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Interview: Tareque Masud, Director of 'The Clay Bird'

The Clay Bird (2002), directed by Tareque Masud.

The Clay Bird (2002), directed by Tareque Masud.

Tareque Masud is a filmmaker based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. With Catherine Masud, he has produced numerous documentaries and shorts through their production company, Audiovision. Matir Moina, or The Clay Bird, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2002 and is their first feature film.

In this interview, Tarque Masud discusses, among other themes, his childhood experience in a madrassah, the significance of Sufi mystical traditions in Bangladesh, depictions of political violence in the media, the making of The Clay Bird, the role of music and architecture in the film, and his future plans.

The Clay Bird is your first feature film. To what extent is it autobiographical? And how important do you think it is that you are able to present a story from the inside as it were, as a Muslim, as a Bangladeshi, and so on?

Well, first of all, it is definitely very autobiographical because all the characters and events are very close to the reality of my own life. Second, we are basically documentary filmmakers. If I could have, I would have made a documentary on my life, but it is virtually impossible to do that because it is too close to me.

Because the film so closely resembles the events of my own life, it is also a journey into my self, my community, my religion. I think one of the reasons why the film may have some strength is because I am an insider. Madrassahs have mostly been talked about by outsiders who have never been to a madrassah, and also of course they are mentioned a lot now in the western media and press. Even in countries where madrassahs are a big phenomenon like Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India, the people who talk about madrassahs are the middle class who neither attend madrassahs themselves nor send their children to study there.

It so happens that the film was scripted, shot, and finished before 9/11. After 9/11, though, the madrassah became very topical. In my case, however, the madrassah was simply a part of my life; I had been carrying inside me both the pain and the pleasure of my experience there. It was not like I wanted to share it with outsiders but I had wanted for a long time to share it with my fellow Muslims who are not familiar with the madrassah. One of the reasons for this, as I mentioned, is that hardly any middle class children are sent to madrassahs.

When I was in college, my classmates would ask me what school I attended and I tried at first to evade the question. When I did tell them that I attended a madrassah there was a tremendous curiosity among my peers about my experience there. I should add that the college I attended was co-ed so it was even more of a dramatic change for me coming from the madrassah!

I then started thinking that I should do something with my experience at the madrassah. Following college, I got involved in the film society and I started watching a lot of interesting films, including Pather Panchali by Satyajit Ray. I then started thinking of making a film about it.

It just so happened that being in New York, where I was from 1989 to 1995, gave me more perspective on the idea. When you are a away from home, you have more perspective in general, and especially so in as multicultural, multiethnic city as New York. It was then that Catherine and I really started talking about it, about going back to Bangladesh to start preparing ourselves to make a film on my experience in the madrassah.

What is the significance of the title Clay Bird?

In the film, as you may recall, my character comes home from the madrassah for a holiday and stops at a village fair and picks up this clay bird to give to his sister. This is what happened in my own life; I bought this clay bird for my sister and it came to have a strong association with my sister's memory. It means a lot to me because of what happened to her later. The clay bird was poignant for me, for the memory of my sister, because even at that age, we knew that our father would not approve of us having it - it was considered pagan. And of course, as children, we were much more inclined to find something curious and interesting because it was forbidden. When other children used to play with such idols (dolls and such things) my father would forbid us from doing the same.

I remember the time in the late-60s when plastic dolls were first becoming available for ordinary middle class families. When I visited Dhaka, I used to see my cousins play with them but I knew I would not be able to take these dolls back home. And it was the same with my sister - she was deprived of playing with the dolls which all her cousins and friends had; this was particularly hard in our rural context where there were so many fairs with toys, figurines, dolls and so on. So that was one of the main reasons for choosing the title: its association with my childhood and my sister.

It is also a thematic part of the film: the question of freedom versus different kinds of human limitations - social, political, and religious. As Sufism teaches us, the human being is made of clay and the soul is always associated with a free bird. The soul is encaged in a clay body and the body is very limited, very transitory, fragile, weak; the soul always wants to be free, has an immense desire to be free. If there is any continuous and recurring theme in the film it is freedom despite limitations, whether they are social, political, or physical. Aisha wants to be free as a woman, as a human being; Anu wants to be free to do whatever he wants to do; Milon seeks national, territorial freedom which is his own narrow sense of freedom; the boatman talks about a greater, mystical, spiritual freedom. So all the characters are pursuing their own forms of freedom. The theme of freedom recurs even against the backdrop of the political movements depicted in the film. So the overriding theme is limitations versus freedom, and the title reflects this and is a tribute also to Sufism, and its emphasis on the relationship between soul and body.

