Director Shyam Benegal, aged 88, showed up to the Mumbai premiere of his latest, and perhaps most expensive film, Mujib: The Making Of A Nation (2023) in a cream half-sleeve shirt, pants, chappals and his walking stick. Benegal has no patience for fanfare, even as the moment demanded it. He still uses his shirt pocket to slot the phone and some folded papers. That piece of fabric sags under the weight.
A joint production between Bangladesh Film Development Corporation (BFDC) and National Film Development Corporation Ltd (NFDC), Mujib marks the coming together of two nations — an Indian director to shape life to the father of Bangladesh, the late Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (also the father of the current Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina). The cost of the film was shared 60-40, between BFDC and NFDC respectively. According to Benegal, it was a side-meeting between Sheikh Hasina and Modi at some political event that finally got the ball rolling on this film, capitalising on the excitement in 2020-21, around Mujib’s birth centenary.
At 2 hours 50 minutes, the film is a marathon run-through of Mujib’s life, from his early marriage, through the war with West Pakistan to gain Bangladesh’s independence in 1971, and his murder in 1975 in a bloody military coup. Benegal insists the film he wanted was longer, a four hour cut.
No stranger to the genre of political biographies — The Making of the Mahatma (1996), Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero (2004) — Benegal neatly and linearly moves through the life of Mujib in his spare, starched style. Many historians were consulted at every stage of the script, to nail the events. Subtitled The Making Of A Nation, the film tries to link the destiny of Mujibur Rahman to that of Bangladesh, such that their coming of age and demise blurs together.
In a conversation with Film Companion, edited for length and clarity, Benegal discusses the genre and the making of a political film in the times we find ourselves in.
It has been a while since we have had a Shyam Benegal film.
It hasn’t been that long. The thing is, once we decided to make the film, it took a long time for decisions to be made, for approvals to be gotten. Two governments are involved, you see. They have different agendas, a domestic versus foreign agenda. There are many places where they may disagree, agree. All these things have to mesh, come together, to make a film.
As an artist, then, do you feel stuck between these political decisions?
See, you are functioning in the real world, no? Everything doesn’t go according to the way you think. You have to deal with the real world, and the real world has real problems.
So when you are writing this film (with Shama Zaidi and Atul Tiwari), you are very consciously thinking about how it will be received by the governments?
Yes, you have to. You see, we also have our own native prejudices. You have to open up to all these things and eliminate them — preconceived notions about countries, how things happened, what positions were taken, what made India finally go to war with Pakistan. What was the reason? Was it because of Bangladesh because they were fighting for their freedom? Or were we helping them so they could help us?
It is an extremely political thing. Don’t forget we were stuck with a problem, we had 10 million refugees at our border. It was not our problem, but it became our problem, and then how do we sort it out?
As a filmmaker are you worried about how the film is then being used? The film was just released in Bangladesh and general elections are scheduled to be held in Bangladesh in January 2024. Sheikh Hasina, Mujib’s daughter and Prime Minister is in the running.
I was never expecting the film to ever have a large cinema release. Most films released in theatres stay only for one week at the most. Look at the rate at which cinemas are closing down, because it is not a profitable business anymore.
It felt like a miracle that Mujib opened in 170 cinemas in Bangladesh, running to full houses. Then, they even converted community halls to show films in places with no theatre, which meant there is a tremendous popular acceptance in Bangladesh.
Are you worried it becomes a mouthpiece for the election?
I am sure it will play a part. But that’s the real world. But people are not stupid. They are politically savvy people.
Speaking of the film itself, you decided to have Mujib’s wife, Sheikh Fazilatunnesa Mujib, as the anchoring voiceover of the film, even though she wasn’t witness to most events.
I didn’t want it to be Mujib himself speaking; I didn’t want to show the film in first person. Because while he did keep a small prison diary for musings, he didn’t write much before or after. His wife was a very sharp, intelligent woman, and I wanted that to come through. She also was a very good balancing factor for him. He had his passions. She centred him. When her daughter, Sheikh Hasina, was talking about her, she said this, and that is why I thought we should tell the story through her eyes.
A lot of the film is full of political speeches and soaring rhetoric. As a writer-director are you worried, because it can very easily come across as a dry retelling?
No no. I have made films on political leaders. I have never felt that to be a problem.
Are you worried the film could be read as a hagiography. You are not very critical of Mujib, as though you, too, are in love with him.
Yes because he was a very attractive human being. I will give the example of Macbeth — if he trusted, he trusted fully without thinking, without working out the politics of it. Mujib, in that sense, was almost Shakespearan, with this quality. This was both his attractive side, but also his fatal flaw.
You shot the film in Bangla, despite the fact that you don’t speak the language. How do you direct people in an unfamiliar language?
I had wonderful people to help me. It was the sound of the language that made me feel if it was spoken correctly or not. It is not just Bangla, because the Bengali of Bangladesh is different — a subtle but important difference. There is more music in Bangladeshi Bengali than there is in our Bengali. These are riverine people, you look at all the rivers and the music that has come, boatman’s songs, mendicants songs, bauls — they have come from that side.