Bangladeshi cinema is a major blind spot for me so I when I stumbled upon the films of contemporary filmmaker Mostofa S. Farooki I was determined to find out more. Festivalscope presently has three films by Farooki available to watch. Many of his films are on YouTube minus English subtitles. Unsurprisingly none of Farooki’s films have been distributed officially in the UK. Some context is necessary here about the Bangladeshi film industry. In an interview for Screen Daily (2012) with Liz Shackleton, Farooki says Bangladesh produces on average 40 films, ‘most are really bad Bollywood copies’, reiterating yet again the hegemonic footprint of populist Hindi cinema on regional output and neighbouring countries. This figure seems low for a country with a sizable youth population. It was the introduction of satellite TV in 1999 that Farooki contends led to ‘aspiring young filmmakers’ to make ‘short telefilms on digital for really low budgets’. Farooki has been the most high profile and most outspoken of this new generation of Bangladeshi filmmakers.
The Bangladeshi film industry seems to be in a similar position that Indian cinema was in before the government granted industry status, and Farooki has said new Bangladeshi cinema needs the intervention of government policy to improve exhibition, helping to install ‘digital cinema systems’ but also encouraging local funding for feature film projects. In principle, Farooki is suggesting indigenous homegrown Bangladeshi cinema can only emerge fully and creatively through some kind of state based funding body like the FFC, which was set up by the Indian government in the 1960s to help support alternate cinema. Farooki has also been resistant to the import of Bollywood films, citing the example of South Korea in developing an indigenous, commercially successful domestic cinema. However, much of Bangladeshi’s recent best work has come from television. My contact with Bangladeshi cinema has been very limited but Farooki’s position in the industry seems significant in trying to push forward a new cinematic agenda for emerging filmmakers. Farooki is clearly not reasoning for a new cinematic manifesto but more crucially calling for institutional implementations that could help the industry grow internally. This is certainly backed up by his body of work so far. Three films, all directed by Farooki, are key in terms of understanding the politics, themes and style of what could potentially lead to a new wave in Bangladeshi cinema. This includes Third Person Singular Number (2009), Television (2012) and Ant Story (2013). Farooki’s work fits nicely into the international market and many of his films have been feted at film festivals, heralding him as a critical voice in the context of South Asian cinema.
Third Person Singular Number (2009) is the film that got Farooki noticed. It is arguably a radical text since it depicts the story of a young, seemingly liberated, middle class woman and the experiences she faces in a controlling patriarchal Bangladeshi society. In one extended sequence, Farooki details the ostracism Ruba faces when she tries to rent an apartment for herself, eventually duping a seedy old landlord to rent her a room in exchange for the promise of sex. The sequence emerges as a comical one as Ruba slowly turns the tables on the landlord, ridiculing his attempts to exploit her. While gender politics are a key interest across all three films, Ruba’s journey becomes an existential one, striving to forge an identity in an urban, modern Bangladeshi society.
Television (2012) is by far the most ideologically provoking, centring on a village in which the local community chairman (also an Imam) bans television. Not only does this central concept reflect the contemporary anxieties of a Muslim orthodoxy suspicious of media imagery but leads to a series of comical situations that sees the villagers using subterfuge to watch television. Farooki deploys the television as a symbol of change and modernity that the chairman regards as abhorrent. However, the ending sees the chairman leave the village to go on pilgrimage to perform Hajj only to discover he has been swindled. The chairman’s trip to the city is framed by the ubiquity of images in the shape of advertising adorning the cityscapes, which Farooki argues can only create false needs and distract, complicating the Imam’s objections about banning television in the village. Ironically, when the chairman cannot face the shame of returning to the village having not performed the pilgrimage he stays in a hotel in the city and resigns himself to watching the Hajj on television. Farooki makes the point quite brilliantly, that imagery and technology can also be progressive and in some ways offer another conduit for proselytizing religious ideology.
The third film, Ant Story (2013) is Farooki’s most recent film, and perhaps the quirkiest of the three, exploring the nuances of contemporary urban life through the eyes of a lowly young salesman who becomes embroiled in a blackmail scheme with an actress. Taking its cue from films like Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, Ant Story is a dark comedy about the culture of victimization, which has emerged as a consequence of new media technology. Farooki’s films have an inimitably understated style (often blurring reality), multi layered narratives that favour aperture, interests in female narrative perspectives, and the collision between tradition and modernity. His voice is very progressive when compared to other Islamic countries with a film industry such as Pakistan, since he often debates the hypocrisies of Islam and is not afraid of speaking out against a stifling orthodoxy that can limit and strangely beget creativity.
Farooki is somewhat overshadowed by his contemporaries in India and the rest of South Asia but his work deserves wider exposure in Europe and the US. No Man’s Land, his current project, will be shot in New York and was awarded the NFDC development award in 2014, and will be about ‘a member of the Ahmadiyya minority in Pakistan, which is discriminated against by the Sunni majority’. He is certainly a director who deserves more recognition abroad and is one to look out for in terms of leading the way for new Bangladeshi cinema.
Interview/Feature on Farooki by Liz Shackleton, Screen Daily, 17 October 2012