It is an unlikely journey for a madrassa-educated Bangladeshi boy to go to the University of Dhaka, and later America, and then to return with his American wife to become a visionary filmmaker and a voice for Bangladesh’s secular traditions. Yet this was the path that Tareque Masud took before his life was cut short in a road accident on Aug. 13.
The first time I met Tareque and his producer-wife, Catherine, was in December 2002 at a screening of their film Matir Moina (The Clay Bird). The government ban on the film had finally been lifted, and they were eager to show it to local audiences. Based on the filmmaker’s own childhood, Matir Moina offered a fresh take on a madrassa boy’s experiences during the 1971 Liberation War. The film won several international festival prizes, including at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival.
Over the years I met them several times. Watching Tareque’s films or reading his scripts, I was impressed by how he was never shy about tackling politically sensitive issues, including rising fundamentalism. But he was also careful to avoid any sensationalism. In elegant and complex stories, he repeatedly returned to the Liberation War and the themes of religious tolerance and mystic Sufism that defined his culture.
Tareque came up through the art-film movement but, together with Catherine, reached audiences far beyond the elite art-film audience of Dhaka. They set an example of commercially successful quality cinema that many had come to think of as unachievable in Bangladesh. What I admired was that he was a visionary not only in terms of the artistic aspects of his films but also in overcoming obstacles of production and distribution, against both political and economic odds.
Their groundbreaking 1995 documentary film Muktir Gaan (Song of Freedom) followed a Bangladeshi musical troupe as it toured the refugee camps in India. Released soon after the country’s transition to a new era of democracy, the film gained a wide audience within Bangladesh and helped renew pride in the country’s independence for the younger generation. This film alone cemented their reputations as the nation’s foremost filmmakers. But the later success of Matir Moina inspired a generation of Bangladeshi directors, who saw that Bangladeshi stories, well told, could have a resonance for the larger world as well as for a local audience.
Eight years after first meeting them, I sat in their apartment and watched an advance screening of their latest feature film, Runway (2010). I expected them to take the established route for this film by entering it at international film festivals. But Tareque told me he had a different idea. He knew from experience that publicity could also cause a negative backlash. In order to reach out to local audiences, he and Catherine began screening it at small regional theaters, spending time afterward to discuss it with the viewers. Building this grass-roots support may have cost the film the international publicity it deserves, but it demonstrated their commitment to bringing quality cinema to the people of Bangladesh.
Tareque reached out to others both through his work and in his personal life. He was an open-hearted person who shared his ideas and know-how with great generosity. In Tareque and Catherine’s modest apartment you were as likely to run into a madrassa kid from the village as you were an international filmmaker.
Ever intent on reaching a wider population with quality work, Ta-reque bore high hopes for his next film, Kagojer Phul (The Paper Flower), based on the life of his father. It was while returning from scouting a location for this film that he and several of his colleagues were tragically killed in a head-on collision. Catherine survived the accident with minor injuries.
Unafraid to confront controversial issues or established national history, Tareque helped communicate the complex matter of identity to a generation of Bangladeshis. With his death, Bangladesh has lost not only a visionary of its cinema but also a voice of its conscience.