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OP-ED: The swashbuckling celluloid star

  • Published at 08:35 pm April 18th, 2021
Bangla Tribune

In memory of Wasim, Bangladesh’s forgotten superstar

Wasim, the film star who set the cinema screen ablaze with his swordsmanship and swashbuckling heroism, is dead. Reportedly, he died of old age complications. For us, this news is a bit difficult to accept because in our minds, Wasim is the hero who simply cannot grow old or fade away into oblivion.

Unfortunately, life is not a film where the hero rides assertively into the sunset. Life is about growing old, becoming disillusioned and, sometimes, conceding that one’s glory days are over.

While the death of a certain film actress, active in politics, made the headlines with countless fans expressing grief on social media platforms, Wasim’s passing away was almost unnoticed.

Yet, once upon a time, his name pulled thousands to the halls -- Wasim, the sword wielding hero or, in Bengali, the “Talwarbaaj.”

As far as memory serves, he was also Mr East Pakistan and a celebrated bodybuilder before entering the movies.

The age of costume dramas

In Bengali, the term for costume drama was poshaki chobi which means a film where actors have to wear costumes of a certain period. In the years after independence, film-makers tilted towards extravagant costume movies featuring virtuous kings, scheming ministers, righteous princes and, elaborate if not convoluted, palace conspiracies.

It was a time when movies had one purpose only: Total escapism. There was of course a sociological reason for such films. The real world was marked by post-war austerity, economic stringency, and privation. Entertainment meant going to the films; once inside the halls, people wanted to forget all their adversities.

From another perspective, the country faced several political upheavals in the 70s and 80s and these movies, though presenting fictional kingdoms, often made subtle allusions to Bangladesh’s own ferment.

These swashbuckling movies had a simple approach to their storylines: Evil force tries to oust a good king, manages to achieve that purpose for a period, the masses become restive with the tyrannous regime and then, an explosive uprising leads to the rise of the ethical and the defeat of the villains.

Wasim was the perfect choice since he had been a bodybuilder. The swordsmanship wasn’t disappointing either. Movies like Bedeen, Rajmahal, and Rajnandini were some of his top costume films.  

The Robin Hood factor in a new country

In addition to portraying imaginary kingdoms set between the 10th and 13th century, the movies were heavily laden with the Robin Hood element or, in simple words, “stealing from the vile wealthy to help the poor” approach.

Bengali movies have always exploited the “callous rich depriving the disadvantaged” narrative. Almost 80% of movies from the first two decades after liberation portray the wealthy as insensitive, cruel, manipulative, and conniving. Hence the typical Dhallywood line laced with disdain: Apnara borolok! 

The protagonist was often shown as the son or daughter of a noble king who ended up with wandering gypsies or other low income communities as a result of some diabolical palace machination.

Wasim played the role of the righteous celluloid star to perfection, standing by the side of the oppressed, refusing to compromise with the oppressor.

Wasim’s finest hour came in 1984 with the movie Norom Gorom opposite Anju Ghosh. He had earlier had another hit with the same actress in Sawdagor but with full colour and a set of unforgettable songs, Norom Gorom became a smash hit,  with the story revolving around a reprobate aristocrat who marries a woman from his area at the behest of his parents but is unable to give up his debauchery.

The song “Ei brishti bheja raate chole jeo na” by Runa Laila which Anju Ghosh lip syncs in the film is deemed one of the all-time best numbers from the Bangladeshi film industry.

While Wasim went on to act in more super hits like Banjaran opposite Shabana and Rosher Baidani, by the late 80s, the celluloid world was becoming the domain for teenage actors.

The impact of Bollywood production, Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak led film makers to move towards teenage romance flicks as the great names of the 70s and 80s began to take senior roles in films.

Wasim, however, did not shift from hero to the uncle or father role. He simply disappeared from movies.

Reportedly, he went to the US but came back to settle for a quiet life. As I said earlier, reality is never like the silver screen and “happiness forever” is merely an illusion.

Wasim lost his wife and then, tragically, his daughter in 2006. Faced with the second loss, he remained stoic and simply said: It’s fate and I must accept it.

For millions of film lovers of today, the name, Wasim may not conjure any images at all and neither will they understand the zeitgeist in which swashbuckling heroes were needed to help a struggling nation forget countless tribulations of life.

A hero who made us forget all of life’s cruel twists became a victim himself. Yet, just like his celluloid characters who never put down the sword, Wasim did not blame anyone and kept on fighting.

Into the sunset he went; I did not see the news which showed images of an aged hero. In my mind, he remains the dauntless masked protagonist, dressed in black, riding a white horse with the sword in one hand. Our own Errol Flynn.

Towheed Feroze is a journalist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.

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