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