Niaz Alam, Dhaka Tribune op-ed 1 March 2014
First things first. Even though it is Oscars week and features the formidable talent of Irrfan Khan, my interest in the much talked-about film, Gunday, largely begins and ends with its name.
The simplicity of the title shows a touch of brilliance. While as a Hindi language film it refers to goondas, the English spelling makes it irresistible for fans of puns and an apt title for many a spaghetti western or Hollywood movie.
For this alone, the producers deserve the heaps of extra publicity they garnered after the film drew the wrath of the internet for its apparent ignorance of the Bangladesh Liberation War.
As the most common complaint about the film, (about two refugee boys who grow up to be outlaws,) relates to a brief piece of narration, it seems improbable the filmmakers had gratuitously sought to misrepresent the Bangladesh Liberation War. Gunday’s producers have been condemned for portraying 1971 as merely a 13-day fight between India and Pakistan. While this is factually incorrect and disregards the Bangladeshi people’s resistance and struggle for independence, the actual history was not germane enough to the film’s plot for it to have spent more time explaining the background.
Being a film primarily intended for an Indian audience, many of whom may only be vaguely aware of the Bangladesh war, it is hardly surprising the writer took what was for him the simpler option. One may lament this of course, but it hardly warrants lambasting the film’s producers.
For a start, only last week another newspaper reported widespread ignorance among Bangladeshi teenagers of basic facts, and even dates to do with Language Martyr’s Day.
Now, much as I doubt the scope of this, given how high profile politics and language are in Bangladesh, so see it as yet another example of older people forever disparaging the “youth of today,” if true, it makes it even less seemly to exhort the government to lodge official protests about a foreign action film.
More ridiculous still, is the criticism which some have made, that a Hindi film features Bangladeshi characters speaking in Hindi. Needless to say, I think it was completely wrong to pressure the film’s producers to issue an apology.
Interesting as it is, for everybody likes stories, the film business is congenitally immune to literary and historical criticism. Hollywood’s penchant for films which portray the US winning World War Two single handed is so embedded, for instance, that it is simply taken as read by viewers.
And it’s not just big studio films that play fast and loose with facts. As the late Christopher Hitchens pointed out, there was no artistic merit or filmic reason for “The Kings Speech” to have shown Winston Churchill as having been hostile to Edward VIII during the 1936 Abdication crisis, when it is on the public record that Churchill had been an ally and confidante of the man who became the Duke of Windsor and suspected Nazi appeaser. As the director and writer of that Oscar-winning film had a solid track record of making films about recent real life figures such as Brian Clough and Richard Nixon, their historical distortion was particularly galling for Hitchens. But this did not mean that he called for any changes or censorship.
Reading the hysterical tenor of some internet comments on Gunday, part of me wonders what the same people would have made of an overseas English language paper I read in an airport lounge over 20 years ago. As far as I can recall, within an otherwise innocuous newspaper, a report listing I think the members of Saarc, did not use the name Bangladesh, but referred to a place called “Hindu-Zionist entity.” Sadly, I did not keep a clipping, so shall focus instead on a paragraph in a blog comment published on the website of the Wall Street Journal:
“On Feb. 21, 1952, police opened fire on a student protest in what was then East Pakistan and killed several who were demanding that Bangla be included as one of Pakistan’s state languages. Until that moment, probably no people group had ever shed blood for a language.”
How accurate is the second sentence exactly?
The status and historic importance of the language movement is not altered by acknowledging that other peoples may have shed blood for their languages as well. So it is difficult to reconcile why well meaning people would want to claim a first for this type of suffering, for Bangladesh.
Arguably, it is wilfully myopic and insulting to other national struggles (Basques in Spain and Gaelic speakers in Ireland come to mind.)
For sure, resources and imperialism have been the driving force of many if not most wars. But has not language also often been an integral part of the ethnic, national, and religious identities, which have been a feature of violent conflicts throughout history?
In 2002, Marc Shell, a Canadian-born Harvard professor edited a book called American Babel, in which he describes historical examples of people being killed for speaking the “wrong” language. Interestingly, in the light of 12 Years A Slave’s Oscar run, this includes descriptions of both slave traders in the antebellum Southern US cutting out the tongues of slaves unable or unwilling to speak English. And, of allegations that Union troops occupying New Orleans in 1862, had some Francophone speakers executed “specifically, some scholars believe, to discourage the use of French.”
More to the point, Raphael Lemkin’s 1944 work Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, which is famous for coining the term “genocide,” includes language (along with culture, nationality, religion etc) as an element whose destruction is sought via coordinated plans to systematically wipe out groups of people.
All of which is a long way from the triviality of reviewing a new film release. People criticising Gunday should keep a sense of perspective when drawing attention to its flaws. If its history is wrong, this should be all the more incentive for someone else to make a better, true story.
It is dangerous to get carried away by emotions when criticising a film or artwork. Too many politicians in our region are already too willing to subvert the law and exploit populist sentiments to clamp down on points of view with which they disagree. The Hindu fundamentalist politicians who recently forced Penguin India to pulp Wendy Doniger’s scholarly history book on religion, are a case in point.
Closer to home, it seems unnecessary for the International Crimes Tribunal to be spending judicial time on hearing whether three posts on David Bergman’s war crimes blog were contemptuous, simply because they made references to debates about the numbers of people killed during the 1971 war.
As he is a long time advocate of ending impunity for war crimes and has published detailed objective reports on the tribunal’s proceedings, it is difficult to imagine his writings as contemptuous of the tribunal.
But then, I’m not persuaded tribunals need the power to police blog comments in the first place, so I would say that, wouldn’t I? If people want to make their own minds up, I can only recommend that people read his blog.
When discussing history, differences of opinion over even basic facts are inevitable.
Competing countries and ideologies will often have radically different narratives. It is tricky enough to seek to police these within scholarly debates. To do so in relation to a popular film is even more of an exercise in futility.
Let’s keep patriotism to where it is most sorely needed. On the sporting field. And hope that Bangladesh puts on a good performance in the T20 World Cup.