Echoes of Bangladesh War in popular culture have kept alive memories of the freedom struggle

Countless songs, poems and films draw inspiration from the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, a pivotal moment in the country’s history.

But a significant part of this struggle remains in the shadows.

This partly stems from the genocide perpetrated by the Pakistani military on December 14, 1971, just two days before Bangladesh declared independence. The systematic massacre targeted the intellectual class of East Pakistan as Bangladesh was known then, silencing many who could have shared firsthand accounts of the war’s complexities. It left a gaping hole in the tapestry of the narrative of the liberation war, a wound that Bangladesh forever carries.

Succeeding generations of poets, musicians and filmmakers, however, have produced exceptional work on the liberation war.

Anthems of freedom

More than mere anthems, some songs of the Bangladesh Liberation war transcended time, becoming “lethal weapons” that stirred freedom fighters. Broadcast on the clandestine Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra radio, these songs served as invaluable instruments of wartime inspiration.

Lyricist and poet Govinda Haldar is especially revered. Discovered by the station’s editor during his search for emotive lyrics, Haldar’s diary titled Joy Banglar Gaan – Victory to Bengal – overflowed with rhythmic verses that embodied the wartime spirit.

Collaborating with legendary composers like Apel Mahmud, Haldar breathed life into anthems like Mora ekti Phul ke bachabo bole juddho kori, We fight to save a flower, Purbo Digonte Shurjo Utheche, The sun has risen in the eastern horizon and Ek Sagor o Rokter Binimoye, For a sea of blood.

Veteran journalist and liberation war researcher Syed Badrul Hasan said that during the early period of Bangladesh’s struggle, Abdul Jabbar’s Salam Salam Hajar Salam, Take a thousand bows, became a refrain, honoring living and fallen freedom fighters. It foreshadowed the many stories that would emerge over the nine-month war.

As the war intensified, new songs were written to reflect its growing urgency, said Hasan. At the same time, many turned back to the works of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore and poet-rebel Kazi Nazrul Islam to reconnect with their heritage.

Tagore’s O Amar Desher Mati Tomar Pore Thekai Matha, O my country’s soil, I bow my head to you, offered a moment of calm reflection, while Nazrul’s works inspired rebellion. Karar Oi Loho Kopat, That iron gate, pulsed with intensity and Chal Chal Chal, (Let’s march), served as powerful marching songs.

Yet another composition by Islam, Jago Onoshon Bondi Othore Joto, (Rise, you incarcerated), infused passion into the narrative of the 1971 struggle.

Kazi Nazrul Islam. Credit: public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Liberation War poetry

The Bangladesh Liberation War found rich expression in the verses of poets. Leading the charge was poet Shamsur Rahman, whose iconic poems Asader Shirt (Shirt of Asad) Swadhinota Tumi (Freedom, You Are) and Tumi Ashbe Bole He Swadhinota (For Your Sake, O Freedom) were ingrained in the national consciousness, finding their way into school textbooks later.

Critic and academic Kaiser Haq said Rahman’s poetry collection Bondi Shibir Theke (From the Concentration Camp) stands out as a powerful contribution to the poetic legacy of the Bangladesh War.

In a deeply personal preface to the definitive edition of this book, Rahman recounts his experiences during the war. Following the crackdown, Rahman and his family fled Dhaka for their ancestral village in Narsingdi where they stayed for a month and a half. It was in this refuge that Rahman penned two of his most celebrated poems: Tomake Pawar Jonyo, hey Swadhinata, and Swadhinata Tumi.

Shamsur Rahman with Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in February 1998. Credit: Reuters.

While Rahman’s poems depicted the melancholy of liberation war, Faruk Alamgir’s poem Modhynanney Muktijoddhake (To a Freedom Fighter at Midday) concluded on a sombre note, reflecting the disillusionment that shadowed some veterans after independence.

Several poems also addressed the leader of the struggle, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Belal Chowdhury’s Abohoman Bangla o Bangalir (Of Eternal Bengal and Bangalees) concludes by likening Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to “an imperishable red waterlily”, a powerful image.

Nirmalendu Goon’s Swadhinata ei shobdota amader ki bhabe holo (How we gained possession of the word freedom) takes a mythical approach, weaving Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s historic speech of March 7, 1971 into the fabric of the liberation story.

Poet Rudra Muhammad Shahidullah used his words to paint vivid portraits of the Pakistani military’s brutality in Concentration Camp and Batashe Lasher Gondho (The air smells of corpse). Similarly, Goon’s masterpiece, Hulia (Wanted) resonated with the war and also inspired later generations to fight against autocratic rule in the 1990s.

Nirmalendu Goon and Belal Chowdhury. Credit: Faizul Latif Chowdhury and Mail4mostafa, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons .

Through the lens of cinema

Post-war generations steered the cinematic narrative but since then, the flow of films has ebbed. Recent years, however, have seen a resurgence in quality portrayals.

Pioneering filmmaker Zahir Raihan remains a towering figure, leaving behind impactful work like Let There Be Light and the acclaimed documentary Stop Genocide. His disappearance in the aftermath of the war, often linked to the December 14 killings, haunts Bangladesh’s film society. It is widely believed that a living Zahir Raihan would have given a much richer tapestry of liberation war films.

Ora Egaro Jon (They Were Eleven), directed by Chashi Nazrul Islam, which holds the distinction of being the first cinematic chronicle of the Liberation War, portrays the sacrifices and determination of freedom fighters. It also sheds light on the crucial role women played during this pivotal struggle for independence.

Humayun Ahmed, a literary giant of Bangladesh, donned the director’s hat for the first time in 1994 with Aguner Poroshmoni – Touchstone of Fire. This landmark film, based on Ahmed’s own novel of the same name, delved into the experience of a middle-class family caught in the maelstrom of war and genocide.

Ahmed’s brother, Muhammad Zafar Iqbal, penned the iconic children’s book Amar Bondhu Rashed (My friend Rashed) later brought to life by filmmaker Morshedul Islam. Similarly, Sayed Shamsul Haq’s Nishiddho Loban (Forbidden Frankincense) was adapted into Guerrilla by freedom fighter and filmmaker Nasir Uddin Yusuf Bacchu, who previously directed an adaptation of Shahariar Kabir’s Ekatturer Jishu – The christ of ’71).

Iqbal Hossain Chowdhury, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Gifted filmmaker Tareque Masud made a few well-researched documentaries like Muktir Gaan (The song of freedom) and Muktir Kotha (The tales of freedom). These films drew upon raw, unedited newsreels shot by American journalist Lear Levin during the war.

Masud and his wife Kathrine embarked on a painstaking process of meticulously sifting through dust-covered footage. In Muktir Gaan, their focus fell on the music that fueled the fight for freedom.

They unearthed footage of a troupe of Bangladeshi artists performing patriotic songs in refugee camps along the Bangladesh-India border. Muktir Kotha, meanwhile, is a separate testament to the impact of the war, featuring unedited footage of rural Bangladeshis sharing their experiences of living under Pakistani occupation.

One of the recent great films on the liberation war is young director Raihan Rafi’s Damal (Untamed) released in 2022. It is inspired by the true story of the Shadhin Bangla Football Team. Formed in June 1971, the team played 16 matches across India. Their dedication went beyond the pitch, as they raised around five lakh taka to support the fight for Bangladesh’ liberation.

As Bangladesh celebrates its 54th independence day on March 26, the country owes a debt of gratitude to the many powerful voices that came together to fight for freedom and also keep its memories alive.

Their artistry ensures that the spirit of resilience and the fight for freedom are etched in the country’s cultural memory.

March 26 is Bangladesh Independence Day.

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