I’ve just returned from watching the Bangladeshi film Meherjaan. This movie, released last year, depicts events of the 1971 war for Bangladeshi independence, with a focus on the Bengali women who were raped by Pakistani soldiers, but it also included a storyline where a Bangladeshi girl falls in love with one of the soldiers. The storm of controversy that erupted got the movie banned in Bangladesh: angry and hurt, still traumatized by the war, Bangladeshis felt that the movie wasn’t true to the pain and suffering that they experienced during the war, but instead romanticized the love story between the lead character Meher and the Pakistani soldier Wasim Khan (played by my friend Omar Rahim).

Despite the controversy, the movie has been doing the rounds of film festivals all over the world, and has won several awards, including the Moondance Film Festival Best Feature Film award. It was meant to be screened during the Karachi Literature Festival back in February, but because the Festival organizers failed to get an NOC (no objection certificate), this couldn’t happen at the festival venue. I finally got the chance to see it screened at The Second Floor this evening, and it played to an almost full house – the second time it was being screened at this venue, I should add.

I’m not going to write a detailed synopsis – there are Web sites that already do that, and here’s the movie’s official Web site. Also, if you don’t want spoilers, stop reading now!

The movie starts with the arrival of Sarah, a “war child”, at the house of the adult Meher, played by Jaya Bacchan. Sarah is the daughter of Neela, Meher’s cousin, who was raped during the war by Pakistani soldiers – Sarah is the child of that rape and was adopted by a couple in Germany. She’s back to find out her past, and it’s through this fairly common cinematic device – a young person investigating his or her family secrets – that we are introduced to the seventeen year old Meher and her story.

Meher and her parents have escaped the war in Dhaka and live in her grandfather’s home, in rural Bangladesh, where her grandfather, Khwaja Sahib, is the local feudal and pir (keeper of the shrine of a Sufi saint); he oversees the affairs of the village and is the person the villagers turn to when they need to have their disputes settled – very similar to the feudal system here in Pakistan that continues to this day. Neela arrives at the house, raped and pregnant, and spends her days in her grandfather’s home dreaming of revenge against the soldiers who assaulted her. There’s also Salma, who’s slightly weird, holds tea parties and assembles weapons made out of branches and twigs, and dreams of marriage. Meher encounters a Pakistani soldier who refused to kill Bangladeshis in a mosque and subsequently runs away from his regiment; wounded and ill, he takes shelter in the house of Meher’s friends, and the two of them fall in love.

The movie is visually stunning. The lush landscapes of rural Bangladesh – rivers, oceans, forests and fields – will invade your senses completely. You almost feel the breeze in your hair and on your skin, feel the water lapping at your feet, smell the scent of sea and fish and flowers everywhere. This heavy sensuality is echoed in the bodies of the women portrayed on the screen: the survivor Neela, whose short, rounded frame blazes with outrage and passion; earthy Salma, who feels no shame in speaking of her desire for a husband and family; and innocent Meher, whose fresh skin and rippling hair remind you of an untilled field or a virgin forest.

And truly, Meherjaan is a movie about women. It’s the women who take center stage in this story: not just the three young women, but the grace and dignity of the grown-up Meher, who has become a sculptress and who welcomes the awkward, androgynous Sarah into her home, who weaves stories around her and offers her a window into her past. We are shown the difference between victimhood, in the fate of Neela, and agency, when Meher saves Wasim Khan’s life, Salma arranges her own marriage, Sarah unearths the story behind her birth, and Neela herself decides to join the freedom fighters in the wake of her ruined chances for marriage and a normal life. All the women in the movie act with courage, honesty, and strength; the men are left far behind, struggling to keep up.

The strongest male character in the movie is that of Khwaja Sahib, who as the guardian of a strategically important village must maintain the balance between the opposing demands of the villagers, the freedom fighters, the party workers, and the Pakistani army officer and his troops. He does this by falling back on loyalty to the Muslim League (who opposed the creation of Bangladesh) and on his own Sufi Muslim faith, which places utmost importance on humanity and decency before rituals and rules. He’s not infallible, and makes several mistakes, one of which later costs him his life. But his interactions with the soldiers, the villagers and the freedom fighters illustrate the complexity of Bangladeshi nationalism, and when he dies, there is a real sense of the passing into history of an older, more graceful way of conducting political affairs, intertwined with religious and societal considerations, that can never be regained.

The love story between Meher and Wasim (the title of the movie comes from a moment when Wasim calls Meher “Meherjaan”, or “darling Meher”) is a rather obvious symbol of the relationship between Pakistan and Bangladesh: the pain caused by the separation of the two lovers is meant to evoke the pain felt when East and West Pakistan split and became two countries, never to meet again. But the two young actors play their roles so well that it never feels forced or cliched, rather, it all feels fresh and evocative, like one’s own first love. There’s also a startling interplay between eroticism and innocence, as we are shown shot after shot of Wasim Khan’s naked torso and the villagers are heard talking about his muscles and height (which also represents the power of the Pakistani army, with its brute force and violence), but the physical intimacy between the two lovers is restricted to hand-holding and innocent embraces, and Meher seems naive, almost child-like in her interactions with Wasim. But while she is innocent in matters of the body, she is wise in matters of the heart.

Finally, the aching loss of love and the pain of separation is highlighted in the movie by the rendition of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s 1974 poem “Hum ke thehre ajnabi” (We are now strangers) by Nayarra Noor.  I’m not a fan of Urdu poetry, but the eloquent couplets of Faiz’s poetry about the return from Dhaka brought tears to my eyes and I cried like a child for the last twenty minutes of the movie. I wasn’t the only one: when the lights came on, there was hardly a dry-eyed person in the room.

We are strangers now

After those many encounters, that easy intimacy, we are strangers now –

After how many meetings will we be that close again?

When will we again see a spring of unstained green? After how many monsoons will the blood be washed

from the branches?

So relentless was the end of love, so heartless –After the nights of tenderness, the dawns were pitiless,

so pitiless.

And so crushed was the heart that though it wished it found no chance –after the entreaties, after the despair — for us to

quarrel once again as old friends.

Faiz, what you’d gone to say, ready to offer everything,even your life –those healing words remained unspoken after all else had

been said.

(Translated from the Urdu by Agha Shahid Ali)

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