FILM REVIEW:  The Clay Bird

Nabhan El-Rahman

Posted Jun 3, 2004      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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FILM REVIEW:  The Clay Bird

By Nabhan El-Rahman

The Clay Bird: 2004, Un-rated, 98 Minutes, Milestone Films

The Clay Bird is a beautiful and sophisticated film about a village in rural East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) during the turbulent years of the late 1960’s, a time riddled with the rhetoric of war and political instability. With the possibility of turmoil looming as a backdrop, the film brilliantly navigates us through the lives of the Bangladeshi villagers.

Anu, the timid boy who is the main character of the film, finds himself leaving to go live in the madrasa because his father decided that his son has been overly exposed to the festive and artistic culture of the Hindus in the village. Although much of the father�s pious aspirations for his son are fulfilled by the strict and puritanical head sheikh of the madrasa, the film introduces the junior sheikh as an admirable person who brings equanimity to the madrasa; a person who, in one of the most touching conversations ever produced on film, explains to his colleague, another junior sheikh, that although Muslims in the past made powerful polities through conquest and politics, it was the benevolent attitude and demeanor of the Sufi mystics that spread and sustained Islam through the centuries.

Every time Anu returns home, he notices that his father�s zealotry becomes more and more pronounced. This righteous attitude permeates to his professional life as well. He becomes obsessed with homeopathic medicine, so much so that it ultimately brings tragedy to his family.

What is so astounding about the village culture portrayed in the movie is how so much time and thought is devoted to matters of religion. For instance, during the night, the people from the village would gather to hear religious stories, or listen to Sufi folk music. In one scene, a man and woman sing a folk song about the legalistic versus the mystical orientations in Islam. The folk song delves unexpectedly deep into the drawbacks of both juridical and mystical Islam, how often jurists are ill informed and lack compassion and love, and on the flipside, how often the Sufis are too unobservant of the Sharia.

The film deals with a whole range of issues from religious zealotry to the unfulfilling marriage of Anu�s parents to the general hypocrisy of the politics and despotism of the time. But ultimately the film shows how beautiful Islam can be through the lives of the villagers such as the junior sheikh and the Sufi folk performers. The Clay Bird is one the of best foreign language films I have ever seen. You will leave the movie crying and then go rush to the store to buy the soundtrack.

Dialogue excerpts from “The Clay Bird”:

Conversation between two madrasa teachers:

IBRAHIM (a moderate madrasa teacher): What the Head Teacher said about ilm (knowledge) and amal (practice) may be misleading to some of the students…. You see, Islam didn’t spread in this country through the sword. It was only the selfless and swordless sufis and dervishes who went door to door to spread Islam’s message of peace and equality among the poor and low caste Hindus. The lords and kings from Iran and Arabia conquered the land, but not the hearts of the people. It was the half naked fakirs who won their hearts. Only then the people embraced Islam. You cannot make Islam flourish with politics and force. It is only by disseminating ilm that Islam will prosper.

HALIM MIAH (junior teacher): So you want to say that our mission is to spread ilm? Just ilm for ilm’s sake?

IBRAHIM: Definitely not. What are we doing here? This is not just ilm. This is amal also. You see, who comes to study in our madrasas? Many are orphans, of course. Also, parents who cannot feed and clothe their children, not to mention educate them, send their children here. Isn’t this so? Our duty is to care for these children and make them into pure Muslims. This is our mission. Our amal. It’s not fair to use these children for any political end.

HALIM MIAH: But in the name of secularism, the pro-communists are endangering the very existence of Islam in this country. We need to confront them, don’t we?

IBRAHIM: Then tell me, what is the difference between us and the communists?

HALIM MIAH: How can you separate Islam from politics? Now the existence of Pakistan is at stake. And if Pakistan is torn apart, Islam will be destroyed as well.

IBRAHIM: Halim Miah, please tell me. Why do you think Islam will be endangered by the collapse of Pakistan? Did Pakistan strengthen Islam, or has it rather established military rule?

Conversation between 4 student friends:

MILON: ...Uttam, you’ve got to understand. It’s not just a matter of democracy and national liberation. The real issue is economic emancipation. And here’s where imperialism comes in. And the need for class struggle.

UTTAM: You’re still under the spell of your communist ghosts. You know what’s funny—don’t mind this—despite your differences, there’s a strange similarity between you and your big brother. Kazi shaheb’s homeo-path, and your Marx-path: both came from Germany. Did you notice that?

SHAHEEN: And fascism also has its roots in Germany!

4th FRIEND: Marxism, capitalism, all isms—in the process of fighting over all these Western isms and schisms we’re just screwing ourselves!

SHAHEEN: So what about Islam? Isn’t that just another thing from the West?

4th FRIEND: Why should that be? I think our Islam has flourished from our own soil.

MILON: No matter how much we argue, the truth is that nothing is purely indigenous. Everything is mixed up.

Conversation between the student Milon and the mystic boatman Karim Majhi:

MILON: �There’s only one way left open to us—to fight for freedom.

KARIM MAJHI: Politics is just another game, isn’t it Milon bhai? There’s nothing in it for people like us. If people only understood what true freedom is…

MILON: Karim bhai, what are you talking about? It’s because of blindly religious people like you that the country is in such a mess.

KARIM MAJHI: What do you mean by blindly religious? Actually, Milon Bhai, no true religion—be it Hinduism, Islam or Christrianity—will ever make people blind. True religion opens people’s eyes.

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