ONE NIGHT in the early 1970s, dinner took an unexpected turn at Dhanmondi 32, the Dhaka residence of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding father and first prime minister of Bangladesh. Afflicted by a famine in the newly formed nation, Rahman refused to eat the meal served by his wife Sheikh Fazilatunnesa Mujib. He was disturbed, the food reminded him of the Bengal famine of 1943.
Shyam Benegal is watching this scene unfold on a monitor in a Film City studio in Mumbai.
The legendary director, now 86, directs Bangabandhu, an ambitious biopic about Mujibur Rahman. Starring well-known Bangladeshi actors Arifin Shuvoo (Rehman) and Nusrat Imrose Tisha (Fazilatunnesa), the film is a joint production of the Bangladesh Film Development Corporation (BFDC) and the National Film Development Corporation of India (NFDC).
“Bangabandhu was supposed to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Mujibur Rahman (born March 17, 1920) as well as the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh (Rahman declared independence from Pakistan on March 26, 1971). Unfortunately, the film could not be ready in time to celebrate these milestones as we were halted in our tracks by the pandemic, ”said Benegal, who came on board in early 2019.
Filming has been underway in Mumbai since January 21, 2021, with the current schedule set to continue until mid-April. The film’s release date has not been decided, but production has resumed at a time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi is due to visit Bangladesh on March 26 to participate in the 50th anniversary celebrations – his first trip abroad. since the outbreak of the pandemic.
“The crowd and the remaining war footage for the film will be shot in Bangladesh once the monsoon is over,” Benegal says.
The setting for the film is modeled after the original Dhanmondi 32, which was converted into the Bangabandhu Memorial Museum in 1994. Reflecting the couple’s simple lifestyle, Shuvoo is dressed in a checkered lungi and white banyan tree while Tisha is wearing an off-white sari.
“(Rahman) is almost like a protagonist in a Shakespearean tragedy. He was a man who loved his country too much. He also trusted his compatriots too much. Despite multiple warnings, he never believed in improving his personal security, ”says Benegal, while referring to the assassination of Rahman on August 15, 1975 during a military coup.
Rahman’s wife, three sons and several other family members were also killed in the attack. His daughters, Sheikh Hasina and Sheikh Rehana, survived as they were in West Germany at that time. Sheikh Hasina is now the Prime Minister of Bangladesh.
“Bangabandhu will not follow his life chronologically. He will discuss some of the turning points and aspects of his life that made Mujibur Rahman what he was… When making a biopic of a popular figure, be careful not to fall into the realm of hagiography. At the same time, you shouldn’t get too critical of the subject, ”says Benegal, adding that the film will go beyond“ the public image of a leader ”and offer a glimpse into his private life.
After his acclaimed debut with “Ankur” in 1973, Benegal directed several award-winning films such as “Nishant” (1975), “Bhumika” (1977), “Junoon” (1979), “Mandi” (1983), “Sardari Begum “(1996) and” Zubeidaa “(2001). He has also directed biopics such as “The Making of the Mahatma” (1996) and “Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero” (2005).
For “Bangabandhu”, Benegal was clear about making the film in Bengali. “That’s why I chose to incorporate Bangladeshi actors in the lead roles. Although the original screenplay written by Shama Zaidi and Atul Tiwari was in English, we have writers who adapted it in Bengali and introduced the local idiom, ”he says.
The legendary director and his team traveled to Bangladesh, where most of the film was originally supposed to be shot before the pandemic hit. Zaidi and Tiwari also met with family members and associates of Rahman, and visited different places related to the chief. Almost two years later, the setting of Nitish Roy’s Film City recreates the atmosphere of 1970s Dhaka in detail. The living room in Dhanmondi 32 has beautiful rattan furniture while the coffee table sports a crochet blanket. Kept in a corner is a television enclosed in a wooden box with a vase of red roses on top.
After a lunch break, the unit rearranges the lights for the next scene. The camera moves to the bedroom where the Bangladeshi leader relaxes with his wife and Hasina. In one corner is a study table with inkwells, letters and a bunch of books by Rabindranath Tagore.