Documaker Tareque Masud makes a confident transition to narrative drama with “The Clay Bird,” returning to his childhood in the politically turbulent period before East Pakistan gained independence and became Bangladesh. This accomplished, emotionally involving film — an intimately observed story of divisions within a family that reflect the wider clash between moderate and extremist views — will have universal resonance as it echoes other secular and political conflicts throughout the world. Its wealth of cultural and folkloric detail also should help secure festival interest as well as modest exposure on the arthouse fringes. Joint opener of the Directors Fortnight marks the sidebar’s first-ever selection from Bangladesh.
Action takes place in the late 1960s, as a democratic movement gained force in its bid to overthrow military rule. The attempt succeeded in 1969, but the martial-law government that followed disregarded subsequent democratic election results. This led to a civil war that brought an estimated 3 million casualties among Bengali freedom fighters and created almost 10 million refugees before independence finally was achieved in 1971.
Against this backdrop, stern orthodox Muslim Kazi (Jayanto Chattopadhyay) becomes increasingly concerned about the influence of his free-thinking young brother on the former’s preteen son Anu (Nuril Islam Bablu). Disturbed by the boy’s enthusiasm for the village Hindu festivities, Kazi packs him off to a Madrasah, or Islamic school, where he is trained in the rigorous ways of monastic life. Miserable and lonely, Anu befriends underdog Rokon (Russell Farazi), feeling a kinship with his outcast status.
When Anu’s younger sister takes ill and dies after homeopathic doctor Kazi refuses to have her properly treated, the children’s grieving mother Ayesha (Rokeya Prachy) grows further apart from her stubborn but confused husband, who has forced a life of traditional confinement upon her.
Their increasing divide parallels the nation’s political clash, and the emergence of opposing views within the Madrasah. Bittersweet final act takes place as the army descends on the village, with Ayesha’s decision for her own and her son’s future providing a spirit of hope and independence.
Ideas such as the conflict between Islamic beliefs and armed violence occasionally are addressed in slightly didactic dialogue. But the script — written by the director and his American wife Catherine Masud — deftly uses the family drama to mirror the nationwide political ferment, outlining the historical context clearly and accessibly and stating its case for tolerance with subtle eloquence. Music is used resourcefully to further central themes, via Bengali oratorical duets and other songs performed in village concerts.
Pic is handsomely shot in soft natural light and warm interiors with a leisurely, graceful style.
Showing a strong personal connection to the material, director Masud coaxes lovely, natural performances from the inexperienced child cast as well as poignant work from adult leads.