Mamunur Rashid: The Icon who speaks to the masses

Mainul Hassan | Published: 00:00, Jul 26,2019 | Updated: 01:42, Jul 27,2019


Mamunur Rashid

Mamunur Rashid, who, through his writing, acting and direction has occupied a special niche in the public consciousness throughout the last four decades or so, is now a cultural guru to look forward to. Mainul Hassan of New Age has recently met the maestro to shed light on how he grew up, got involved in the theatre and journeyed through many a successful dramas, TV plays and films.         

Abul Kashem Mohammad Mamunur Rashid Khan was born on a leap day on February 29, 1948.

He was born in a culturally inclined family amid the greenery in Paikora village of Kalihati Thana in Tangail.

For a playwright-actor-director it is impossible to ignore the phenomenal world in art. There is no denying the fact that like all playwrights, actors and directors Mamunur Rashid has too been influenced, excited and triggered by contemporary world affairs.

A few months before Mamunur Rashid’s birth, the partition of British India and birth of two new countries India and Pakistan occurred, which changed the course of history in this part of the world.

Mamunur Rashid grew up witnessing the chain of events, which were triggered by the hegemony of the West Pakistan elite who played an important role in the creation of Pakistan. At the age of four he witnessed the language movement in 1952.

He went to school riding on his mother’s lap. The school, six miles into heart of Tangail city, and his young heart was excited after hearing the slogan Rastra Bhasha Bangla Chai, Nurul Aminer Kolla Chai.

‘I still remember that day. I had a toothache on that very day,’ recalls Mamunur Rashid.

His father Harunur Rashid Khan was a government servant, a postmaster, who was often transferred to different places and so the family also had to move a lot.

A young Mamunur Rashid was lucky enough to have visited a lot of places. His school life started in Fulpur, Mymensingh. From Fulpur he later had to transfer to another school in Balla under Tangail district because of his father’s new posting. Afterwards, he shifted to Elenga, the home to Bhattacharya Zamindars, established by paternal great grandfather of renowned economist Debpriyo Bhattacharya. It is here in this village that Mamunur Rashid attended the school.

‘As I grew up in the villages I remember witnessing beauty of the six seasons. My most favourite memory is travelling to homes of maternal uncle and paternal aunt during the rainy seasons when the rivers and canals were swelling with water. I really loved the sight,’ says Mamunur Rashid.

He was drawn to poetry and wrote his first poem when he was studying at the fifth grade. He actually wanted to become a musician and had started learning the tabla, and quite frequently sang to his heart’s content.

His father who was quite a conservative man, would not let him pursue this musical interest. The result was that Mamunur started leaning the more subtle art of writing poetry.

His maternal uncle poet Rafiq Azad inspired him to start writing poems. However, when Mamunur read a few of his uncle’s poems he could hardly comprehend those. Soon he gave up on Rafiq Azad and started following his paternal uncle poet Ashraf Siddiqui, whose poems he found much easier to grasp.

At htis point in his life, he accepted Ashraf Siddiqui as his literary guru and would go for walks with him every afternoon during which Mamunur would ask, ‘Uncle, how do you write poems?’ Ashraf Siddiqui replied, ‘God sends his verses in revelations and that’s how I write.’

Mamunur Rashid once accompany his mother Rokeya Khanam to a theatre performance of Sirajuddaula, the last nawab of Bengal, at the Tangail Coronation Dramatic Club at the age of four or five, which left a lasting impression on the child Mamunur Rashid.

‘The plays used to draw a huge audience during those times. Everyone was looking at the actor and following his every move. He could make the people cry or smile. This left a huge impact on me,’ he says.

Mamunur Rashid performed at stage for the first time while he was a school student in the village Balla. It was his teacher Satinath sir who arranged for a performance named Bijaysingha to be staged, which was performed inside the school on a makeshift stage by removing the partition between two classrooms and putting a few benches in rows.

He completed his secondary education from Balla Coronation High School in Tangain in 1963. During his days in Elenga and Balla in Tangail, he had the opportunity to watch jatras and pujas being performed at both places. At Elenga, there was a natmandir as well, where jatra and other performances used to be held. He was lucky enough to have watched the plays Krishnaleela and Ramleela at a local Zamindar’s house in Elenga. At Balla village, he saw many jatra performances like Sohrab-Rustam, which left an indelible mark on young Mamunur’s mind.

He wrote his first stage-play when he was a student at the Polytechnic Institute and later wrote several plays during his time there.

‘I became interested in writing plays because I was fascinated by the writers of jatra and traditional plays, which I witnessed during my childhood days. I thought how powerful those behind the scene writers must have been, those who penned such powerful plays which left a lasting impression on so many like me,’ he says.

