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Of biopic, Sheikh Mujib and Shyam Benegal

Of biopic, Sheikh Mujib and Shyam Benegal

A biopic is conventionally defined as a movie dealing with a legendary person's life. It could be a certain period taken from one's life, or one's long saga from boyhood to death. The films could emphasise the detailed portrayal of a celebrity's dramatic moments that occurred in his or her life, or go on narrating their day-to-day episodes. Amid these debates, people with eventful careers have been seen drawing continuously the interest of the biopic makers.

It was after the government announcement of making a biopic on Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on the leader's birth centenary that the subject has been a widely discussed one. Besides, the name of the director, Shyam Benegal --- a highly acclaimed film maker in India, carried a mystique of sorts which, in a faint way though, matched that of the great Bengalee leader. 'Gandhi' (1982), the winner of several Oscars had emerged as one of the superbly made biopic movies in the 20th century. Directed by Richard Attenborough, the 188-minute movie spanned the Father of India's eventful life from his days as a young barrister in South Africa to his death at a place near Birla House in New Delhi. By that time he had already started being revered as the greatest of Indian leaders. The range of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi's life (1869-1948), and his fight against a formidable adversary --- the colonial British rulers, was quite wide. It was peopled by hundreds of Indian politicians, British imperial government officials and the common people. His was a purely non-violent movement aimed at freeing the undivided India of the British rulers. In spite of his leading a 'nation' comprising dozens of beliefs, castes, ethnic identities, the movement launched by Gandhi involved years of negotiations and political manoeuvrings.

The events in Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's 3-decade-long political career finally assumed an intense and charged character which had no parallel in the lives of other politicians in the sub-continent. The life of the leader, the architect of independent Bangladesh, followed a straight path. It suited him well as he emerged from grassroots politics, mostly in a remote village. Complexities, doublespeak and alibis in broader politics eluded him. Throughout his relatively short political life, he had been used to calling a spade a spade. In March, 1971, the then West Pakistan-based military-political honchos were reluctant to hand over power to the Bengalee-dominant East Pakistan, despite the latter's electoral victory. The crux of the matter lay in it. The political career of Sheikh Mujib (1920-1975) was filled with many a breathless moment with little time given him to think over critical political decisions. The most notable of such moments is the one of raising the issue of independence at the March 7 public meeting in Dhaka in 1971.The leader demonstrated his political acumen by not becoming rash on the independence issue.

Like a prudent, yet brave, politician, Mujib called upon the people to remain prepared to start an armed struggle for independence if the rulers didn't meet the East Pakistani Begalees' demand for peaceful power transfer following the 1970 poll victory. A disciple of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, the nationalist leader championing the cause of the Bengalees, Sheikh Mujib was able to sense the consequences of the independence declaration on March 7. He had perhaps foreseen the bloodbath in the country after the eagerly-awaited declaration at the meeting. It was perhaps the most critical moment in the leader's political career. Shyam Benegal is believed to have realised the great significance of the moment. In order to act it out, the biopic requires an extremely powerful actor playing the role of Mujib. It has been learnt in early March that Benegal has cast the young actor and model Arefin Shubho as Bangabandhu in the biopic. The talented British actor Ben Kingsley played the role of 'Gandhi' in the biopic on the non-violent leader of Indian independence. With an acting career of 54 years including his work in Sir Attenborough's 'Gandhi', Kingsley has won a number of international acting awards. For 'Gandhi' he won the award for Best Actor.

For his role as Mahatma Gandhi, Kingsley is said to have put in his best creative talent at his command. It was an exhaustive effort which, one hopes, would come from the Bangladeshi young actor Arefin Shuvo. The task is daunting. But for an artiste with love and admiration for Bangabandhu, few doubt the young actor's capability to present before the audience a lively portrayal of the Father of the Nation. Apart from the historic moments which Bangabandhu had passed in 2nd-25th March, 1971, the scene of the leader's fearless posture before his brutal killing along with his family members on August 15, 1975, demands extraordinary genius in acting. In the scene of Gandhi's killing by an assassin's bullet, the composure that was found in the puzzled leader's face had beamed 27 years later in the blissful expression of the motionless Sheikh Mujib lying on the stairs of his Dhaka residence.       In an ironical twist of fate, both Mahatma Gandhi and Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib died from bullet.

