Gutsy fight for freedom

The last few weeks have been incredibly hectic with two major assignments. I have been looking at a large number of South Asian films for the Berlin Film Festival —films from India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal. Alongside, I have been watching another large set of films as a member of the Asia Pacific Screen Awards (APSA) Nomination Council, selecting nominees for the best films from 70 Asian nations, including India. The APSA screenings and deliberations took place last week in Brisbane, Australia. I am currently in New Zealand, but my heart is very much with the Mumbai Film Festival (MFF), which I really hate to miss, especially in this crucial year. So I send my ardent support to the MFF through this column.

Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen

In particular, I’d like to commend Nirbashito (Banished, Bengali), a powerful debut feature directed by Churni Ganguly, that is in MFF’s India Gold section. Ganguly is a well-known Bengali actress (Laptop, Shunyo e Bukey, Shabdo). The film focuses on the agony in exile of Bangladesh-born writer Taslima Nasreen, who has been living in exile for 20 years because of her writing. An award-winning writer, physician, and secular, human rights activist, Nasreen has written powerfully against religious fundamentalism and women’s oppression. She has written 35 books, including novels, non-fiction, an autobiography series and short stories, including Lajja (Shame, on the atrocities against Hindu minorities by Muslim hardliners). After fundamentalists protested against her humanist writing and issued fatwas calling for her death, she was banned and banished from her motherland Bangladesh since 1994, and from India, her country of adoption, since 2007 (West Bengal once gave her shelter, but later preferred to appease the right-wing instead).

Nirbashito is a vital and courageous film defending our basic democratic rights as human beings and artists, to express our thoughts freely and live where we wish, and make a plea for tolerance. Now, more than ever, when pro-democracy and minority voices are being effectively silenced, it is important to fight for freedom of expression and speak up against fundamentalists. Hindutva hardliners are being openly encouraged and the minority community persecuted in various ways, of which the hounding of Muslim artistes including MF Husain and Nasreen are only two examples. Congratulations to the MFF for selecting this film, and Shree Venkatesh Films and producer-director Kaushik Ganguly, Churni’s husband, for producing this film.

It is uncanny how gutsy women have spoken up where most men have feared to tread: Nandita Das directed the powerful and moving Firaaq (the Quest) on the aftermath of the Gujarat riots (Rahul Dholakia is the only man to directly address the Gujarat carnage in a feature film, Parzania, as far as I know). And now Churni Ganguly has directed Nirbashito on Nasreen, and dedicated the film to Husain, who was also banned and died in exile, far from his beloved motherland.

The film is poignant, melancholic and very funny by turns. Director Churni plays Nasreen, and is effective as the writer torn from her motherland and put “in cold storage”, in exile in Sweden, where much of the film was shot. There is a poignant and hilarious episode about couriering a cat from Kolkata to Sweden, as she has a writer’s block in Sweden and pines for her cat Baaghini, so she can speak Bengali to the cat and reconnect with her mother tongue again. The film would have benefited more from clearly establishing the intellectual, humanist and literary calibre of Nasreen, and making the cat episode more compact. Nonetheless, the film is a powerful, poetic, haunting debut feature with a strong and distinctive voice, that ends on a hopeful note, as the writer says, “Ami phirbo” (I will return).

Many of Nasreen’s books have topped bestseller lists, been translated into foreign languages, and she has won numerous awards, including Ananda’s literary award from India, the Kurt Tucholsky Award, the Simone de Beauvoir Award and Human Rights Award from the French government and the UNESCO Madanjeet Singh prize for Promotion of the Tolerance. She has had the courage to put her life on the line for an idea like freedom of expression. Perhaps more than all those awards, she deserves the active support of humanists, including you (hopefully) and me. May she return soon.

Meenakshi Shedde is India Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, an award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide, and journalist. She can be reached at
The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.

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