In his youth, Mamunur was greatly absorbed in Shakespeare because, ‘Shakespeare always provides a good storyline to his plays.’ But Shakespeare on stage was not available at that time. Thus, in Dhaka, study of Shakespeare was limited to reading of his plays and listening to professors’ lecture on his plays. It was during this time that Mamunur came to know of Shakespeare’s ideas on society and leart how class-consciousness was ingrained in the writing of this English playwright. Mamunur, by then became aware of how Karl Marx, in his own writings, incorporated a large number of Shakespearean quotes.

After Shakespeare, it was Henrik Ibsen who had a great influence on Mamunur.

After completing his course from the Polytechnic Institute, Mamunur got admitted himself into Dhaka University, at the department of political science. By the time he earned a degree after ‘discontinuing’ several times. Not quite forgetting his first taste of writing for stage in Polytechnic Institute, Mamunur again started toying with the idea of writing plays for stage. He was yet to enrol at Dhaka University and it was around this time he started writing television plays.

In 1967-69, after getting one of his plays broadcast, he earned about Tk 480, which was almost equivalent to a month’s salary of a senior government officer.

At times it so happened that four plays were telecast in a month and all those were penned by Mamunur Rashid. His financial circumstances remained in good order till before the start of the liberation war.

At the beginning of the war Mamunur Rashid was not very sure what to do. He moved from one place to another. Later, he returned to Tangail and met guerrilla leader Kader Siddiki. He took part in a couple of operations with Kader Siddiki. Later he moved to Agartala, India and joined Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra where he met Mustafa mnonwar, Hasan Imam, Ashraful Alam, Shahidul Islam, Mustafa Anwar, Abdullah Al Faruk, Abdul Jabbar, Zamil Chowdhury, Badal Rahman and Aly Zaker.

One day Mustafa Monwar proposed, ‘Let’s do a play together,’ and Mamunur replied, ‘Let’s make it happen.’

Thus Mamunur penned his first play for a professional stage Poshchimer Shiri. During his stay in Kolkata during the tumultuous days of the liberation war, Mamunur met many people with theatre background and watched a lot of theatre performances.

After independence, Mamunur Rashid founded Aranyak Nattyadal, which went on to become one of the major troupes of the country.

‘Stage is such a strange place, it’s almost like a global cauldron,’ he speaks in a state of controlled excitement.

You can never draw a line of nationalist restriction around a stage. A stage will always accommodate at a Moliere, a Shakespeare, a Sophocles, an Ibsen, or a Brecht — whether the stage is in Kolkata or in Dhaka or in a small mofussil town,’ this is how he perceives the stage as a site connected to the legacy of world theatre.

In the sixties, Mamunur and his theatre compatriots would engage in long addas or leisurely discussions on Bernard Shaw’s electrifying and witty dialogues, his preference for long prefaces which would sometimes exceed the lengths of his plays. He had a deep respect for Shaw’s political and social opinions. Those addas would invariably bring in the name of Lawrence Olivier, the great Shakespearean actor and to a lesser degree the name of John Gielgud. They would endlessly talk about how Lawrence Olivier, by incorporating body language, brought about a big change to the nineteenth century acting style. In those impressionable days Mamunur got introduced to Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Maxim Gorky, Pushkin, Mayakovski and Nikolai Ostrovsky.

With his first stage play Poshchimer Shiri, Mamunur began his journey with a work that was symbolic in tone and carried metaphoric language and resonated with absurdist works. His second stage play, intended for professional stage, was also abstract in nature. But from the third play Ora Kadam Ali, Mamunur turned towards the realistic genre. This perhaps was the result of a direct influence from Ibsen, Gorki, Shaw and Utpal Dutt.

His earlier plays like Ora Kadam Ali, Ora Ache Bolei and Iblish were written in the eighties, a time when all progressive forces were fighting against the autocratic regime.

The plays portrayed a reality that inspired the aspirations of the masses. His play Pathor depicted a period when fundamentalism gained strength. It was a time when the Babri mosque was demolished, there were street-fights in Dhaka, and Kolkata went under curfew. Bihar and Uttar Pradesh was plagued with successive riots. His play Rasta Bonam portrays the sufferings of common men who do not have the power to put up a fight against the oppressive forces.

His play Bangabhanga, which Faiz Zahir directed, portrays the plights of the people during the partition. Besides, he also penned plays like Cher Cycle, Lebede and others.

During the late seventies many theatre practitioners started to consider whether it would be possible to bring all theatre troupes under the umbrella of one federation. The success of Dhaka Theatre Festival ignited an interest in launching such organisation.

On November 29, 1980, Ramendu Majumdar, as editor of theatre quarterly Theatre, called a meeting for exchanging ideas and opinions at the Dhaka University TSC. The meeting adopted a resolution that the theatre troupes should come under an umbrella organisation. Later, in another meeting a resolution was adopted to establish Bangladesh Group Theatre Federation. The first conference of the federation took place on August 23, 1981 and Mamunur Rashid became its president and served two consecutive terms. Commemorating the first date of the meeting on November 29, cultural activists observe it as the Group Theatre Day.

