The better moments in Shyam Benegal’s Mujib: The Making of a Nation can be found in the scenes depicting Bangladeshi leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s relationship with his family, particularly his wife Renu. The tender exchanges between the Rahmans are especially poignant when you remember the early hours of August 15, 1975, when nearly all of them were shot dead in their home in Dhaka by a unit of the Bangladesh Army.
Two of Rahman’s five children – his daughters – survived the massacre because they were out of the country at the time. One of them is now Bangladesh’s Prime Minster, Sheikh Hasina. Mujib is a co-production between the governments of Bangladesh and India. For the most part, Mujib is a cultural extension of diplomatic ties between the subcontinental neighbours rather than a cinematic experience.
A life fantastic has been rendered inert by the requirements of the state-sanctioned biopic. The overbearing stamp of officialdom can be discerned in the chronicle of Rahman’s rise to political influence, his starring role in leading the liberation of Bangladesh (then known as East Pakistan) from Pakistan in the 1960s and 1970s, and his horrific assassination in 1975.
The 179-minute movie has been made in Bengali and dubbed into Hindi. Mujib (Arifin Shuvoo, voiced by Chetanya Adib in Hindi) signals his impatience with the status quo at a young age. In the 1940s, Mujib catches the eye of prominent politician Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy (Tauqir Ahmed).
Drafted into the Awami League party, Mujib becomes an early proponent of the unyoking of East Pakistan from West Pakistan – an unwieldy Partition arrangement that was destined to fail.
Pakistani leaders dismiss the growing anti-Pakistan sentiment in their eastern division to their peril. Their crackdown is as brutal as the pushback is fierce.
Frequently imprisoned for his sallies against Pakistan, Mujib has a valuable ally in his wife Renu (Nusrat Imrose Tisha), who keeps the family together as well as offers political advice. Mujib’s fiery Bangladeshi nationalism culminates in a passionate liberation movement. In 1971, with considerable military help from Indira Gandhi’s government in India, East Pakistan becomes Bangladesh.
Historians in both countries will likely debate the movie’s greatly simplified portrayal of Mujib’s ideology as well as his leadership of Bangladesh after its liberation. For Indian filmgoers unaware of the complexities of Bangladeshi history, Mujib offers generalised talking points.
The Indian version needed to have excised several scenes that will make sense to Bangladeshi viewers but will be of little interest on this side of the border. Nonetheless, the sheer drama that heralded the birth of Bangladesh survives the stodgy, radio play-like screenplay by Shama Zaidi and Atul Tiwari and Benegal’s workmanlike filmmaking.
The adulatory approach has its interesting moments. The ferment against an occupying force that leads to emancipation, the influence of Gandhian thought on Mujib and the yearning for a unique political identity have contemporary resonances, whether in parts of India or the tragic events in Gaza.
The campaign for Bangladesh is based on cultural and linguistic concerns rather than on religion, the film emphasises. The depiction of a politics in a Muslim-majority region that isn’t predicated on faith is among the stronger ideas in Mujib. But with so many milestones to mark, this idea doesn’t get the exploration it deserves.
A massive cast of Bangladeshi actors have performed the principal and secondary roles. Only Nusrat Imrose Tisha, as Renu, stands out.
Arifin Shuvoo resembles Mujibur Rahman because of his make-up and costumes (by Pia Benegal), rather than his histrionics. Shuvoo is hard-pressed to harness the magnetism, vitality and intellect that earned his subject the titles of “Bangabandhu” (Friend of the Bengalis) and “Father of the Nation”. If the movie often plays out like a hagiography, Shuvoo is its deeply respectful, inoffensive and unexciting core.