Among all the rebellious social reformers of Bengal in the British-ruled Indian subcontinent before 1947, the year when the subcontinent finally tasted freedom - there was a woman who actively participated in major sociopolitical movements and even trained other women to revolt against the oppressors.
Her name was Leelabati Nag, also known as Leela Nag and Leela Roy after her marriage to her spouse Anil Chandra Roy; but she is mostly remembered for another monumental achievement - being the first-ever female student at Dhaka University who snatched her right to study there, when it was not keen to promote or nurture the culture of coeducation, as far back as 1921 - when the institution was founded.
Even though this was a remarkable achievement which cemented her name and legacy in history, very few actually know about her other identities - a radical leftist politician, an ardent educationist, a publisher - and a social reformer.
"Not only our new generation but also people from the earlier generations and even many knowledgeable and resourceful people are unaware of Leela Nag - since we lack the practice to learn about personalities like her. Most people know very little about Leela Nag, except that she was the first female student at Dhaka University. She was actively involved in several significant radical movements and many political and social initiatives, but very few have adequate knowledge on this," says Eliza Binte Elahi, a renowned heritage traveller and documentary filmmaker.
With the mission to enlighten the enthusiasts about this legendary revolutionary woman, Eliza made "Leelabati Nag: The Rebel" - a documentary film, researched, scripted and produced by Eliza Binte Elahi from "Quest: A Heritage Journey of Bangladesh" and directed by ARM Nasir.
In a candid conversation with UNB before the screening of this significant documentary, Eliza said, "When I realized that the next generation, as well as previous/current generations, needed to be informed about Leela Nag, I began studying her. However, very few individuals can elaborately talk about her because in reality, most of those who saw her or observed her actions in person, are not alive."
When the UNB correspondent asked about her motifs for this particular social reformer, Eliza said: "First of all, she was a revolutionary woman, a pioneer leader of the anti-British movement. She was a follower of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, hence she became a great part of the anti-British movements in Bengal."
"Almost everyone knows about Pritilata Waddedar - the revolutionary - but only a handful know that Pritilata was a student of Leela Nag. She guided everything and provided training to Pritilata and other women, and she was able to do so because she had been battling against the anti-British movement from long ago."
"Additionally," Eliza continued, "Leela Nag was also a pioneer figure in social movements - particularly women's awakening during her time. We know that the pioneer Begum Rokeya worked on women's education, but Leela Nag was also an active educationist; who initiated twelve schools for women of her time, and she guided them to become self-reliant."
Talking about how Leela Nag was socially engaged, Eliza mentioned that under Leela's editorship, a magazine titled 'Jayashree' was launched in 1931, with its initial headquarters in Dhaka, presently in Kolkata.
"In addition, Leela Nag founded the first women's community in this subcontinent, the 'Deepali Sangha.' The present Bangladesh Mahila Parishad which was founded by late eminent poet Sufia Kamal, is considered to be the subsequent offshoot of this particular community. When discussing women's groups, leadership, and awakening in this subcontinent, Deepali Sangha must be credited as the driving force."
That being said, the name of this revolutionary woman is only being remembered these days for debuting co-education at Dhaka University, and that triggered Eliza to move forward with this exclusive project - of course, with a lot of hurdles.
"I began my research about this documentary in late 2022 and collected as much information as possible from all existing resources in both Bangladesh and Kolkata. The problem is that it was way too hard to find relevant people who could share some memories about her; the other problem was that almost every property that she founded (schools, and even her own ancestral house) - are in different hands nowadays."
However, the quest of Eliza did not stop there as she went to Kolkata and was able to interview Bijay Nag, Leela Nag's son - now 89 years old. "We also talked to her other relatives and associates in Kolkata, and tried to accumulate as much information as possible because this is a documentary, it should contain these valuable insights," Eliza told UNB.
One of the disciples of Leela Nag is the eminent researcher, essayist, cultural personality and Liberation War Museum trustee Mofidul Hoque. Not only did he appear in this documentary and share his knowledge regarding the social reformist, but the museum also actively supported Eliza throughout this documentary with post-production facilities.
Talking to UNB regarding the documentary, Mofidul Hoque said, "People in this subcontinental region fought so hard for their rights, and Leela Nag is such a personality who cannot be erased from this particular history of Bengal. Unfortunately, due to the lack of proper research and documentation, this glorious rebel seems unknown to many - but credit goes to Eliza who worked so passionately for this project."
"Eliza makes travel documentaries. This is also a travel documentary, but we can also call it a journey - a journey to the past. This travel documentary has been able to explore many dimensions, and I and the Liberation War Museum are delighted to be with this work," Mofodul Hoque said, adding that the documentary should reach out to as many people as possible.
Expressing her gratitude to Mofidul Hoque and the Liberation War Museum, Eliza said, "As an independent heritage traveller and documentary filmmaker - I along with my team, make documentaries with our self-fundings. This is a rigorous project, in terms of research and obviously, money."
"This is why I am immensely grateful to Mofidul Hoque Sir and the Liberation War Museum authority, as not only Sir agreed to share his knowledge on screen for this documentary - but also the Liberation War Museum helped me in many ways. I completed the post-production works in the museum and the museum omitted the hall rent; these are invaluable supports," Eliza Binte Elahi told UNB.
The 66-minute-long documentary "Leelabati Nag: The Rebel" is all set to premiere on Wednesday, 4 pm at the Liberation War Museum auditorium in the capital.
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