Tamzidur Rahman chats with the man behind the lenses Munsur Ali about his labour of love and struggle
Bengal Art Lounge screened Munsur Ali’s debut film Shongram on the occasion of International Mother Language Day. The premise of the film follows a journalist, played by Asia Argento, interviewing a Bangladeshi Londoner Karim who’s on his deathbed, played by Anupam Kher. The story unfolds as Karim talks about his life in Bangladesh during the liberation struggle of 1971. Though the film still awaits mainstream release, it has already been screened at many film festivals including Tribeca Film Festival, London Indian Film Festival, and Singapore Film Festival. A possible screening at Cannes has also been suggested.
There are a number of things that set Shongram apart from other such films. Not only does the film feature international actors like Kher and Argento but it is told from the perspective of a British Bangladeshi who took up abode in a foreign country after the liberation of Bangladesh. Although the story is set in the thick of the war, the focus is not the war itself. Never has there been a 1971 war film of this magnitude where the subjects that the film focuses on share a fresh outlook on the war compared to the many hundred war films in existence. The war of 1971 holds a special meaning for the British Bangladeshi director.
“My inspiration for Shongram is the search of my own identity. Growing up in the UK, it was difficult for me to obtain original information about my roots . It’s not to say that there wasn’t information out there but it wasn’t what a third generation British Bangladeshi like me could relate to. Most of the films about Bangladesh in 1971 weren’t made with my generation in mind. They were made for a certain period, for a set audience. For me, making Shongram was seeking my own roots, the history and the current reasons why I’m in the UK instead of Bangladesh,” expresses Ali.
Munsur Ali didn’t shy away from sharing his experiences or opinions in the film. He further explains, “From the moment you’re writing a script you devise a point of view. Two people filming the same scene will have vastly different results, even in terms of something as menial as camera angles. The film is chockfull of elements from my own experiences and my interpretations of things. It naturally ended up being my point of view of sorts. I actually included a scene in the actual script where Anupam Kher’s character is asked about what his identity really is. He replies saying that he was born before the partition which made him a British Indian, after the partition he became an East Pakistani, and after the liberation war he became a Bangladeshi. Finally, when he shifts to the UK he becomes British. So his political identity changes four times without his consent during his lifetime. This is very similar to what my father had to face.”
While an actual release date is still pending, Shongram has received acclaim and approval from those who’ve watched it. Ali went on to share, “During our first screening in the UK, I was very nervous. At the end when the credits were rolling, a dear friend of mine, a writer by the name of Fred Hurr, who is about fifty five years old or so, ran over from his chair, grabbed my arm and almost tearfully said, ‘Thank you, for showing me this part of history, I never knew this took place.’ That was one. Then when Shongram got selected for the London Indian Film Festival – the first time a Bengali film was premiered in Leicester Square – we noticed that the show had sold out and the place was filled with audience to the brim. At the end of it, a Pakistani girl came up to tell us, ‘Thank you for sharing this with us and telling the story, I never knew my country did this. I’m very, very sorry.’ Not only was this a huge accomplishment but a very big emotional step for us as well.”
Munsur Ali is currently working on two new films. One is Cinema, a movie about the film industry. The other is a very ambitious project with a working title, The Final Message. The latter is a supernatural, horror drama with Biblical-Quran roots. Ali is looking to start filming Cinema at the end of this year.