The «Babel» of Bangladesh: Indigenous and Multilingual Filmmaking Practices as a Tool of Cultural Resistance and Political Advocacy.

Author: Mara Matta (SAPIENZA University of Rome)
Speaker: Mara Matta
Topic: Semiotics and semiology
The (SCOPUS / ISI) SOAS GLOCAL CALA 2019 General Session


In the beginning Babel was a sin; it has become a virtue in the modern world (U. Eco).

In an interview published on Le Monde in 1993, Italian writer and semiologist Umberto Eco stated that «a language, as a living organism, always manages to enrich itself and survive, to resist all “barbarization”. The «virtue» of multilingualism has become so widely acknowledged today that polyglots, far from being despised as deviants, are among the most praised citizens of the globalized world. However, this statement does not hold much truth in Bangladesh, where Babel is still seen as a sin. This paper takes into consideration the current plight of the ethno-linguistic ‘minorities’ of Bangladesh, looking at the situation of the tribal languages and cultures of expressivity through the frames of visual anthropology and cultural and media studies. There are around 45 ethnic groups officially recognized in Bangladesh, and many more that are waiting for recognition. The government of Bangladesh refuses to acknowledge the tribal communities as ‘indigenous people’ (ādivāsī), preferring to call them with other names (upajāti, that is ‘sub-nationals’, being just one of them), thus revealing its clear stance in relation to their ‘minority’ status. This minoritarization of tribal people is further highlighted by the language policies adopted by the Bangladeshi government, expressed through the hegemony of Bangla (Bengali) in all spheres of cultural and media practices.

Considering the case of the Chittagong Hill Tracts’ communities, and of the Chakma group in particular, this paper sheds some light on the visual aesthetics and cinematic narratives of indigenous filmmakers of Bangladesh, who are creating alternative mediascapes and actively tackling the cultural and economic dynamics of representation, circulation and consumption that keep sustaining their image as upajāti. Indigenous films and media practices can offer alternative perspectives on the interlink between language, identity and power in a country that acknowledges Bengali language as its unique official language. This essay addresses the challenge to commodification, exoticization and spectacularization of indigeneity put forward by ādivāsī filmmakers in Bangladesh and their commitment to uphold tribal languages and multilingualism through the practices of indigenous filmmaking and media productions.