South Asian experimental films have it tougher than most, having to survive the onslaught of Bollywood and other mainstream cinemas and playing in art and film festivals and galleries. Yet two experimental films, punching above their weight, were the only ones chosen from the subcontinent for this year’s 71st Berlin International Film Festival. These are Delhi photographer Sohrab Hura’s The Coast, a short, and Bangladeshi film-maker Naeem Mohaiemen’s experimental feature Jole Dobe Na (Those Who Do Not Drown). Both are playing in the Forum Expanded section, which explores the penumbra between cinema and the other arts.
Responding to the ongoing covid-19 pandemic, the Berlinale has been split in two parts. In the first part, the film programme was shown online at the European Film Market from 1-5 March. In the second part, the Summer Special, physical screenings are scheduled to take place from 9-20 June in Berlin cinemas, where both films are slated to be screened. Jole Dobe Na will also be shown in the Forum Expanded Exhibition, The Days Float Through My Eyes, at the Savvy Contemporary gallery in Berlin, from 18 May-16 June. And the film is currently showing at the Experimenter Gallery, Hindustan Road, Kolkata, till 14 April (prior registration required at www.experimenter.in)
Born in London, and based in New York and Dhaka, prolific Bangladeshi film-maker and writer Naeem Mohaiemen’s work, which includes about 18 films and installations, has been shown at solo exhibitions, biennales and art galleries worldwide. A Turner Prize finalist and Guggenheim fellow, with a PhD in anthropology from Columbia University, his work is in the permanent collections of the Kiran Nadar Museum, Delhi, Museum of Modern Art, New York, and Tate Modern, London. His work has explored leftist, non-aligned and decolonisation movements.
Jole Dobe Na, an India-Japan-Sweden co-production, has been commissioned by the Yokohama Triennale 2020, Japan, and Bildmuseet at Umeå, Sweden. It is Mohaiemen’s second film at the Berlinale, after his short Abu Ammar Is Coming (2016), on the possibility of Bangladeshi freedom fighters backing the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s (PLO’s) revolutionary struggle in Beirut in the 1980s. His Tripoli Cancelled features a Greek man, alone for years at an abandoned Greek airport, confronting his loneliness and mortality. In fact, few Indian filmmakers have Mohaiemen’s politically expansive world view.
Jole Dobe Na is an atmospheric, magnificently shot and affecting 64-minute feature, set in an abandoned Kolkata hospital, the Lohia Matri Sadan. The film was a response to a prompt given by the Raqs Media Collective to reflect on the afterlife of caregivers. It is a pensive, melancholic reverie about mortality, and all the more relevant as covid-19 has rendered most of us either caregivers or bereaved. The protagonists are an estranged Hindu-Muslim couple in West Bengal, Jyoti (Sagnik Mukherjee) and his wife Sufiya (Kheya Chattopadhyay), who are thrown back together by her unnamed illness. But the film also seems a figment of Jyoti’s imagination, via his voice-over, reflecting on Sufiya’s last days before her death: she did not want machines to prolong her life.
Mohaiemen explains via email that “the title comes from the Bengali folk song, Premer Mora Jole Dobe Na, sung by Abdul Alim, among others. The lyrics: Prophet Ayub fell in love / Rahima Bibi in love with he / Eighteen years a cursed life / But mother would not give up love / They who die in love never drown.”
Sufiya is also a Muslim woman we rarely encounter in sub-continental cinema: she shares the same cigarette as her husband; she lived abroad before choosing to return to India. The film is also politically caustic: When the administrator misspells Sufiya’s name as Sophia, she remarks that he seems to have trouble with Arabic or Persian names, and wonders whether she should be grateful he has Westernised her name. As the end precipitates memories and regrets, Jyoti describes how, when his aunt was dying, the Kalema prayer was recited loudly non-stop to help her soul ascend to heaven, and regrets that he never learnt the simple Kalema (such as he may need for her). In fact, Sagnik Mukherjee says, “Jyoti belongs to a Partition-affected family, and the vulnerability in his tone when talking about Bangladesh is subtly addressed. Elements from my own Partition-affected family’s experiences played an important role in the script.”
The direction is absolutely assured. Kheya Chattopadhyay is stunning and vulnerable; Sagnik Mukherjee is effective. The screenplay and dialogue are nuanced. The film is brilliantly shot by Basab Mullik; he also uses a drone and jimmy jib. The gliding camera seems like an angel that has escaped from Wim Wenders’ Wings Of Desire—or perhaps it is Sufiya’s soul, eavesdropping on their final conversations—as it floats over an apocalyptic landscape of upturned beds, carcasses of mattresses, syringes and cylinders. And there’s a bravura shot, a close-up of Sufiya in an oxygen mask, as she spins in circles on a jimmy jib in the courtyard, as if towards an inexorable end.
There are longueurs in the film, but the film’s lack of sentimentality keeps us engaged. Sukanta Majumdar’s sound design is meticulous. Qasim Naqvi’s music is discreetly grave, with a glorious clarinet burst in the climactic title track by Turkish composer Ali Sehir. The film is a welcome addition to the subcontinent’s body of experimental work.
Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Delegate to the Berlin Film Festival and a film curator, critic and journalist based in Mumbai.