A Pakistani film looks at the 1971 war anew and wants Islamabad and Dhaka to bond, writes Mahendra Ved for South Asia Monitor
The catharsis has come after half a century. In a film billed as "first attempt", a team of young Pakistani filmmakers is set to put "facts in front and not propaganda" on why the country's eastern wing broke away to become Bangladesh in 1971.
The November 19 release of "Khel Khel Mein" will be precisely 27 days before Bangladesh celebrates its 50th Bijoy Dibas, the anniversary of the Liberation, when on December 16, 1971 Pakistan's 93,000 soldiers formally surrendered in Dhaka to the Indian and Bangladeshi armed forces and the Mukti Bahini, marking the end of a two-week war.
Unsurprisingly, the film’s teaser released on October 30 and the few details on the Internet are trending on social media in Bangladesh. Three generations have lived through this period and curiosity is palpable. While Pakistanis have lived in anger and embraced the official version of what happened, the liberation that changed the map of South Asia has been the most defining moment for the people of Bangladesh.
What went wrong in 1971?
Addressing Pakistan's youth, the film is about the "air of mistrust" between people of the two wings that constituted Pakistan that the British founded in 1947. Available details indicate the film is an effort by the post-separation youth, for the young of Bangladesh, exploring through dance and music, what went wrong.
The film comes when Pakistan's leadership has made some attempts to reach out. Its envoy in Dhaka has met Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, inviting her to pay her first visit to Islamabad. Daughter of Bangladesh’s founding leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, she has been prime minister since 2009. She was a young mother and housewife when Mujib returned after nine months of captivity in Pakistan.
The film’s producer-director duo Nabeel Qureshi and Fizza Ali Meerza argue that Pakistanis have been only told "Indian or Western propaganda" and kept in the dark about much of what led to the violent separation.
They acknowledge in media interviews ahead of the launch that treating the 1971 events even now is "a tricky subject".
While a lot has been done on India-Pakistan in movies and television dramas, "we don't see much about Bangladesh. It seems like a no-go area", one of them said.
Leading stars in film
Shot during Covid-19, the film is the first slated for theatre release post-pandemic. It stars Sajal Aly and Bilal Abbas Khan. It features veteran actor Marina Khan as well as Sheheryar Munawar, Javed Sheikh and Manzar Sehbai.
Showing a group of college students explore the subject and its history through a play, it is a song-and-dance musical.
"What we've heard in relation to the 1971 war has come from either Western or Indian propaganda. I wanted the film to put the facts in front, not the propaganda," Qureshi was quoted as telling 'Images', the entertainment section of Dawn newspaper.
The 1971 war is a tricky subject because it is understood through more than one narrative. What is the fall of Dhaka for many in Pakistan is considered independence for those in Bangladesh, the newspaper observed.
The movie is not meant to trigger "controversies or disputes". According to Qureshi, while he has no control over "people creating controversy" out of “Khel Khel Mein”, it is mainly meant to convey a message of peace and harmony between the people of Pakistan and Bangladesh to "move forward" together.
Can’t upset military
This abundant caution comes from the fact that the military debacle is a negative comment on Pakistani armed forces that, as the country's most organized and powerful entity, have controlled its narrative. Clearance is required from the military's Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) wing.
Dawn says that many film and television projects that touch upon nationalism are usually associated with the ISPR. However, Qureshi's ‘Khel Khel Mein’ is not one of them, although advice on certain subject matters was sought from the military's media wing.
"This project is neither funded by the ISPR, nor did they have any hand in the production or script. We did have to discuss a few things with them in regards to certain topics," said Qureshi.
While the filmmaker listened to the ISPR, they also pushed through with showing certain issues they felt strongly about. "We did put our foot down on certain things," he said. "We're grateful to ISPR. They were very generous, especially with assisting us with logistics like providing us jeeps.”
A look at the media posts about the film earlier this year did not refer to the fact that the theme is about the 1971 events. The makers apparently wanted to avoid any controversy and attempts to thwart the project. The teaser is probably the first time the theme has been out in some details.
One media report said: "The cathartic teaser reveals that the movie is inspired by true events showing glimpses of soldiers, warplanes, which are executed with a sombre voiceover. The trailer slowly builds onto a different setting surrounded by students involved in a theatrical rendition that is set to look back at the events of the Indo-Pak War of 1971."
The film’s short synopsis reads, “A story inspired by true events, unfolding 50 years of mistrust, memories, and myths.”
Sajal Aly, who played the daughter of the late Sreedevi in Bollywood film 'Mom' (2017) and is a known face in Pakistan and India, posted the artistically curated trailer on her social media with the caption “Filmwala Pictures is excited to announce the first Pakistani film to be released post-Covid and upon the opening of cinemas nationwide. Thank you to all our fans for being so patient!”
At the release of the teaser, male protagonist Bilal Abbas Khan said: “Hum men se kisi ne bhi ye nahi socha tha ke aik chingari puray jangal ko jaladegi, humen laga tha ke ye aik waqti azmaaish hai (None of us could’ve even imagined that a single spark will set fire to an entire forest, we thought that this was only a temporary test).”
Starting from the flashbacks of war, the clip goes on to show glimpses of present day youngsters enrolled in a school play that is set to look back at the events of 1971. It closes with Sajal’s character asking her presumably classmates, “Kiun ham aik jhootay ilzaam ka bojh apne seenay per uthae phir rahe hain? Ya hum bhi ussi chaal ka hissa bangae jo dushman ne chali thi? (Why are we carrying the burden of a false accusation? Or did we also become pawns in a game initiated by our enemies?)”
While revealing the first look of the film back in July, Khan had tweeted: “If history was taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”
Given the strained India-Pakistan ties, it is doubtful if the film will be released in India.
Some Pakistani critics have called the film a "Rang De Basanti moment", a reference to the Bollywood film by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra. That film deals with the loss of ideals by a current generation unable to relate to the era of Bhagat Singh.
The first song of the under-production film was released earlier. Sajal Aly and Bilal Abbas Khan are seen grooving to the upbeat number of ‘Nayi Soch’ song, based on the concept of revolution as per the youth perspective. This song is full of entertainment with a hidden message that can change the mindset of society.
The producer hopes that Bangladeshi viewers will be as pleased with the movie as those in Pakistan will. “Khel Khel Mein is a step towards realizing there needs to be mutual apology between Pakistan and Bangladesh," Qureshi said. "Both sides made mistakes. We need to let go of the past, forgive each other and grow up together."
Whether this "nayi soch" (new thinking) of Pakistan, couched in music and dance, will impress people in Bangladesh and those across the world remains to be seen. It appears to be a recall, without rancour, but also without repentance.
(The author is a veteran journalist and South Asia watcher. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached on email@example.com)