It takes ingenuity, and frustrations, to make a social satire like Television (2012). Its orthodox village head, the protagonist Chairman Amin, won’t let anybody in his waterlocked village watch the haraam (forbidden), the corrupting TV or any image (plastering tape on models’ photos in newspapers). In the end, it is the very “idiot box” that allows the pious man to attend hajj at Mecca. The caricature is empathetic. Amin was modelled on director Mostofa Sarwar Farooki’s conservative father, who threw out the “shoitaner baksho” (devil’s box), and out flew cartoons and football telecasts from young Farooki’s life. Years later, television would become his site of rebellion and he’d begin his 22-year career with telefilms, and later films, showing a society in transition, dabbling in themes such as tradition versus modernity, middle-class angst, relationship complexities, guilt and redemption, human frailty, and weave the fantastical and real.
Farooki, the best-known face of Bangladeshi cinema internationally, has had polarising reception — flak from the conservatives, love from the young, and audiences overseas. “Their support has given me the leverage to make stories the way I want to,” says the filmmaker whose three films (Third Person Singular Number, 2009, Television, and the late Irrfan Khan-starrer Doob, 2017) were Bangladesh’s official entries to the Oscars.
His humour, like that of his best films, is wry. “I’m just about to come of age. I’m 18 till I die, don’t I look 18? I feel like a kid relentlessly curious about what’s happening around him,” says the 48-year-old. His latest, the Nawazuddin Siddiqui-starrer, AR Rahman-scored satire No Land’s Man, premiered on October 9 in ‘A Window on Asian Cinema’ segment at the 26th Busan International Film Festival (BIFF). Farooki is nominated for the Kim Jiseok Award, alongside important filmmakers such as Aparna Sen’s The Rapist (whose 2002 film Mr. and Mrs. Iyer Farooki loved), Brillante Ma Mendoza (Philippines), Ogigami Naoko (Japan), Royston Tan (Singapore), etc. The nomination makes him emotional, for it was the late festival programmer Kim Jiseok who’d discovered budding Asian filmmakers like Farooki and projected them to the world. It was at Busan (erstwhile Pusan) where his Third Person Singular Number premiered, Television closed the 2012 edition, where he’s been a jury, and where the idea for his latest came to him in sleep, “11 years later, No Land’s Man is that film”. In 2014, the film was launched at BIFF’s Asian Project Market, it won the NFDC Development Award for best project at Film Bazaar’s co-production market, and the Motion Pictures Association of America and Asia Pacific Screen Academy (MPA-APSA) Film Fund.
Farooqi’s collaborations traverse continents. He’s worked with Tollywood (Kolkata) actors such as Parno Mittra and Parambrata Chatterjee. He keeps coming to Kolkata to go to a particular colouring studio, but, besides Q (Qaushiq Mukherjee), counts more filmmaker friends in Mumbai and Kerala. Farooqi first wanted “Rahman bhai’s music in Television” but destiny had other plans. Life threw a surprise when Rahman boarded the Siddiqui co-production as also an executive producer. After wrapping up the New York leg of the film, Farooki rushed to meet Rahman at a Mumbai hotel where Rahman was attending Javed Akhtar’s birthday celebration, Rahman took the first cut with him and watched it in Los Angeles. Both Nawaz and Rahman said one thing — “this film needs to be made”. Set majorly in the US, and the rest in India and Australia, the film is a “global story” about an individual’s quest for identity in a world connected by technology, split asunder by prejudice. Edited excerpts:
No Land’s Man is the second in an identity trilogy — the first was Shonibar Bikel (Saturday Afternoon, 2019) on the 2016 Dhaka bakery blast. Is the trilogy your most political work yet?
So far, it’s the most political, but more than that it’s my most human, most warm, and most sad story. It’s part of a trilogy, but the stories aren’t connected, the idea is; the two films are tonally very different. This one’s about identity. Humans have created identity to belong, to love —neighbours, family and clan members — as well as hate. Right now, we’re living in a strange world, where technologically we’re so rich but humanly, we’re quite poor. The internet and social media have exposed our stupidity. And exposes it every day. After all that the Renaissance Man went through, we’ve created a world now where we love or hate someone based on who they are. That is the strangest thing an intelligent race can do…I really cannot call us intelligent because intelligent people cannot be as stupid as we are. The 21st century will be remembered as a century of technological advancement but also as a century of stupidity. This film actually mocks the world we have created. Those in power, the real identity brokers, sell us a certain idea of identity (political, religious, social) which we buy into, get intoxicated by and start killing each other. Naveen, who has no last name, is a powerless guy, his suffering and loss has tragic effects. As an artiste, I’m powerless too, and when faced with the monstrously powerful, satire is the best way out. But while mocking the world order, I didn’t want to lose the emotional aspect of it. This film deals with identity conflict/madness as well as identity warmth.
Irrfan spoke Bangla in Doob (No Bed of Roses), but Nawaz speaks English, No Land’s Man is an English film, as will be your next film A Burning Question. Tell us about the linguistic and contextual shift from your roots. Do you see yourself as a global storyteller now?
