- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 27, 2004

The dramatic fragility of “The Clay Bird,” a Bengali feature booked exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema, may be measured by the failure of director Tareque Masud to rationalize the title. There is such an object in the story: a blue figurine given to a little girl named Asma, who is advised to hide it from her stern father, Kazi, a pharmacist growing more and more doctrinaire in his Muslim beliefs.

Inexcusably, both the clay bird, acquired at a Hindu fair in Bangladesh, circa 1970, and Asma, an adorable presence, are permitted to become expendable as the story unfolds. This kind of lapse typifies the scenario, which appears to have an adequate stock of characters and conflicts but can’t sort out its priorities for systematic development.

Many episodes revolve around Anu, or Anwar (Nurul Islam Bablu), the older brother of shortchanged Asma. He is enrolled in a strict Islamic boarding school by his devout, overcompensating father (Jayanto Chattopadhyay). While still an outsider himself, Anu befriends a solitary, secretly creative boy named Rokon (Russell Farazi), who has constructed a shrine from discarded objects in a ruin near the school and remains a pariah, subjected at one point to repeated dunkings in the Ganges.

Kazi has a younger brother, Milon, an easygoing Hindu who likes to escort Anu to public spectacles and welcomes the prospect of political upheaval in Bangladesh. Kazi is also blessed domestically with a lovely spouse, Ayesha (Rokeye Prachy), so unhappy with her husband’s stiff-necked piety that she seriously contemplates a separation. The approach of war, which Mr. Masud lacks either the resources or inclination to depict first hand, adds topical urgency to the domestic conflicts and undercurrents.

The family suffers losses, but not with the sort of immediacy that a pictorial chronicle needs. We hear about one death from a chatty boatman, Karim, who seems to be the repository for all the news in the district. Mr. Masud finds it easier to entrust Karim, a minor character, with meandering updates than to stage decisive episodes in the present tense. Another death that ought to be wrenching remains an unconfirmed rumor as the movie drifts to a fadeout.

Every so often the quality of evocation seems so exceptional that you feel a surge of cinematic hope. Mr. Masud might overcome his weaknesses with a vignette structure that makes it easier for impressions to add up, if not scenes and episodes. For example, there’s a beautifully composed and sustained moment in which Ayesha is absorbed in an embroidery. An interlude with an elderly sage recounting the story of Abraham provides a glimpse of what the oral tradition might have been like for countless members of a preliterate audience.

Every so often the movie seems to illuminate a remote setting and way of life. More often than not, it’s uncertain about which aspects of an ominous family and social chronicle need to be clarified.

* 1/2

TITLE: “The Clay Bird”

RATING: No MPAA Rating (adult subject matter, with themes of family conflict and religious fanaticism; some episodes dealing with wartime destruction)

CREDITS: Directed by Tareque Masud. Written by Catherine and Tareque Masud. In Bengali with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 94 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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