By Hasina Momtaz

A labour of love.  That’s how I would describe British-Bangladeshi writer, director and producer, Munsur Ali’s, ‘struggle’ to bring Shongram (The Struggle) to audiences across the UK. 

I was lucky enough to be invited to an exclusive preview showing aboard the HQS Wellington, docked at Embankment last week.  It was fitting that the premiere took place on the Wellington – the historical British connection wasn’t lost on me as it was a British newspaper, The Sunday Times, which first reported about the genocide and possibly changed the course of history by encouraging India to play a decisive role in the conflict.

Hasina Momtaz with Shongram’s writer, director and producer, Munsur Ali, and the film’s actors, Amaan Reza and Dilruba Yasmeen Ruhee. From left to right – Amaan Reza, Dilruba Yasmeen Ruhee, Hasina Momtaz, Munsur Ali

The screening was attended by a select group of notables from the British-Bangladeshi community including high-profile politician, Rupa Huq MP, media influencers and sponsors.

Sitting in that darkened screening room, I felt both the power and the pathos of the events that took place during the struggle for liberation which led to the creation of Bangladesh as an independent and sovereign country with its own language and culture.

Whilst I’m not a historian or an expert on the genocide which occurred – and nor am I equipped to cast judgement on the rights and wrongs of specific events – as a human being, I felt connected to the human emotions unfolding against a violent backdrop of bloodshed and death.

According to independent researchers, the brutal violence that erupted from March to December 1971, saw between 300,000 and 500,000 people killed, including women and children. The Bangladesh government puts the figure at three million deaths in the space of those few months. The film shows that mass rapes became a weapon of war and hundreds of thousands of women and girls were raped and many became pregnant or were kept as sex slaves in Pakistani army camps.  

As the movie starts, we see Karim, a handsome and carefree young man played by Amaan Reza, whose thoughts revolve around Asha, played by Dilruba Yasmeen Ruhee, the vibrant and mischievous village beauty that he’s besotted with.  Their innocent love story unfolds against a picturesque background of rivers and green fields.  

Just as they declare their love for one another, war breaks out.  The war sees Asha flee with her family from the village, leaving behind the man she loves, and it sees Karim pick up a gun to avenge the bloody death of his family members.  The lovers are separated but en route to the Indian border, Asha is captured and taken to the Pakistani army camp.  What then follows changes their destiny forever.

Told in flashback by Karim’s character, the film also stars international actor, Anupam Kher, who plays the role of the older Karim (Silver Linings Playbook, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge), and Hollywood star Asia Argento (Triple X – starring Vin Diesel).

Munsur Ali says he made the film in search of his roots and to share the story of the Bangladesh liberation war to a global audience.  Speaking to me at the premiere, Munsur said: “It’s not enough to make films for a Bengali audience only, we need to export stories to share our experiences and to compete on the world stage”.

This is the first time a film made by a British Bangladeshi will be releasing nationally. It is an important story about the struggle for Bangladeshi liberation as well as a beautiful and poignant love story. 

It really puts into context and visualises the stories I heard growing up about what our forefathers went through. 

While the world inevitably moves on, as it must do, it’s also important to remember our heritage and reflect so that we can journey forward and try to learn the lessons of history. Sadly, wars are not a historical fact but a present-day reality and that is why it is so important to tell the human stories behind the conflicts.  

If there’s one thing to add to your ‘must do’ list for this weekend, it’s to go and watch this movie.  It goes on general release from Friday 19th April in cities across the UK including London, Manchester, Birmingham, Luton, Bradford and Leicester.

For screenings and more details, check out: www.shongram.com

Hasina Momtaz is a British-Bangladeshi news and TV presenter, freelance journalist, media and communications expert and former press officer for the Mayor of London between 2003 and 2011.