When Frost Met Mujib (January 1972)

Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman with David Frost - YouTube

Within days of his historic return to Bangladeshi soil on January 10, 1972, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman gave a wide-ranging interview to British TV presenter David Frost.

Fifty years on, this is often recalled in brief extracts, but given its timing at a moment when Bangladesh was newly free but not yet formally recognized by many states, the full interview and its broader context deserve more appreciation. 

After Mujib was released from imprisonment in Pakistan on January 8, he was flown to London on an RAF plane. Among the ecstatic Bangladeshis (and many journalists who flocked to the airport and Claridge’s hotel to greet Mujib) were Frost and his producer John Birt. 

Frost had been famous for some years as a weekly transatlantic commuter, shuttling between his own Emmy-winning talk show in New York and weekend program in London. He was 31 years old and yet to be knighted, whilst Birt, later to become Director General of the BBC and now Baron Lord Birt, was still in his mid-twenties, but both were already big beasts in the world of television.

Newly liberated Bangladesh’s status as a global news story meant they did not hesitate to change their schedule to join the throngs of people seeking to meet Mujib. Days later, they were both flying to Dhaka and the historic interview was broadcast around the world, barely a week after Mujib had been freed on January 18.

The program was guaranteed good ratings. Alongside being a political interviewer with a knack for securing scoops, Frost maintained a popular mainstream entertainment image throughout his long career. Peter Morgan, now better known for creating Netflix’s The Crown, encapsulates this reputation in the trailer for the film version of his play dramatizing Frost’s renowned interviews from the late 70s with disgraced US President Richard Nixon.  

In the Frost/Nixon trailer, Morgan has an exuberant Michael Sheen (playing Frost) tell Birt (played by a po-faced Matthew MacFayden) of his idea to interview Nixon. After Birt casts doubt on his seriousness by saying “I spent yesterday watching you interview the Bee Gees,” Frost beams back unfazed and smilingly exclaims “weren’t they terrific?”

In today’s age of instant global communication, it is easy to forget or underestimate the impact such interviews had in a world of fewer channels, but the film provides a clue.

Seemingly, Frost never had time to follow up the 1993 publication of Part 1 of his autobiography which frustratingly ends in 1970. His exhaustingly long list of IMDB credits perhaps explains why. We do know for sure, however, that, like many other people, Frost retained vivid memories of meeting Mujib.

In June 2013, just three months before his death, Sir David Frost returned to Bangladesh to record a 50-minute edition of his Al Jazeera show, in which he talked about how moved he was by Mujib, and then interviewed Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The choice seems noteworthy given how many interviews with many dozens of other world leaders, including seven US presidents and Indira Gandhi, Frost had to choose from upon which to reflect at this stage in his life.

I sat in the same row as Sir David during the West End run of Peter Morgan’s play. Like the rest of the audience, not least Frost, I thoroughly enjoyed Frost/Nixon. Though I couldn’t help thinking how the very fame of the piece says a lot about the unfairness of history. 

Watergate was a crime against democracy, and it is valuable that Frost’s interviews drew out some sort of apology. But, morally, was it as bad a crime as sponsoring a coup in Chile, illegally bombing Cambodia, or encouraging his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger to collude with the machinations of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in actively supporting the genocidal brutalities of Yahya Khan’s junta in 1971?

Al Capone was only successfully imprisoned for tax evasion, but the world has always known him as an infamous gangster. In much of Western and global media, however, Nixon is most associated with covering up a failed burglary.

Given its historical significance, I’ve long thought the Frost/Mujib interview would be an ideal subject for a Peter Morgan-style play.

In fact, given that global streaming services are looking to invest in more Asian content, I think there’s plenty of scope for two or three smart South Asian playwrights to collaborate on a series of plays based around David Frost’s TV interviews with Mujib, Indira Gandhi, and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. 

Someone could use the transcripts to write a very effective single three-act play showcasing the overlapping lives and contrasting personalities of Bhutto, Gandhi, and Mujib. Trust me, though it would need strong actors, it would write itself.

Personally, I would make Frost’s interview with Mujib the heart and soul of the play. This is because while their conversation discusses the horrors of the year before, the footage also conveys a palpable sense of relief in the air and presents a spirit of openness and optimism. 

Frost also provides apt words on which to end. After Mujib expresses his confidence that Britain will shortly recognize Bangladesh and concludes by calling for more international support, Frost replies: “Joy Bangla. I’m sure the world will come forward and I’m sure that if it doesn’t, God will never forgive us.”

originally published Dhaka Tribune Jan 2 , 2022