Friday, March 1, 2024

Becoming one with Romena

Sadya Afreen Mallick

Babita speaks on her roles in Liberation War movies (left), a scene from “Orunuddoyer Agnishakhkhi”.
Babita speaks on her roles in Liberation War movies (left), a scene from “Orunuddoyer Agnishakhkhi”.

“To date, I don’t know what horrified me more. The fact that this was too close to reality or that during the shoot, I could sometimes sense the presence of the faceless Romena,”–Babita
“Even after 37 years, it still unnerves me when I think of the role I played in a movie on our Liberation War in 1972. The nation had still not fully recovered from the bloodied period, when I accepted the role of Romena in Orunuddoyer Agnishakhkhi, said internationally acclaimed actress Babita. The film was directed by none other than the celebrated Subash Dutta.
“Subash Da’s movie is a reflection of the many factual incidents that had happened during the war. Romena, a village belle, was madly in love with the local village boy played by Ujjal. One day she goes to see the cinema shot in her village where she meets popular actor Anwar Hossain this chance encounter changed her life forever in months to come.”
Shortly after the cinema crew leaves the village, the war engulfs the peaceful village. Men, women, children are slaughtered indiscriminately. Romena is dragged from her home, beaten mercilessly, raped and left for the dead in the prison camp. Ujjal, who had left the village, makes a desperate attempt to rescue her, but is shot dead during a fierce encounter with the army.
Romena discovers that she is pregnant and loses her will to live. But through some sheer determination she clings on till the war ends, living in a perpetual nightmare. Returning to the village, Anwar Hossain, finds her abandoned, more dead than alive.
Anwar, moved to tears at the unrecognisable sight all around him, decides to shed his identity as an actor, and like his roles in so many films, dives headlong into helping the victims. In a poignant scene, he approaches Romena, and accepts Romena’s unborn child as his own.
“To date, I don’t know what horrified me more. The fact that this was too close to reality or that during the shoot, I could sometimes sense the presence of the faceless Romena,” said Babita.
“We had shot the scenes at real concentration camps in Comilla. The walls and floors still had dried blood where the young girls had been chained and tortured. The crew had to clear away human bones and crushed skulls from the set. And there were still plenty of live landmines left by the army as a signature of death. To us, the war was very much still real, the blood never dry in our eyes, and the soundless screams of the prisoners deafening.”
In this backdrop, I lost my orientation of when I was Babita and when Romena. At one point of time I noticed the walls had small scribbles, a desperate message for help that had never come.
Working in this environment became an endless emotional labyrinth. I am sure even the crew was caught up in this, and every so often would look away to wipe their eyes. For me there were several shots, when I just could not take it anymore, and would collapse unconscious. Only colleagues, who knew me well, knew what was going on in my mind, while others thought it was just realistic acting.
“It was the same time that I was scheduled to shoot for Satyajit Ray’s Ashani Shanket. Subash Dutta discussed with Ray and worked out a schedule so I could work on both films. Later, when Ray saw the film he was full of rare praise for the director.
“I had also worked on other projects that were equally moving.” The film Alor Michhil directed by the talented Narayan Ghosh Mita dealt with a middle class family whose fate changed drastically after the Liberation War. Here, Babita dons the role of a college girl whose life comes to a tragic end because of the unscrupulous people in the society.
Khan Ataur Rahman directed Abar Tora Manush haw, where he himself plays the role of a principle of a college. The story revolves around a group of youngsters who refused to give up their arms after returning from the war. Babita played the lead role alongside Raisul Islam Asad, Al Mansur, Babu, Rowshan Jamil, Khan Ataur Rahman and Sarkar Feroze.
“Such movies were not only a product of a talented crew, director and actors. The glue that held us all together was the emotional bond we felt every time we walked into the set. During shots we came to recognise some gestures from the crew – a glazed look, a forlorn nod, a sharp intake of breath they all spoke of some personal tragedy, some unmentionable memory that they could relate with during the scene.”
The films, though not shown regularly anymore, had won recognition both home and overseas. Babita received the National Award for her role of Romena. “I was content that the wider audience had a chance to see the horrors and that this would remain a testament of the bravery for many generations to come.
But, I am sure anyone who has worked in these films desperately wished that if only they could trade all the awards in the world for the life of even one nameless Bironga…”
As the spirit of Muktijodha lives on in the hearts of a hundred-million strong Bangladeshi’s the world over, it’s a wish that will probably never die.

The article is a reprint
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