Director: Shyam Benegal
Writers: Atul Tiwari, Shama Zaidi
Cast: Arifin Shuvoo, Nusrat Imrose Tisha, Nusraat Faria, Tauquir Ahmed, Riaz, Shahidul Alam Sachchu
Duration: 178 mins
Available in: Theatres
As a film critic, it doesn’t get more disheartening than watching a terrible movie by a pioneering director. Especially if the name alone conveys the iconography of a culture. The last thing you want to do is criticize the most basic elements: The cosplay-level performances, dated visual effects, silly wigs, Wikipedia-lite structure, history-for-dummies writing, infomercial tone, press-release approach, absence of narrative continuity, or the absence of film-making in general. But sometimes, there’s no escape. There’s no other way to put it. If not for the credit “A Shyam Benegal Film,” it’d be hard to tell that Mujib: The Making of a Nation were made by anyone at all. Such is the craft of the 178-minute biopic on Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the charismatic Bengali leader widely known as the Founding Father of Bangladesh.
Co-produced by the NFDC (National Film Development Corporation of India) and BFDC (Bangladesh Film Development Corporation), the wide-ranging life story is reduced to a series of state-sponsored bullet points and vintage Pakistan bashing. It adds nothing to – even subtracts from – what we can find with a Google search. Every phase – his student-activist days in the British Raj, a young Mujib’s rising stature in the All India Muslim League, his disillusionment with West Pakistan, his fight for secularism and autonomy, the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, his troubled Presidency years – is narrated by his wife. But the staging itself looks like an afterthought. The voice-over doubles up as lazy transitions. It unfolds like a book whose denser pages are conveniently missing. One moment he’s dying on a hunger strike, the next he’s protesting outside a parliament, with nothing but a quick “he recovered” connecting the two timelines. One moment his first child is born and the next, he has four, with nothing but a quick "his family grew" in between. One moment he becomes the president and declares independence, and the next, he refuses to eat rice during the 1974 famine. One moment we see the archival footage of an Indira Gandhi interview, and the next, Bangladesh is free. One moment we’re entering the cinema hall in the morning, and the next, it’s late evening. One moment we’re reminiscing about Mandi (1983), and the next, we’re cringing at Mujib: The Making of a Nation.
As is the case with hagiographies, there’s no time for things like detailing. Image takes precedence over imagery. Mujib’s younger brother is visibly a decade older than him. A massive mole appears on a face that was spotless for years. One of the grandchildren stays the same age for years. A Pakistani colonel is seen cackling in the sort of neon-lit lair that used to house villains like Shakaal and Mogambo. Rajit Kapur appears in a cameo that's punctuated with a Shakespearean "preposterous" at the end of an argument. The junior artists look like nobody’s briefed them. A body flinches a second after being shot dead. Despite the school-level VFX, the film insists on having war sequences and scaled-up backgrounds. The result: A plane drops out of the air like a toy bird, an establishing shot of London looks like a digital postcard, and the lake in front of a Dhaka home feels like a Nineties’ computer screensaver. There's more, but you get the gist. Benegal's previous biopic, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero (2004), lacked technical prowess too, but at least it had an ideological frankness that made it worth debating over.
Watching the Hindi-dubbed version doesn’t help matters, though I can’t imagine Arifin Shuvoo’s lead turn being resuscitated by the original language (Bangla). The pipe-smoking, theatrical voice and emphatic gestures stop working ten minutes into the three-hour-long film. In terms of storytelling, there are sparks of potential in perhaps a single scene – where, following the declaration, a soldier on house-patrol remains unaware that the land he’s on is no longer East Pakistan. But the moment doesn’t last long. Nothing lasts long. Given the recent emergence of Bangladeshi cinema on the world stage, it’s tragic that their bad big-budget historical is an Indian collaboration. The icing on this stale cake is a long-drawn assassination sequence in a bungalow that plays out like the tasteless reverse of the Zero Dark Thirty (2012) raid. There’s no reason to show children getting slaughtered, unless the intent is to provoke rage against a nation. The theme feels all too familiar. And familiarity, in this case, breeds a fair amount of contempt.