From Bangladesh, with love
Mostofa Sarwar Farooki on the ban on his new film with Irrfan Khan and why we'll have to wait for a Bangladeshi new wave
An elderly village patriarch, who has opposed the idea of images all his life because it is haram (prohibited), finds happiness in his final moments as he watches a live telecast from Mecca. A salesman gets his hands on a private video clip of an actress and starts manipulating her for his own pleasure. Mostofa Sarwar Farooki’s films Television (2012) and Ant Story (2013) venture into forbidden territory, and cinema is omnipresent. This is revealing of the film-maker’s life. While growing up in Dhaka in the 1980s, he wasn’t allowed to watch TV. His father used to call it shaitaaner baksho (devil’s box).
By the turn of the millennium Farooki was leading a bunch of film-makers in Bangladesh trying to tell relatable stories through telefilms. In his new film, Doob (No Bed Of Roses in English), the protagonist is a film-maker called Javed Hasan, played by Irrfan, who has also co-produced the film.The character is allegedly based on the late author and film-maker Humayun Ahmed, a cultural icon in Bangladesh, known for his writings on urban middle-class life and his use of magical realism. Ahmed had a controversial personal life; he married an actress who was a close friend of his daughter. Although Farooki denies that it’s a biopic, he says, “Whether or not it is inspired by real characters, I prefer people find that out for themselves."
Doob was banned by Bangladesh’s Ministry of Information two weeks ago. We spoke to Farooki about the film, Irrfan, and the centrality of stories in south Asian life. Edited excerpts from the interview.
Why was ‘Doob’ banned?
We don’t know the exact reason. We had submitted the script of Doob to the reading panel of the Joint Venture Production Committee of Bangladesh and India, got a go-ahead before we began shooting. Once we finished it, we showed it to the preview committee, all as per the rules. They watched it, gave us a no-objection certificate and then, suddenly, suspended it for an indefinite period, citing a special letter from the Bangladesh information ministry.
We have got in touch with the ministry to know the reason. We are optimistic that the ban will be lifted. We want it to release as originally planned in Bangladesh, India, the US and Canada—where there are a lot of Bengalis—on the same day.
What is the film about?
It is a family drama with the father-daughter relationship at the centre. There are two other characters and all their fates are entwined. The bigger idea, however, is of death as a great equalizer. Death is popularly seen as something that takes away a lot from us. I wanted to say that death can give back a lot of things too.
One of the main themes of your films is forbidden love.
I deal with human desire. My characters are caught in a constant struggle between the real and the desired world. I had this conversation with Lee Chang-dong, the Korean film-maker, about identity—I told him that the great storytellers in this part of the world are sitting in tea stalls in Bandra, Sealdah and Dhaka. People are saying things like, “My uncle in the city has 20 cars or 10 bodyguards." Both the teller and listener get short-lived happiness from this made up story.
People, especially in south Asian countries, are probably lying as a counter to real life deprivation. For us, stories are food for the soul. Forbidden love comes from this longing for a desired world.
Why did you want to cast Irrfan?
While writing the script I used to tell my wife (actor Nusrat Imroze Tisha, who appears in Doob and other films of his), “I see Irrfan’s eyes here." He is a busy artiste and I didn’t know how to get in touch with him. I wrote to a friend, the filmmaker Anup Singh who had worked with him in Qissa. I had no idea he was shooting his second film in Rajasthan with Irrfan. He put us in touch. I mailed Irrfan the script with some links of my films. He did some research. Later I came to know that he watched a YouTube version of Ant Story without any subtitles. But he said he enjoyed it and liked my cinematic language.
Have you had problems with censorship before?
My film Made In Bangladesh (2007), a political satire, was blocked for a year and a half. Censors also had a problem with Third Person Singular Number (2009), where I showed a live-in relationship and a single woman living alone in a city. My next is on the Holey Artisan Bakery blasts that happened in Dhaka last year. It is a one-take feature film as I want the audience to feel the intensity and suffocation of the victims in an unbroken cinematic moment.
Bangladesh has changed a lot. The Bangladesh Film Censor Board and the information ministry need to upgrade themselves aesthetically and philosophically to the changing country.
Are there many independent films being made in Bangladesh?
Things are easier than before. Now you can take a mobile phone, shoot and release online. Films made by a new generation of directors in the last few years have travelled to festivals and have done well with local audiences. But I can’t say we have many interesting feature films. I expect a lot more young talent to come up and create a real Bangladeshi new wave.
How did you get interested in movies?
I started going to the Indian and German cultural centres to attend film society screenings after I finished school. I watched classics by Andrei Tarkovsky, Robert Bresson, Bernardo Bertolucci, François Truffaut and, of course, Satyajit Ray. They opened my eyes but I still didn’t know that I wanted to make films. I made my first telefilm, Waiting Room, to impress a girl. Once I made it, I forgot her and fell in love with the film.
A few years ago, at a seminar organised by the National Film Development Corporation of India (NFDC), you had talked about the idea of a common market for indie films in South Asia.
I suggested that to our government too in a written proposal when they were working on the film policies. I want films to be imported and exported through a certain tax and screening policy which will allow foreign films to be seen. A common South Asian market will be great for the business of indie films in the region and a way of cultural understanding.