If we turn the pages of our glorious history, we come to realize that, a time frame of 19 years (from 1952 to 1971) was the most important period for us. During that time, as we faced economic discrimination by the West Pakistani rulers, we needed to develop a strong patriotic sense amongst our people to achieve an independent country of our own. All democratic movements of that time, including 1952’s language movement, 1962’s movement against Hamudur Rahman’s education commission, 1966’s six point movement and 1969’s mass revolution guided us to take part in the liberation war in 1971.
Zahir Raihan may be considered as the most influential Bangalee intellectual of that time who had actively taken part in all these movements including the Liberation War. Zahir Raihan was nominated as the general secretary of the Bangladesh Liberation Council of Intelligentsia. This multi talented genius simultaneously was a novelist, lyricist, producer, screenplay writer and a movie director. His popular novels and classic movies inspired the entire nation to prepare for an independence movement. Zahir disappeared on 30 January, 1972, when he went looking for his elder brother celebrated author Shahidullah Kaiser, who was captured and consequently killed by the Pakistan Army and its allies during the Liberation War. Zahir Raihan was never seen again, and his body was never found. Today, 30 January, 2015, after 43 years of his disappearance, morning tea remembers Zahir Raihan with heartiest admiration.
Zahir Raihan was born on 19 August 1935, as Mohammad Zahirullah, in the village Majupur, in Feni District. He discovered life as a wonderful journey of innovation and creativity. He started his academic studies in Mitra Institute, Kolkata and then was admitted at Alia Madrasha, Kolkata. Zahir passed his matriculation from Amirabad High School, Feni in 1950. In 1951, he involved himself with Communist politics through East Pakistan Student Union (EPSU).
At that time the creation of Pakistan as a bilateral state presented a unique cultural challenge for its leaders. The two wings of the state, the western part comprising the provinces of Balochistan, North-West Frontier Province, Pakistani Punjab and Sindh, and the eastern part, East Pakistan, were separated by 1200 miles of Indian territory. Culturally and linguistically, the two wings had very little in common, except religion. However, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, founder of Islamic Republic of Pakistan announced that Urdu will be the only state language of Pakistan. Jinnah’s statement was the beginning of a state project to introduce Urdu as the sole mode of official communication in Pakistan. In order to facilitate a gradual change to Urdu, therefore, various reforms to Bangla grammar and vocabulary were also proposed. In 1952, student groups formed a coalition named the All Party State Language Committee of Action, which was to direct a nationwide campaign against the imposition of Urdu. Zahir Raihan was an active worker of that movement. He was present at the historical meeting of Amtola on 21 February 1952 and was one of the first ten activists who broke 144.
Zahir Raihan passed ISC from Jagannath College in 1953. Then he took admission in Dhaka Medical College to study medical science. However, he left medical college and decided to study Bangla literature. He completed his graduation in 1956 and post graduation in 1958 from the University of Dhaka. At the same time Zahir started his career as a journalist in a newspaper Juger Alo. Later he also worked in newspapers Khapchhara, Jantrik, and Cinema. He also worked as the editor of Probaho in 1956. His first collection of short stories, Surjogrohon, was published in 1955. He worked as an assistant director in the film Jago Huya Sabera in 1957. This was his first footprint in the film industry. Zahir assisted Salahuddin in the film Je Nodi Morupothe. Filmmaker Ehtesham took him as the assistant director for his movie E Desh Tomar Amar, for which he also wrote the title song. Zahir Raihan’s first novel Shesh Bikeler Meye was published in 1960. The same year he emerged as a director with his film Kokhono Asheni which was released in 1961. Then Zahir Raihan married actress Hena Lahiri (Shumita Sevi). He wrote a novel Trishna in 1962. He jointly directed Sonar Kajol with Kolim Shorafi in 1962 and made another movie Kacher Deyal in 1963. Zahir’s most famous novel Hajar Bochor Dhore was published in 1964. In 1964, he made Pakistan’s first colour movie, Sangam, and completed his first Cinemascope movie, Bahana, the following year. At the beginning Zahir Raihan’s movies were commercially unsuccessful, but he continued producing more films. 1966’s Behula was the first super hit film by Zahir Raihan where he gave breakthrough to a new hero Razzak. During the following year, his Anwara was another big hit. Second time, he married film heroine Kohinur Akter Shuchonda in 1968. Zahir Raihan’s novel Borof Gola Nodi was published in 1969 where he depicted the life and struggles of a journalist through the character of Mahmud. As a conscious political activist, he always thought about directing a movie depicting the political crisis of the Bangalee mass people. He knew that the most significant role of cinema is that it can provide a framework which directly or indirectly influences the cultural construction and cultural maintenance of a particular view. As a student of literature Zahir Raihan took shelter of allegory. He started his satirical venture Jibon Theke Neya which is still considered as one of the best Bangla cinemas ever released. The main roles are portrayed by Khan Ataur Rahman, Rowshan Jamil, Anwar Hossain, Rosy Samad, Amjad Hossain, Razzak, and Suchanda. Zahir Raihan used the metaphor of a family dominated by an autocratic woman, which symbolize the political dictatorship of Ayub Khan in the then East Pakistan. The plot of the movie features two parallel stories where the people rise and take part in political protest both on the streets and inside the home, the family members gather courage to rebel against the dictatorial woman. At the end of the movie the director showed the release of political workers and the punishment of the autocratic woman which is also a metaphor. The film not only depicted the contemporary socio-political scenario but also acted as a vehicle for encouraging the masses. Other than the storyline itself the songs used in Jibon Theke Neya were also very significant. Amar Shonar Bangla Ami Tomae Bhalobashi was played for the first time in a Bangla movie. Khan Ataur Rahman’s rendition of the song “E Khacha Bhangbo Ami Kamon Kore” echoed the national psyche of Bangladesh’s Liberation War. Zahir Raihan chose a perfect time, just after the mass revolution of 1969, to release the film. At the same time he published his famous novel on the language movement of 1952, Arek Falgun. In 1970, Ar Koto Din, a book based on the dreams and desires of Zahir Raihan was published.
