LIVE FROM DHAKA (Dir. Abdul Mohammad Saad, 2016, Bangladesh)

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Director Abdullah Mohammad Saad’s glum and intensely claustrophobic urban story could essentially work as a science fiction piece. The suffering, maladroit Sazzad (Tanvir Ahmed) floats through the glistening and ruinous monochrome cityscapes of Dhaka trying vapidly to make sense of his alien surroundings. Inexorably Sazzad wants to escape the convulsing grip of an overpopulated, frenzied city but it seems a bodily decomposition and sickness has set in, symbolically manifested as a disability. Bursting with psychosomatic angsts, Sazzad is also feral, suspicious of his girlfriend and apathetic towards his drug-addicted brother. What impresses about this debut feature is the amplification of Dhaka as an excoriating tinderbox of protests and disaffection that gradually swallows up Sazzad until he bursts. The gestalt to this work smacks of something genuinely bravura from Bangladeshi cinema, a Promethean voice that is not singular but points to an exciting, emergent new wave of films and filmmakers.

JAGO HUA SAVERA / THE DAY SHALL DAWN (India/Pakistan/Bangladesh, 1959, Dir. A. J. Kardar) – The Cosmopolitan Intersections of South Asian Neorealism

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“This is the path of the spirit paved with thorns and stones. This is man’s shadow. This is night. But morning will come…” – Khalil Gibran

Gibran’s poetic words point to a cycle of endurance, a battle to survive. This quote from Gibran is juxtaposed over the image of fishing boats at night, navigating the dark waters so to eek out a living, to sustain a village in which fishing is the lifeblood. The recently unearthed Jago Hua Savera (The Day Shall Dawn, 1959) seems to be yet another reason why South Asian cinema’s intersections with neorealism remain somewhat irresolute. Most conversations regarding Indian neorealism tend to centre on two films – Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin (1953) and Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955). Both of these films, directed by Bengali filmmakers, show a debt to Italian neorealism and De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948). Although Ghatak’s work could be tentatively argued in terms of a neorealist aesthetic, his style was more eclectic, hybridised and fragmented. Arguably, Nagarik (1952) is possibly the film with the most salient neorealist dimensions of Ghatak’s work, following in the burst of realism initiated by the IPTA in the late 1940s.

If we bring A. J. Kardar’s Jago Hua Savera into this group of Indian neorealist films, it is important to note that most of these films came from the East of India, many from Bengal. Jago Hua Savera was a co-production between Pakistan and India, and what also makes it unusual are the contributions of Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz for script, dialogue and lyrics (unfortunately none of the songs have subtitles) and the cinematography by esteemed DOP Walter Lassally. In fact, Jago Hua Savera was one of Lassally’s first credits as a DOP as a full-length feature, and evidences the fresh realist style that he had developed as part of The British Free Cinema movement with Lindsay Anderson, Karl Reisz and later new wave cinema of the 60s with Tony Richardson. I am  very intrigued by how Lassally got involved with the project. It is worth noting the sound recordist John Fletcher was also part of Free Cinema, having worked on experimental shorts like Nice Time (1957) with directors Alain Tanner and Claude Goretta. Moreover, the editor, Bill Bouvet, was also British. In this respect, the international make up of the crew certainly demonstrates a cross-cultural and cosmopolitan collaboration that was perhaps unusual for the time in India-Pakistan.

The film is simply about the lives of fishermen in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). The opening title reads:

‘Filmed on location at Saitnol, on the banks of the river Meghna – 30 miles south, as the crow flies, from Dacca, in East Pakistan’.

Mian (Zurain) is a fisherman with a growing family, as the titles tell us. His wife, Fatima (Shamsun Nihar), is physically impaired. Mian’s close friend is Kasim (Anees), an orphan who is in love with Mala (Tripti Mitra), the sister in law of Mian, and who comes to stay and help after Fatima gives birth. Kasim is impetuous but loyal to Mian. A principal character is Ganju (Latif) who is obsessed with the dream to own a boat, a threadbare goal that seems to characterise all of the fishermen including Mian. Ganju is a symbol of destitution. When Ganju’s boat arrives, he is too ill to enjoy the fruits of his labour and later dies. This is what awaits the fisherman in Saitnol; a painful ending to a miserable existence, which is dictated by the terms of Lal Mian, a slimy moneylender (Kazi Khaliq) who owns the fishing rights to the territory. Lal Mian also has his eye on Mala and hopes that he can convince Mian to let him marry her.

In one sequence, when the fishing rights of Saitnol are auctioned, Lal Mian outbids everyone and retains control. While the fishermen want to see an end to Lal Mian’s rule, they do not have the economic resources to outbid him. After Lal Mian retains the fishing rights, he has a monopoly over the village, and goes about charging extra from the fishermen. Kardar uses a record book of anonymous thumbprints as a symbol of bondage and enslavement that stretches back generations. What Kardar captures so effortlessly is the minuet of the fishing village, charging his narrative with pseudo-poetic neorealist imagery – the boats swaying on the river, the disparate joys of a local mela. Such affection is punctuated by moments of anguish, destitution and fortitude like when Mian attempts to buy a fishing boat but only to realise he does not have enough money or a dying Ganju caressing his newly built boat which he will never sail. Indeed, melodrama often seems to be the element that complicates the neorealist tendencies of films like Do Bigha Zamin but Kardar manages to steer clear off such trapping, perhaps until the final moments as Ganju’s boat is taken away, a rare instance of sentimentality creeping into the film.

However, Jago Hua Savera, made in 1959, seems to have been the culmination of the neorealist moment in South Asian cinema, intersecting along a cross-border creative exchange. Moreover, the international cast and crew, drawing on artists from Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Europe, also situate the film in the realms of international art cinema that was emerging more fully in the late 1950s. Ghatak would return to a similar milieu in his opus Titas Ekti Nadir Naam (A River Called Titas, 1973), exploring the lives of fisherman in Bangladesh and perhaps is indebted to Kardar’s film, notably the stark compositions of landscapes. The pared down, observational approach Kardar takes to the fishing village makes it at times feel as if we are watching a documentary, an ethnographic study but one that is enthralling nonetheless. If Ghatak’s film seems indebted to Kardar then we can also reason Visconti’s La Terra Trema (The Earth Trembles, 1948), a classic Italian neorealist work that documents the tribulations of fisherman in a remote Sicilian village, was an influence on both of these films, and returns to the question of exchange that occurred between South Asian filmmakers and Italian neorealism in this period.

Kardar’s brother was Abdur Rashid Kardar, a famous and influential filmmaker and producer who started in the silent era as a producer and then later directed mainstream films like Shahjahan (1946), Dillagi (1949) and Dulari (1949). There is an excellent article by writer and curator Ali Nobil Ahmad published in The Guardian (2016) which drills down into the production history of the film. 

 

CONTEMPORARY BANGLADESHI CINEMA: THE FILMS OF MOSTOFA S. FAROOKI

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Director Mostofa S. Farooki

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.

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Third Person Singular Number (2009)

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.

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Television (2012)

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.

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Ant Story (2013)

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.

Bibliography

Interview/Feature on Farooki by Liz Shackleton, Screen Daily, 17 October 2012