In Mritunjay Devvrat’s The Bastard Child, a feature film about the sanguinary birth of Bangladesh in 1971, presently getting its finishing touches on the editing table in Mumbai, actor Pawan Malhotra cuts a compellingly chilling portrait. He plays the role of a Pakistani police officer assigned to duty in the area that is now Dhaka. Convinced by Yahya Khan’s logic that Pakistan, must, at any cost, be united, he oversees rape camps and orders ghastly murders of Bengalis. Billowing cigarette smoke over his mouth, he is a riveting villain---a gung-ho, single-minded torturer, and a willing agent of totalitarianism.

(From left) Editor Apoorva Asrani, producer Saumya Joshi Devvrat and writer-director Mrityunjay Devvrat.

“History inserted itself into our film," says Delhi-based Devvrat, the 29-year-old director, who previously made documentaries including a project for the National Manuscript Mission. “In our pre-production stages last year, Bangladesh erupted with the news of the first sentencing of the war crime tribunals and while the streets overflowed with young people, we witnessed almost something remarkable—unprecedented support for punishment to the guilty." This was a new Bangladesh, because among people of the generation who were directly affected, there is almost a conspiracy of silence. Few film-makers or authors in South Asia have opened up Bangladesh’s deep and lingering wounds.

The film’s poster
Bangladeshi film-maker Zahir Raihan.

In fiction, Ritwik Ghatak’s masterly Bengali film Titash Ekti Nadir Naam (A River Called Titas), shot in 1973 and based on the novel of the same name by Advaita Malla Burman, is about life around Titash, the river in Brahmanbaria, Bangladesh. A hyper-lined story of interconnected lives, it is about fisherfolk who have lived here for several years, and is negotiating new realities of rural Bangladesh. Titas is a tragic character in the film, which opens with a song: “What if water of the Ganga fills the blue sky/What if boats are grounded on the dry river bed?" (rough translation).

Devvrat carries forward a film narrative about dehumanization in our part of the world that has long been silent. In his film we see beautifully filmed grief and devastation—streams of blood flowing by crevasses in slow motion, close-ups of human bodies lying still and rivers slowly going red. One of the most stinging and provocative sequences in the film opens with a truck full of huddled women hurled into a rape camp on a moonless night.

Victor Banerjee plays one of the main roles.
Victor Banerjee plays one of the main roles.

The Bastard Child has three or four parallel stories, which bifurcate into smaller stories. In the end, the lives of the characters come together. The first is in rural Bangladesh; it is the journey of a family through troubled times, guided by their father. In another, a journalist converts to a militant. His wife’s story, which makes up the centre of the film, is about the women of Bangladesh at that time, unfolding inside a rape camp. Then there are the children of war, the bastard child, who is waiting to be accepted. “The film is really about them, they are the real heroes, and we try to say why they need acceptance." Editor Apoorva Asrani says, “The film allows me to see a tragedy of this magnitude for the first time, and that too so close to home. But more importantly, it also helps me understand what’s still going on in places where the military rules and has unrestricted power."

Shot in West Bengal, and around Delhi and Haryana, the cast has Farooque Sheikh, Victor Banerjee, Pawan Malhotra, Raima Sen and Indraneil Sengupta in the main roles. Devvrat says he is trying for a November release in Indian theatres. When it does, The Bastard Child deserves all the audience.

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