Zahir Raihan joined in the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971. He went to Kolkata where his film Jibon Theke Neya was shown. His film was highly acclaimed by the directors like Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha and Ritwik Ghatak. He donated all the money to the freedom fighters’ fund that he earned from the show. Zahir Raihan was planning to depict the misery of Bangalee mass people and mass genocide of Pak army through his film. But, he had no experience outside the feature film. However, he changed his style of presentation to make an epic documentary film Stop Genocide. This 18-minute documentary on the atrocities by Pakistani army during the Liberation War, is remarkable. The film highlights a parallel, drawn in the narration, between the genocides in Vietnam, Algeria and Bangladesh. Stop Genocide was not appreciated by the then exiled Awamileague politicians as he didn’t mention the name of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in the film. Zahir Raihan had great respect to Bangabandhu, but he didn’t want to use his name irrelevantly as the main theme of the film was to show the genocide of Pakistan Army, not the contribution of our political leadership. However, the acting Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmed saw its importance, whilst the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was visibly moved by it. She ordered her Films Division to buy it and circulate it internationally. The fact that the film’s commentary was in English, increased the chances of its message to spread worldwide.
On June 1971, the provisional government assigned Zahir Raihan to make another short film. Within the same budget, he produced three more short films- Liberation Fighters (Alamgir Kabir), Innocent Millions (Babul Choudhury) and A State is Born (Zahir Raihan).
On 30 January 1972, Zahir Raihan went to search for his novelist elder brother and mentor Shahidullah Kaiser, who was last seen before the liberation and was taken away by the Pakistani army in Mirpur. During the War of Liberation this area was a centre of genocide of the Pakistani army.
Valiant freedom fighter Maj. Gen. (Rtd.) Mainul Hossain Chowdhury described the happenings of that time from page 26 to 34 in his praised book, Ak Generaler Nirob Shakkho: Shadhinotar Prothom Doshok. On 30 January, 1972 morning, when a platoon of Army led by D Company Captain Helal Murshed Khan went to Mirpur area to search for some missing persons, then a strong group of Bihari refugees suddenly attacked them and caused casualties. As Chowdhury writes, “After listening about the incident, I went to the spot from Sohrawardi Uddan. D Company Captain Helal Murshed and Platoon Commander Habilder Wajed Ali Mia described to me the whole incident. At least 42 members died and our force had to come back. Immediately we couldn’t arrange a counter attack on them as we had a shortage of manpower. The next day we went with full strength, but only managed to find 3-4 dead bodies of our soldiers. The rest of the dead bodies were moved away by the killers.”
Mainul Hossain Chowdhury mentions in another paragraph of the same book that, “A few days later, a Police officer came to meet me in my residence whose name I can’t remember at this moment. He requested me to permit him to talk with the soldiers who were on duty during the incident. He informed me about the disappearance of Zahir Raihan. He actually showed the photograph of Zahir Raihan and asked the soldiers, whether they saw the person at the spot or not. Soldiers replied that, there were few Bangalee civilians who died in the incident and Zahir Raihan may be one of them.”
Journalist Julfikar Ali Manik’s investigative report on the disappearance of Zahir Raihan was published in Vorer Kagoj on 1 September, 1999. In the same year Zahir Raihan’s son Onol Raihan wrote a cover story for Shaptahik 2000 that was published on 13 August, titled, “Pitar Osthir Shondhane”. According to the article, Onol Raihan found an eyewitness, a former soldier of Bangladesh Army, Amir Hosain, who said that, he saw as the Bihari Muslim refugees opened fire on Zahir Raihan and killed him. Julfikar Ali Manik’s report also supported the same findings.
An artiste’s success depends on how he/she depicts his/her time to the mass people through his work. In this regard, Zahir Raihan is a unique artiste, who always represented the desires of the mass people. He didn’t care about the red eyes of the autocratic military dictatorship. Continuously Zahir contributed to Bangla literature and Bangalee culture through his novels and movies to inspire the Bangalee nation first to dream and then to implement the idea of an independent Bangladesh. Life of Zahir Raihan can be a perfect example of how an individual can motivate his countrymen to a broader reality without giving in to the narrow concept of personal interest. He had a short life of only 37 years. But, he explored all his potentials so boldly that he secured a permanent place in the mind of every Bangalee. We have a lot of things to learn from the life and works of Zahir Raihan.