Film-Forward Review: [THE CLAY BIRD]

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Rokon (left, Russell Farazi) &
Abu (Nurul Islam Bablu) in class
Photo: Milestone

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THE CLAY BIRD
Directed by: Tareque Masud.
Produced by: Catherine Masud.
Written by: Tareque & Catherine Masud.
Director of Photography: Sudheer Palsane.
Edited by: Catherine Masud.
Released by: Milestone.
Language: Bengali with English Subtitles.
Country of Origin: Bangladesh. 98 min. Not Rated.
With: Jayanto Chattopadhyay, Rokeya Prachy, Nurul Islam Bablu, Russell Farazi & Soaeb Islam.
DVD Features: Interviews with the cast & crew. The making-of documentary (30 min.) Three song tracks. Stills gallery. French & American trailers. Press kit (DVD-Rom).

A quiet, perhaps nostalgic plea for pluralism and democracy, this bittersweet film effectively illuminates the roots of contemporary conflicts. Based on director/cowriter Tareque Masudís childhood experiences growing up in East Pakistan, young Anu (Nurul Islam Bablu) is sent away from his rural village to a strict madrasa by his devout Muslim father, with many parallels to Tom Brownís Schooldays. While a few of the schoolís teachers represent a tolerant Islam open to outside ideas, the orthodox approach wins out, especially in the strict treatment of Anuís friend Rokon (Russell Farazi), an orphan. But Anuís father, Kazi, is less concerned with his sonís religious education than with the influence of his politically active younger brother, Milon (Soaeb Islam), who wears Western clothes and takes Anu, without permission, to a colorful Hindu festival. Set in the late 1960s, Bengalis, like Milon, are agitating for democratic freedom from the Pakistani dictatorship based a thousand miles away, which will lead to the long, bloody civil war that created an independent Bangladesh in 1971.

The filmís only two professional actors Ė Anuís mother (Rokeya Prachy as Ayesha) and father Kazi (Jayanto Chattopadhyay) Ė add shadings to their complex characters and help to raise the film above mere ethnographic interest. Ayesha was married at 14 to the much older Kazi, and finds herself more and more restricted by Kaziís enforcement of a narrow Islam, yet she still retains a strong sense of self and independence. Unlike virtually all other films with controlling Muslim husbands, Kazi is very much a human being as he tries, to his breaking point, to reconcile his religious ideals with the reality around him.

While providing insight into the diversity of South Asian Islamic experiences before the current polarization, all of the characters emerge as distinct individuals buffeted by wider forces. Every incident, every discussion, every costume, and each of the beautiful song performances serve an illustrative purpose. Fascinating theological debates are conducted through the traditional music, particularly a duet between a man and a woman contrasting spreading Islam through fear versus through love Ė the sword versus the Sufi teaching of equality and peace.

DVD Extras: The making-of documentary is an interview with Tareque and Catherine Masud, the husband and wife creative team, focusing exclusively on the difficult physical and casting challenges. Filmed on location, they had rare luck when a one-week general strike facilitated their filming at a historic site located in a busy neighborhood; the street was silent for key outdoor scenes.

The quite interesting interviews with cast members were completed considerably after the film itself. The young boys now seem to be teenagers, and describe how their personal lives relate to the characters they portrayed. As Kazi, Jayanto Chattopadhyay is actually a Brahmin Hindu, and grew up in a mixed area of East Pakistan. Two of the women folk singers disparage their few minutes of screen time as their performances usually go on all night, but they are passionately against current orthodox efforts to restrict women singers.

The press kit available on the DVD-ROM provides much more about the film's content, including interviews on the autobiographical elements, a glossary, and song lyrics. Reflecting the filmís fervent setting, excerpts of political and religious debates also appear. While these excerpts emphasize Islamic connections to the Bible, with links to Moses and the sacrifice of Isaac, the authenticity of the Koranic teachings was accurate enough to finally get the film past the initial objections of Bangladeshís Film Censor Board, according to the advisor who also plays one of Anuís teachers. Nora Lee Mandel
September 26, 2006

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