starring Nurul Islam Bablu, Russell Farazi, Jayanto Chattopadhyay, Rokeya Prachy
screenplay by Catherine Masud & Tareque Masud
directed by Tareque Masud
by Travis Mackenzie Hoover There's no sense in overestimating the virtues of Tareque Masud's The Clay Bird, a gentle--sometimes too gentle--look back at a Muslim education on the eve of Bangladesh's separation from Pakistan. The film has its share of problems: expository dialogue, sketchily drawn characters, and a determination to underplay some potentially charged material whether it serves the narrative or not. And yet, The Clay Bird's remaining pluses more than make up for its failings, serving as they do a humane sensibility and a keen visual sense that refuses, for better and for worse, to play into sensationalism or spite. Masud may have toned things down a little far for dramatic purposes, but he's still a sensitive man uninterested in rigid dogma of any sort--and as he's counteracting the heated polarization that led to violent repression in his country, he can be forgiven for erring in the opposite extreme.
Set in the late-'60s, prior to Bangladeshi independence from Pakistan, the film deals with a young boy named Anu, son of a strict Muslim homeopath who fears his boy's corruption by the outside world. When he can no longer tolerate his secular brother's indulgence of Anu's desire for pleasure, father packs the boy off to a religious school (or madrasa), where he can be counted on to see and hear nothing but Muslim teachings. Sure enough, the madrasa is a stifling and joyless prison, full of inane proscriptions (against such crimes as writing Arabic with your left hand) and a hostile student populace that leaves him with a batty loner outcast as his only friend. But things are changing, both at home and in the larger world: military rule has fallen and free elections are upon the country, confusing Anu's deeply religious father and causing fissures in even the tightly-policed world of the madrasa clerics.
Whether these changes are adequately handled is a thorny matter. For all of its good intentions, the film registers several notches quieter than it ought to thanks to some clumsy dramaturgy--things happen a little too schematically and illustrate points far too bluntly. Exposition flies thick and heavy as characters illustrate hard and fast points of view: father is around to spout Muslim rhetoric while mother is supposed to offer beleaguered dissenting arguments; his brother is there to raise the secular banner; and the school friend demonstrates the perils of conformity. They're each so flimsily drawn that it's hard to get attached to them; when disaster strikes (and father does something truly unforgivable), the human cost doesn't register the way it would with the loss of vivid, kinky personalities.
And yet, Masud is skilful enough in fashioning his rhetoric that one isn't too disappointed at the form. If some of his figures are unsympathetically anaemic, they are at least far from vindictive caricatures: The Clay Bird is less interested in kicking Muslim ass than in mapping the intellectual lines of a time and a place. Even at his most critical, Masud bends over backwards to understand the position he's repudiating and respects the person who holds such views, taking his film several cuts above the Afterschool Special it flirts with becoming. And his style beautifully supports this unforced approach to ideology, framing the figures without cutting them up into manipulative montage; fluid and enveloping, the camera's movement and framing create a ground on which people negotiate spaces instead of drawing lines that define them as beyond movement. Give the film a chance and you'll be rewarded with an unobstructed view of the scene--not a noncommittal acceptance of all shades of opinion, but one that can comprehend the actions of its dissenters as well as offering them a way out. Originally published: June 18, 2004.