a research blog by Lotte Hoek
A few weeks after Eid 2005, the smallest towns of the province of Kurigram in North Bengal were covered in posters for a super-hit film: “New Gangster” (Noya Mastan, dir. Opurbo-Rana). Around the cinema hall where the action flick was on, large full colour posters had been pasted to tea-stalls and boundary walls. The poster was arresting: at its centre was a bold man, whose head was streaked with blood. A large bloodied sword ran diagonally across the large poster, bisecting the man’s face. An English text was written along the sword. In a language rarely found on the posters of Bangladeshi action films, it said: “He is Killer But Not Terrorist”.
The English text on the poster for Noya Mastan tried to convince the passersby in the tiny town that the bloody-minded and blood-splattered mastan protagonist of the film was not a terrorist but instead a killer. But in its scarlet exuberance, the visual and textual tropes of the poster bled together the distinctions between the mastan, the killer, the terrorist and the sword-wielding protagonist. The use of English, yet another language of violence and terror, invoked an additional set of registers by which the fearful protagonist might be understood. While the text on the sword ostensibly differentiated clearly the killer from the terrorist, amidst the many layers of the poster, the text struggled to maintain its certainty.
The Noya Mastan poster illustrates the way in which terrorism has come to be articulated in popular cinema in Bangladesh.
The many action films that populate the cinema halls feature a range of gangsters, killers, hardmen and dons. When I tried to find out from some of the stuntmen who play these characters regularly what the term mastan meant, their answer was less than straightforward. “Well,” said one, “a mastan is a rongbaj” (gangster). “Yes,” said the other, “a rongbaj, shontrash” (gangster, terrorist). “Shontrash?” I asked. Another interjected: “yes, a goonda” (thug). “It really all means the same,” the first concluded.
The Bengali term shontrashi (terrorist) is far more capacious than the recently shrinking connotations of the English term ‘terrorist’. It can contain many acts and perpetrators of violence and intimidation. Despite the concerted efforts emanating from across the border to link the term ‘terrorism’ to militant Islam, to press complex local political conflicts and its narratives into the blanket notion of a global ‘war on terror’, the terminology and iconography of the shontrashi remains resilient and multifaceted in Bangladesh. And nowhere more sustainedly so than in the area of popular cinema.
As the Noya Mastan poster shows, attempts to differentiate between terrorism and other forms of fearful violence coincides continually with the collapse of these very distinctions in the popular Bangladeshi cinema. That is, the politics of naming that is central to the production of terrorism is undone in the narratives and visual forms of the action cinema and its producers.
Take the film Bangla Bhai (dir. Monowar Khokon, 2012). The film is based on the life of a militant Islamist and terrorist known as Bangla bhai (“Bengali brother”) executed in 2007. But the film’s script played fast and loose with the already shadowy facts of his life and activities. Most spectacularly, the film’s producers had introduced the infamous Bangladeshi actress Moyuri as a dancer into the plot of his life. Also significant is the way in which Bangla bhai was presented. Played by the superb actor Misha Shodagor, villain in hundreds of Bangla films, the terrorist came to the set dressed and acting as the villain of Bangla film. The cameraman on the film told me how his cinematography had similarly produced the terrorist as the villain of an action film. On screen Bangla bhai was a villain.
In the process of making action films, the media story of terror is moulded into the conventions of action cinema. This is not just a convenience. The action cinema (whose scriptwriters pluck its narratives from protean accounts of violence, impunity and inequality in contemporary Bangladesh) provides an account of the multifaceted and interlinked forms of violence and fear that rage equally in cities and the countryside. Its portrayal of ruthless property developers, double-dealing officers, bone-breaking cadres, and less than righteous religious leaders, does not distinguish their forms of intimidation, violence and assault into neat categories. These characters are goondas, batpar, mastans, rongbaj and, yes, shontrashis.
By equating perpetrators of violence (often enacted against the poor and women), action films that state ‘he is killer not terrorist’ use the terminology of terrorism to effectively equate it with other practices of fearful violence. Ultimately, the popular cinema draws attention to the fact that the political efficacy of naming someone a ‘terrorist’ and not others is entirely irrelevant to those at the receiving end of the climate of fear, intimidation, impunity and violence.
For a more elaborate account of terrorism in popular Bangladesh and a more detailed argument, see my article ‘Killer not terrorist: Visual articulations of terror in Bangladeshi action cinema’ in South Asian Popular Culture, 2013, 11(2): 121-132. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14746689.2013.784054#.UkQSExaKi8o