You have brought out brilliantly the importance of Sufi mystical traditions in rural Bangladesh, and also the long history and practice of religious pluralism and internal debate within Islam - the theological sophistication of popular religion, as it were. In the last song in particular, there is a very interesting dialectic between orthodox and mystical Islam in which mystical Islam wins out at the end of the song, when the woman singer initially taking the orthodox position joins the mystical/humanist position. Do you think that popular religion is mystical/humanist, and orthodox religion is an artifact of the state, in particular the Pakistani state?

I cannot say specifically for a state like Pakistan. I would say, in general, for countries like Pakistan or Bangladesh, or any other Muslim country, but in the case of Bangladesh particularly since this is the country I know best, popular Islam is definitely based more on "real" life. In this context, popular Islam is more inclusive, more pluralistic, more diverse and syncretic in nature, based on wisdom and common sense. This is in sharp contrast with what I call "scholastic" Islam, a bookish and modernist Islam (and this modernist phenomenon is not limited to Islam; it is more widespread and has an effect on all religions). The modernists are using this scholastic Islam for their own ends. They are trying to impose a creed and not the culture, even though clearly Islam is not just a creed, it is a culture like any other. A big part of religion is culture.

Modernists everywhere are trying to impose an abstract creed, to impose Islam from a scholastic point of view, from a book, and this has historically never been popular. Popular Islam grew naturally with strong support from the Sufi mystic tradition. In South Asia, Islam did not travel with the sword; the soil may have in certain places been conquered by the sword, but the soul was conquered by Sufism. What is more important: conquering the soil or conquering the soul of the people? People's hearts were won by Sufis. This is not just simple rhetoric; this is how it happened. In Iraq now for instance when you try to conquer peoples' minds, it is not easy to do with the sword. If you want to conquer somebody's heart you need to follow a different path.

In this way, I see popular Islam as very deep-rooted in Bangladesh. There is a strong Sufi influence across South Asia which can be seen in the shrines to Sufi saints across the region. People have a much more natural inclination towards this form of religion. It is very close to their hearts; they do not need to be indoctrinated. They can appreciate saints and shrines, and celebrate and worship God through songs and music.

There is another dimension to Islam, that is, its diversity: in Bangladesh, Islam is integrated very much with indigenous cultures. Islam is as diverse as the cultures and countries it exists in, which is the beauty of it. It is beautiful that Islam adopts the local traditions and cultures; that is the greatness of any big religion, it does not impose itself.

Do you think that this humanist, Sufi tradition of popular Islam is under threat in Bangladesh today? How do you see the post-independence history of the syncretic nature of Bangladeshi identity?

The creation of Bangladesh was quite unlike the creation of Pakistan which was more or less created because of Islam, because of the Two-Nation Theory (that Muslims needed a separate nation based on religion). Bangladesh was created on the basis that the state has nothing to do with religion. From this there has definitely been a departure as far as both the constitution and government are concerned. From 1975 onwards we went back to the Pakistani legacy of military governments. Since the military never has a base to get popular support, they always use religion. Although the leaders have had no interest in Islam they would always include Islamic elements in the constitution to gain support. They would become self-appointed guardians of Islam, alleging that Islam was in danger and that they would protect it (all, of course, for their own vested interests).

We went through that kind of phase, unfortunately. The constitution has still not been reversed. There were amendments made to the constitution that made it less secular. Then, in response to 9/11 and the atrocities against Muslims in India, there was a serious backlash in Bangladesh. There has been a rise in Islamic fundamentalism but Islamist parties have yet to gain popular votes in elections. This is definitely a reaction to what is happening in the Middle East and is more understandable when looked at in this context. At the same time, however, as we already discussed, there is a very strong popular Sufi influence in rural Bangladesh.

There is another equally important factor: in 1971, some of the major Islamic parties were involved in war crimes as collaborators with the Pakistan army. During every election, this is brought back; the war-crime stamp hurts their credibility so that works as a safeguard. It is very difficult for them to be elected given that legacy. Even in Pakistan, until now, no Islamist party has come to power.