Making a full-length movie on the great political figure and the supreme independence leader of the Bengalees --- Sheikh Mujib, undoubtedly, is a challenging task. The gifted Indian feature film maker Shyam Benegal, credited with directing dozens of off-beat feature films, has accepted the challenge. Benegal appears to have an inherent knack for making biopic. He has made a biographical movie on Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose in 2005. Few non-Bangla-speaking directors could muster the courage to make films on widely adored Bengalee leaders. By taking the challenge of directing a massive film on the life and career of Bangabandhu after Subhas Bose, Shyam Benegal has, in fact, showed his love for the Bengalees and their leaders.

Many movie-goers confuse biopic with documentary films. Although they move along the same track, the two belong to different segments. The duration of documentaries is short --- ranging normally from 10 minutes to 30/40 minutes. Documentary movies ought to remain focused on the central character and his or her immediate surroundings. The maker has little scope for digression. For instance, critics may cite Satyajit Ray's short documentary movie on the blind painter Vinod Bihari. The extraordinary film is called 'The Inner Eye'. Kolkata's feature film director Goutam Ghose's 90-minute documentary on the legendary 'Sehnai' player Bismillah Khan stands out with the maker's skill in directing films of this genre.

After the initial years of biopic in the silent movie era featuring films like 'The Passion of Joan of Arc' (1928), directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, the genre of biopic witnessed dozens of well-made historical documentaries on famous persons in many countries. The making of these exclusive movies gained spontaneous audience-backing in the 1980s, with the trend becoming speedier in the following decades to continue into the 21st century. The remarkable biopic movies of the 20th and the 21st centuries include 'Elizabeth', winner of an Oscar in the 'Best Picture' category. The film, depicting the 40-year reign of Queen Elizabeth-1, was directed by Shekhar Kapoor in 1998. Among others, one would like to include 'Lincoln', based on the life of the 16th US president in the turbulent times of the American Civil War. Made in 2012, it was directed by the globally acclaimed American movie maker Steven Spielberg.

Some of the biopic ventures from the earlier century include 'Nixon' (1965), directed by Oliver Stone. In 1991, the same director made the excellent biopic 'JFK', based on the life of President Kennedy. It was a roaring box office success, winning 8 (eight) Oscar nominations. The plot of the movie revolves round some of the vital characters related to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Figuratively titled, 'The Last King of Scotland' (2006) was another biopic that deserves to be on the list of well-made historical documentaries on persons. The film shows the presidential episodes in the life of the chauvinistic Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. The movie won the Oscar award for Best Actor which went to Forest Whitaker. In the sector of biopic on national and independence leaders, the name of 'Lumumba' (2000) occupies a distinctive place on its own merit. It narrates the life of young African nationalist Patrice Lumumba. He became the first head of government of the Republic of Congo in 1960. An emotion-charged passionate pan-African leader, he was assassinated in 1961 after only 2 months in office. Lumumba was 35 at the time of his death.

Based on the autobiography 'Long Walk to Freedom' by Nelson Mandela, a biopic named 'Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom' (Dir: Justin Chadwick) created considerable stir among the movie-goers after its release in 2013. The film spans the period from the South African leader's rural childhood through his fiery youth to his start of the days as the first black democratically elected president of South Africa.

The 20th and 21st centuries have witnessed around a dozen biopic made on the legendary national leaders. The biopic on Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib is expected to carve out a major place in the annals of the present world cinema. The countdown to the completion of the epic film has already begun.



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