Though The Clay Bird has a very specific and interesting historical backdrop, its greater appeal lies in the story of people caught in the conflict between politics and religion, modernity and traditional values — a very relevant topic these days. The film is set in the late 1960s, during the period when the Bengalis of East Pakistan were attempting to overthrow their military government, first by a democratic process, then by an armed rebellion. The rebellion led to 3 million casualties and the creation of Bangladesh. Though the setting provides a sweeping backdrop, the film is most effective when focusing on a single family and their unhappy fate.
Director Tareque Masud, who co-wrote the script with his wife, has attempted to present a complex autobiographical story while making a compelling argument about the dangers of religious fundamentalism. The movie makes a direct grab for the heart; while the story’s central couple, the born-again Muslim Kazi and his wife Ayesha, endure their share of misfortune, the main victims are their two children. The son, Anu, is sent off to a madrasa — a sort of combination of school, monastery and juvenile detention center — partly to keep him away from the irreligious influence of his father’s younger brother and partly to see that he’s properly indoctrinated in the Muslim faith. It’s the kind of schooling that either breaks you (as it does the young eccentric whom Anu befriends) or makes you bitter.
But that’s not the worst of it. When Kazi’s young daughter becomes ill he’s convinced that his homemade remedies are superior to any secular brew, to the extent of prohibiting any kind of helpful medicine from the house, with disastrous results. Apparently Kazi is meant to be a tragic figure, but his intransigence puts a huge strain on the viewer’s sense of tolerance. You become so outraged by the smug stupidity of this zealot that you begin to wish that he gets a particularly nasty comeuppance. When he does, you’re supposed to feel sorry for him.
The Masuds have attempted to inject a little balance into their story by making one of the madrasa teachers sympathetic, but it’s a weak palliative in this stinging indictment. The film is less interesting, though often picturesque, when it moves away from Kazi and his family mainly because his is such an archetypal tale, that of the mad patriarch who destroys everything he loves.
In Bengali with English subtitles. Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave.) Friday and Saturday, April 2-3, at 7 and 9:30 p.m.; and on Sunday, April 4, at 4 and 7 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.