Mamunur Rashid’s lasting engagement with the stage and the media firm began simultaneously. This double journey, which began in the sixties, continues to this day. He had to rely on advertising industry to ensure his livelihood, yet he always regarded television as one of his serious love affairs where he could display a strong sense of attachment and professionalism.

To me television is not just a source of earning a living, it is also a medium where I had to keep my commitment, show my talent, he says.

Mamunur Rashid often has to face a question, whether simultaneously working in television and films turned working in theatre as merely a fad.

He agrees to the fact that so long as theatre is regarded as something fashionable, it will never reach the desired height. The thespian states that art too is a commodity, therefore, if art is unable to generate livelihood, it is sure to lose its stature. Since olden times, a significant part of art had existed as commodity that is exchangeable. A TV play is aired for the money received from advertisement, he argued.

‘If the audience wants to watch a film at the theatre, they must buy tickets,’ asserts the thespian.

Ekhane Nongor, which he wrote for television, became a legend followed by television serials Somoy Ashomoy, Itikatha, Shopner Shohor, etc. These plays contributed to his hugely popularity among the audience. Be it the play of the month or play of the week — his plays such as Ekti Setur Golpo, Bancha, Eeter Pore Eet — all enjoyed immense popularity with the audience of BTV.

Recalling Ekti Setur Golpo, Mamunur Rashid says, ‘In it a vested quarter spreads rumours that human sacrifice is needed for completing the bridge. In the end of the engineer was killed. It pains me today when I see that such rumours are spreading today. The forces which I portrayed in Ekti Setur Golpo are still active today.’

Mamunur Rashid also gained prominence as an actor. His return to moderate prosperity began with the production of drama serial Sundari. Apart from that he produced Shilpi and Danob — two serials that brought further recognition and financial success.

In the meantime, he established a production house called Bangla Telefilm.

Mamunur says that by producing and directing plays and by acting in the media he had come far ahead in terms of material gain he could ever imagine for himself, a fact which he paradoxically seems disagreeable to him to this day.

Mamunur Rashid was able to live a prosperous life by scripting plays for TV and radio before independence. After the war, he fell into deep financial crisis that led to film-production, which is why he could not continue regular theatre works although Aranyak Natyyadal had already been established.

While studying in Polytechnic Institute, Mamunur Rashid came to be connected with active politics for some time. He would not stay in politics for long, but his plays often included strong political overtones. He says that he has a strong bias towards Marxist philosophy.

Accordingly, the idea of taking theatre closer to the people often occupied Mamunur. Studying different theories and ideologies — Marxism, evolutionism, or existentialism — he realised that life and art was once closer to each other.

 In the last few years the cinema halls in Bangladesh have been facing closure. The cinemas which are still operational are unable to arrange film shows for long as the number of audience has experienced a sharp decline. Instead of blaming the satellite culture for such reluctance on the part of the audience, Mamunur emphasises the need for positive steps to be taken by the state and by those organisations that are related to the film industry.

‘Back in the days, cinema halls were places where hundreds of people used to enjoy films together. As cinemas are gradually disappearing, people are watching films alone sitting at their homes. They prefer social media over social meetings. As a result today’s generation is growing up isolated from each other. That is why no one comes forward to help someone like Rifat, who was attacked in Borguna in brought day light, or the lone innocent victim of lynching on the streets,’ says Mamunur Rashid.

He made many friends including poets Shamsur Rahman, Nirmolendu Goon, Abul Hasan, Abdullah Al Mamun, Selim Al Deen and many others thanks to socialisation. They helped him find his own foothold in the world.

Mamunur Rashid has three brothers and five sisters. Among his brothers, journalist, writer and scripter, Rezaul Hasan has been been living in Canada for many years now, Dr Kamrul Hasan Khan served as the vice chancellor of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University, Dr Rashid Amin is a painter and teacher at fine art department of Jagannath University. Among his sisters, Shamsunnahar Khanam is a homemaker while the other sisters namely Fatematuzzohora, Fahmida Parveen, Afia Khan and Tahmina Parveen are all working.

His mother Rokeya Khanum was honoured with Rotnogorbha Ma award conferred by Azad Products, which honours women for their contribution to the society through their successful children.

Mamunur Rashid was nominated for Bangla Academy award during the autocratic rule of Ershad. He rejected this award on political grounds. However, when in 2011 he was nominated for Ekushey Padak he accepted the award. Though he did not find much success as a film producer, he won National Film Award twice for acting. Besides, he received numerous awards from different organisations including Alaol Shahityya Puroskar, Mawlana Bhashani Padak, Munier Chowdhury Padak and others.

When asked to reflect on his long theatrical journey, Mamunur Rashid replies, ‘My plays speak about the rights and sufferings of the deprived and ethnic minority communities in society. My works embody left political views and due to the absence of left political platforms and parties in the country my works could not reach the masses. However due to my line of work I had the opportunity to meet wonderful people both in the country and across the globe which I consider my biggest success.’


Photos by Sourav Lasker

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