[M]eherjaan by debutant director Rubaiyat Hossain that screened as part of Frescoes at the 12th Osian’s Cinefan Film Festival is a brave and lyrical depiction of war-torn Bangladesh (of 1971) in a way rarely seen before. Though it is a story of a family ravaged by the Bangladesh Liberation war, the mood of the film is of celebrating love and womanhood. It’s a shame that the film was pulled out of theatres in Bangladesh for not depicting the reality ‘appropriately’.
The director of Meherjaan completely breaks free from stereotypes and steers clear of showing blood and gore on screen; not in an attempt to distort reality but to highlight the part of reality she is most interested in: the Bangladeshi women at the time of the war. So with the palpable tension of the war in the backdrop, what one sees unfolding on screen is the story of two female characters, Meher and Neela, who experienced the aftermath of the war in their own ways.
Meher (Jaya Bachchan) has become a sculptor to give shapes to her feelings but is holding back the haunting memories of her past that she had routinely penned in her diary. She would rather live in denial but is forced to confront it when her cousin Neela’s daughter, born out of rape, turns up at her doorstep to piece together her own past. The narrative then seamlessly switches between Meher’s present and her past.
One is transported to Meher’s growing up years when her family had moved to her grandfather’s village to avert the war. Nana-jaan, played gracefully by Victor Banerjee, is the reformist patriarch who wouldn’t allow bloodshed in his village. One begins to experience the war through the female characters in Naana-jaan’s house. His eldest granddaughter Neela (Reetu Sattar) has been repeatedly raped by Pakistani soldiers and is asked by her family to keep this shame as a secret. But she refuses to be ashamed and becomes a freedom fighter to avenge the wrong done to her. Meher (Shayna Amin), on the other hand, falls in love with a Pakistani (read enemy) soldier and saves his life. Then there is nana- jaan’s youngest daughter Salma (played by Rubaiyat Hossain herself) who lives in a world of her own–her make-believe bunker and palanquin—with a desire to get hitched to a Liberation soldier.
There is an amazing conviction and bravado in the female characters and a refreshing change in shifting the spotlight on women to recount a war’s story which makes Meherjaan a unique film to come out of Bangladesh. The journey of its female characters can be summed up in a dialogue that young Meher is seen mouthing to her mother: “Don’t you wish to do whatever your heart desires?” Whether it is picking up arms to take revenge from the enemy or loving the enemy with the same fervor, the women in Meherjaan follow their heart.
Surprisingly, Meherjaan doesn’t care about melodrama and even uses dialogues thoughtfully and sparingly. There is a restraint and tranquility in the narrative which draws one into it gradually and doesn’t let go. The breathtaking countryside of Bangladesh and the gradual development of Meher’s relationship with the Pakistani soldier Wasim Khan (Omar Rahim) create some magical moments in the film which are embellished by a recurring musical theme. Their love that is budding in a difficult time is strangely nurtured by a fondness for each other as well as a stubborn pride in one’s own culture and strong nationalism. They answer to each other in their own respective languages, Bangla and Urdu.
Meherjaan ends on a positive note about coming to terms with the losses of the war. It is a wonderful film with a unique perspective, calm yet powerful images and superlative direction and performances.