Ontorjatra (Bengali: অর্ন্তযাত্রা; English: Homeland)
Director: Tareque and Catherine Masud
After 15 years abroad, Shireen and her son Sohel return to Bangladesh to attend the memorial service for Sohel’s father. After getting a divorce when Sohel was five years old, Shireen had fled to the UK and cut off any communication with her ex-husband. This included allowing Sohel to visit Bangladesh or communicate with his father in any way.
Bangladesh is not like Shireen remembers, and Sohel is experiencing it for the first time. As Sohel discovers the family that he never knew, Shireen is forced to confront her past and the decisions she made all those years before.
This is a major, well-known Bangladeshi movie. I wouldn’t call it a good movie, necessarily: the acting, in particular, leaves a lot to be desired, and there are far too many voiceovers. However, it does a very good job of showing what life in Bangladesh is actually like – and that is what I want to focus on.
I have told my husband many stories about Dhaka and Bangladesh, but he’s never been there. I was surprised when he started exclaiming about things that he noticed in this film. “The airport is so 1970s!” “The buses are so beat up, they look terrible!” “God, this is what the traffic really looks like?” I guess my descriptions didn’t convey as much as this video did.
This movie gives a good sense of what it feels like to be walking around in Bangladesh and interacting with Bangladeshi people there. Dhaka can be summed up as: too many people, too much traffic and too much pollution. Moreover, the new high-rise buildings dominate the city, and older buildings are very few and far in-between. But if you go outside of Dhaka, the countryside is beautiful – green rice fields stretching into the distance and the tea gardens in Sylhet.
The people also feel natural; this is the closest you can get to being in casual Bangladeshi company without going to Bangladesh. Shireen’s brother hosts musical evenings in his home with famous bands. Sohel’s grandfather is a refined, elderly tea estate owner in Sylhet who recounts the differences between the British period and today. Lokkhon da is a lower caste Hindu servant who continues to care for the family’s house in Old Dhaka. The characters reminded me of many people I have met during the time I spent in Bangladesh.
Something that I really appreciated about this film was that Sohel had trouble adjusting to the new environment. Even though he understands Bengali, he sometimes doesn’t really understand it. For example, his grandfather tells him, “home is in the heart and mind, and in the imagination.” Sohel misunderstands and thinks that he said to “imagine where your home is.” These little shades of meaning are something that the expat Bangladeshi finds difficult to grasp, since he has had very little exposure to his native language. There is no language gap, per se, since everyone is able to speak fluent English and Sohel understands most Bangla, but there is a tiny gap in understanding that leaves everyone just a little bit separated from each other.
If you are curious to see how people in Bangladesh live, this is a good movie to watch. There is nothing exaggerated about this depiction; rather, it is a tale of ordinary life in Bangladesh that would be difficult to experience otherwise, even if you were to visit the country as a tourist. If this sounds interesting to you, I highly recommend that you watch this film.