Mrityunjay Devvrat’s Children of War opens in a lush forest. An old man, a Hindu, recites mantras as he sprinkles ashes from an earthen vessel. A little girl nearby asks him what he is doing. He says the ashes are of his family. “Main ise sula raha hoon.” He is putting them to sleep. The scene gently – and lyrically – encapsulates what it was like in Bangladesh (or East Pakistan) after Yahya Khan declared “Kill 3 million of them and the rest will eat out of our hands,” and the Pakistani Army went about systematically (and, one might add, sadistically) crushing the Bengali resistance. The plight of Bangladeshis, Devvrat tells us, was no different from that of Jews in Nazi Germany. Even children weren’t spared. In a shocking scene early in the film, a little boy who picked up a journalist’s story to deliver to a local newspaper (or maybe a samizdat publication; it isn’t clear) is shot dead by Malik (Pavan Malhotra). The killing is presented in a long shot, and we aren’t allowed to gaze on the body or linger on the boy’s fate. We see him as Malik sees him. He’s a housefly. A nuisance. And he’s been swatted.
And we move to the bedroom of the journalist – Aamir (Indraneil Sengupta) – who has just made love to his wife Fida (Raima Sen). Even the song that Fida played on the gramophone earlier, to set the mood – the Bengali version of RD Burman’s Yeh kya hua – seems portentous: What’s happening? Aamir and Fida are soon separated, and he ends up with an underground resistance group (whose head is played by, of all people, Farooque Shaikh; the out-of-the-box casting may have sounded like a good idea, but it just doesn’t work). A second story thread involves Rafiq (Riddhi Sen) and his sister Kausar (Rucha Inamdar) – they appear to be teenagers – who discover that they are the only survivors in their village. The others have been wiped out by the Pakistani Army. The siblings subsequently join a group of nomadic locals being shepherded to safety by a kindly old man (Victor Banerjee). Through these interleaving incidents, Devvrat attempts to paint a picture of a tragic era.
And what a picture he paints. Children of War is exquisitely shot – there isn’t a single lazy frame. Soldiers of the Pakistani Army halt a bus carrying Bangladeshis and order them to run across a bridge. At the other end, more soldiers lie in wait, with rifles. The helpless Bangladeshis fall into the river, flailing like unstrung puppets, their reflections rising to meet them, as the water splashes in slow motion. Later, during a song sequence, blood flows over sandstone steps – again in slow motion – like icing being poured on a multi-tier cake. And when Bangladeshi women are imprisoned and raped, so that they can bear “Pakistani” children, we see their silhouettes from the outside of lantern-lit tents. When carnage looks this good, it begins to feel pornographic. There is a thin line between the visually arresting and the overwhelmingly beautiful, and Devvrat crosses it repeatedly. At times, we seem to be watching a top-notch music video – a tropical spin on the war portions in Alan Parker’s Pink Floyd – The Wall, or a belated set of moody visuals to accompany George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh.
The overbearing background score doesn’t help. When Bhitika (Tilotama Shome), a militant, expresses her regret matter-of-factly about what happened to Aamir, he takes out a picture of him and Fida and shows it to her. The moment plays out in silence, and it’s tremendously effective. We know how horrible the situation is. We don’t need to be nudged by a solo violin on the soundtrack. But elsewhere, the score thunders over what are already ripely melodramatic constructions, and we are left with a headache. When someone hears a knock and opens the door, the person outside is revealed in a flash of lightning. When someone gives up all hope and is about to slit a wrist, the liberation forces come charging in. And the shot of a child wailing beside his slain mother is held for what appears to be a minute. When scenes this dramatic are further underlined by a score – yes, the solo violin makes itself heard – it’s like being handed five handkerchiefs. It’s too much.
One could say that about a lot of Children of War. The running time is too much. Two hours and forty minutes of rape and killing and torture, with nothing to alleviate the grimness or quicken the pulse, makes for a deadening movie experience. These are important stories and they need to be told. And yet, after years of films featuring oppression – whether by evil, moustache-twirling zamindars or the Third Reich or the British (in the case of, say, Lagaan) – these narratives have congealed into a genre. On paper, the Rwandan Civil War may appear different from the one in Sri Lanka, but when compressed into cinematic form, the events and the people begin to blur and look alike. Children of War, for that matter, looks a great deal like Schindler’s List. The barbed-wire prisons look like concentration camps, and the unremittingly evil Malik, who has loving conversations with his gun, resembles Ralph Fiennes’s pitiless Amon Goeth. How, then, does one make these movies look different? Hey Ram! solved this problem by sprinting into the surreal, equating the madness of war with the madness of a man. One of the more interesting scenes in Children of War features Kausar confronted by surrealistic images of various victims claiming to “be” Bangladesh. Better yet, a fiery orator in the present – we know it’s today because of the Los Angeles Lakers T shirt that a hip-looking audience member is wearing – announces that he is, first, a Bangladeshi, then a Bengali, and only then a Muslim. The identity of this speaker, given the shift in the timeline, is an affecting surprise. The problem with Children of War may be that there aren’t enough surprises. A film may be based on fact, but that shouldn’t stop the filmmaker from imbuing it with the zing of good fiction.
* Yahya Khan = see here
* the Bengali version of RD Burman’s Yeh kya hua = see here
* Pink Floyd – The Wall = see here
* Concert for Bangladesh = see here
* Lagaan = see here
* Schindler’s List = see here
* Hey Ram! = see here
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