The Bengali Gaze

March 18, 2017

[This article was first published on March 17, 2017 in an issue of the Star Weekend Magazine of The Daily Star]

Hana Shams Ahmed

A TV commercial by a prominent telecom company was brought to my attention through a Facebook post by a journalist. The scene begins with two young men making their way through a water body on a bamboo raft in an exotic location somewhere in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Next, they are seen making their way up a mountain through a vast green landscape far from any sign of human life. One of the men expresses his frustration at not being able to find what they were looking for. The other man smiles in response and points to an old man in a bamboo hut up in the mountain.

“He is going to get you a recharge?” the first man laughs skeptically. The men seem to have run out of balance on their phones and, given their remote location in the Hills, are concerned about not being able to top-up their phones.

The second man replies that he would at least like to try his luck. He goes up to an old Jumma man sitting outside the hut and shouts at him, “Uncle, can I flexi here? Can I recharge here? Taka! Taka! Phone! I want to talk! You know, taka! Recharge!”

The man is shouting out these requests while gesturing wildly with his arms. Both are doubtful about getting a response. How would an ordinary native man in the wilderness of the Hills understand the modern Bengali language or have access to the modern phone network! The second man turns around and looks at his friend in frustration and the old man suddenly surprises everyone and responds in Bangla, “How much money do you need?”

The two men are shocked and the second man delightedly shouts back again, “A hundred taka!”

The old man keys in the amount on his phone keyboard, the second man shouts out his gratitude and extends his hand towards the old man.“You are my GP brother,” he exclaims, “Come, let’s take a selfie!”

And the commercial ends with information about the telecom company’s wide network coverage – that every other person in Bangladesh owns a phone from that company.

The telecom in question is a multi-million-dollar industry and one can safely assume that the concepts used in their TV commercials are discussed and vetted at a very high level for what they will represent about their company. So, what does this TV commercial say and represent? Read the rest of this entry »

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Getting the history ‘right’ by erasing the others

March 18, 2017

[This article was first published on December 16, 2016 in Thotkata feminist blog]

Hana Shams Ahmed

IN 2015 filmmaker Aung Rakhine unveiled the first feature film made in the Chakma language about the community from the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). The Bangladesh Film Censor Board (BFCD) refused clearance to the film, as a result of which the film could not be shown in public halls inside the country although it was shown at various overseas film festivals and won critical acclaim. The censor board claimed that it was only authorized to give clearance to films made in Bangla, the state language according to the national constitution. Apart from the technicality cited by the censor board, the Ministry of Information of the Government of Bangladesh also made a formal objection about the film’s content saying that the film had “…visuals and dialogue which were defamatory to the security forces and the Government of Bangladesh”, and which was “part of the propaganda against the military in the CHT”.[1] The film is about a poor Chakma villager Komol and how he develops an entrepreneurial niche in his village by ferrying people to and from the local market on his bicycle after losing his job in the city. The visual in question is about 30 seconds long within the one-hour-long film. Komol’s young son is seeing playing with some plastic toys on the courtyard when he suddenly gets up and runs to his mother and they both go inside the house to hide. Komol gets up and faces the (Bangladeshi) military officers who seem to be passing by their house and salutes them. It then shows the boots of the military officers crushing the toys on the courtyard on their way out. We do not see the faces of these individuals and later when I interviewed Aung he told me that he had deliberately left it open for interpretation for the public.

Such symbolic scenes of military violence have been depicted many times in many Bangladeshi films. However, those films have been accepted and many have received national acclaim because in these films the military perpetrators are Pakistani soldiers and the victims are Bengali. These depictions fit perfectly into the acceptable national narrative and in fact reinforce it. Rakhine’s film on the other hand disturbs this narrative tremendously. In 10 seconds Rakhine managed to stir up a part of Bangladesh’s history that the state has tried long and hard to keep out of the national narrative and media focus. Bangladesh’s state-constructed history is about the struggle for independence from Pakistan, about the heroism of the Bengalis, and the brutality faced by them. Bangladesh’s history has no room for talking about heroes and victims who are not Bengali. This erasure is not limited to the indigenous peoples only. In this narrative there is also a silence around Urdu-speaking victims of 1971. While many camp-based Urdu-speakers worked as collaborators with the Pakistani army, many were not. However, in the national narrative the whole community of Urdu-speakers have been relegated to the status of “collaborators” and “traitors”. On the same vein, many Bengalis were collaborators too but with their majoritarian privilege which did not lead to any such identity-based stereotyping. This majoritarian privilege can only be maintained if the faults of the few can be conflated to demonize a whole community of minoritized people, and a political and economic benefit can be gained from it.

Read the rest of this entry »