Google “Bangladesh War” and one of the first results you’ll get is a Wikipedia entry for “Rape during the Bangladesh Liberation War”. This is testament to the centrality of systemised sexual assault by Pakistani forces in the nine months of conflict before Bangladesh became independent. Some 400,000 Bangladeshi women were estimated to have been raped during this time. Many subsequently had abortions, fearing that the children they were bearing would be ostracised – as several were. It’s worth noting that Children of War was earlier called “The Bastard Child”.
Almost from the start, the screenplay is split into three parallel stories, each of which echoes a key strand of the actual conflict. The first involves Fida (Raima Sen), who is raped in front of her husband, journalist Aamir (Indraneil Sengupta), and then taken away and interned in a camp run by the sadistic Malik (Pavan Malhotra). The second is about two young siblings attempting to cross the border into India. We also see how Aamir ends up joining the Mukti Bahini, the blanket term for armed Bangladeshi rebels.
Children of War is a very difficult film to watch. The director, Mrityunjay Devvrat, making his feature debut after a couple of documentaries, evidently feels strongly enough about the events of ’71 not to dilute them. You’re dragged, wincing, through rape and torture and slaughter. There’s no let up, and for most of the running time, no catharsis. During the first half in particular, the film’s relentless onslaught feels more numbing than powerful.
The film nearly messes up things for itself trying to find aesthetic solutions to all the sadness. The camerawork by Fasahat Khan is best when it’s kept simple: there’s a very jarring POV sequence, and slo-mo is used too often for it to be effective after a while. And there’s one unmitigated disaster, a scored montage just before the interval which begins as a sort of torch song and then unexpectedly changes into a rock number. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the accompanying visuals – shots of crying babies, flowing blood, a boy running with a Bangladesh flag – look impossibly staged and arty, like someone trying to trick you into feeling bad.
Despite this passage – and two similar ones later – the film manages to pull itself together. After a key cameo by Tillotama Shome as a rebel fighter, there’s a rapidly accelerating build-up to a climax that’s as concerned with everyone’s survival as it is with whether Aamir will accept Fida now that she’s pregnant with a “war baby”. The film also links to the controversial war tribunals initiated in 2008, which tried and sentenced several “razakars” (the term used for Bangladeshi informants).
The actors commit admirably to the material – despite the incendiary potential in most of the scenes, there isn’t as much playing to the gallery as one would expect. Pavan Malhotra’s Malik is as odious and mesmerising a figure as Ralph Fiennes’ Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List. Less showy, and equally effective, are Riddhi Sen and Rucha Inamdar as the siblings; Sen’s hardening into a young guerrilla is one of the more subtly tragic things in the film. Like Madras Cafe last year, Children of War is a welcome indication that some Hindi filmmakers are starting to look outside India for stories. That Devvrat tackles his subject head-on is something else to feel encouraged about.
This review appeared in Time Out.