Interesting question. There are two answers to it. The first I cannot answer right now, maybe after five years, when things change. But I only can tell it is a sad one. The second reason is that we are increasingly living in a global world. My dad never travelled beyond Manikpur in Noakhali district, where he was born, and Dhaka, where he migrated to, he never met a foreigner except some Middle-Eastern folks, while I travel 10 times a year. Every day, I communicate with people across races, religions, geographies, via the internet. We are impacted by what’s happening in the US and elsewhere; by what (Donald) Trump, Narendra Modi, Vladimir Putin are doing. Because our lives, our stories have changed, we’ll see a lot more films with a global context in the coming days. Obviously, I’m not doing it to become global, I’m doing it because this is the life we are living. And I’ll continue making more Bangladeshi films and OTT series.
Why cast Nawaz and Irrfan in particular?
The characters I create, they drive the visual style of my film. Television’s visual style, tonality was impacted by its eccentric, colourful, highly-emotional characters. The actors need to portray exactly what I need: natural, sensible acting. Doob’s (loosely inspired from the controversial life of the writer and cultural icon Humayun Ahmed) visual style is silent, poetic. The characters don’t communicate with each other, they are like islands, they don’t vent out their pains, they keep their fires buried within, like Mount Fuji. For me, external preparation isn’t as important as internalising the character, understanding the world around you, and for that you have to be a sensitive, sensible person. What attracted me to them was their poetic mind, the ability to transform themselves into a character and transform the character into themselves, they are extremely smooth in that, really effortless. Nawaz is like (footballer) Lionel Messi. When Messi dribbles, it seems effortless, easy. If craft shows, it’s as obnoxious as putting an undergarment over pants, only Superman can do it.
Who among the current crop of Bangladeshi actors display good calibre?
There are some great actors in Bangladesh, one accidentally or luckily married me. If you see her (Nusrat Imrose Tisha) performance in Doob, or Television or Third Person Singular Number, you will see what a natural she is. As are Chanchal Chowdhury and Mosharraf Karim. In Ladies and Gentlemen (OTT series on #MeToo on Zee5), the boss played by Afzal Hossain and the female lead Tasnia Farin, who’s fairly new, have given such natural performances.
Who calls the shots: you or your actor-cum-wife Tisha?
(Laughs) It’s definitely me when I’m on the set, as the director. But when home, it’s definitely her.
You and your avante-garde production house Chabial champion Bangladeshi New Wave. Tell us more.
I don’t know what’s new wave. I probably did something new, then a lot of young filmmakers started writing to me, wanting to learn filmmaking by assisting me. I pushed them to make their own stories. That’s how people started calling this group Chabial’s Bhai-Brother. But Chabial is not the only one. Since we started earlier, it may have left some impact, but every new filmmaker, who doesn’t work with me, is also coming up with fresh ideas. If there’s a wave, it’s still too narrow. It could have been so wide had we implemented proper policy, a distribution model, and multiplex chains. A great wave needs younger filmmakers in the pipeline and audience, we have both, what we don’t have is policy support.
Bangladesh’s 50th year is turning out to be a good one for its cinema at global festivals. Three filmmakers are showing at Busan, including Abdullah Mohammad Saad, whose Rehana Maryam Noor was the first Bangladeshi film to be nominated at Cannes’ Un Certain Regard.
It’s a brilliant year for sure. There has been an uptick in the quality of our cinema for quite some time now. Hopefully, this will get some major momentum in the coming days with lot more younger filmmakers coming in with their fresh stories.
Did directors like Tareque Masud pave the way for filmmakers like you to emerge?
To talk of the Bangladeshi legacy, we have to mention Zahir Raihan and Alamgir Kabir as well. But Tareque Masud (whose Matir Moina/The Clay Bird, 2002, was the first Bangladeshi film to screen at the Cannes Film Festival) has impacted my career, my life in a big way. I never knew I’ll become a filmmaker. I used to express myself through poetry which I never published because of my utter middle-class shyness. I’d watch films at film societies. At that point, I was introduced to Tareque bhai. When I started making TV productions, I was instantly declared a persona non grata by the Bangladeshi intellectuals, for ‘ruining Bangla language and the gravity of cinema’. The strange thing in our cinema is that in a rural story, it’s fine to use Bangladeshi dialects, but in an urban story, the characters speak like Kolkata people. The obsession with Satyajit Ray, Uttam Kumar-Suchitra (Sen) was recreated on our television. But our way of expressing is completely different. In my telefilms, when I made my characters speak the way Bangladeshis do, the same character would speak in standard Bengali as well as dialects as the situation/context demanded, the youth instantly connected with it but the middle-class intellectuals bashed me. Tareque bhai risked his position as the darling of Bangladeshi intellectuals to defend me in Prothom Alo (national daily), he wrote, ‘what Farooki is doing, if you think that he’s wrong, then world cinema is wrong, make no mistake.’ He’d even say encouragingly that I could ‘make a banana tree act’ (laughs).
As an artiste and a Bangladeshi, how do you react to CAA, NRC, and the politics of the two countries?
I used to comment a lot earlier on social media, but the comments made my life hell. I think a filmmaker is a highly political animal. Our existence is impacted by the politics around, of time, history, religion, sex, love, climate change, the oxygen we breathe, pollution, etc. My films are like my diaries. I’m writing and leaving a statement, a comment on the time and space I’m living in.