A strong Indian connection characterises Bangladeshi director Rubaiyat Hossain’s second film "Under Construction", a story about an aging stage actress’s search for identity after she makes way for a younger actor to play the lead in a Rabindranath Tagore play.
The film, featuring actors Rahul Bose and Shahana Goswami in lead roles, is among the two feature films from Bangladesh selected for screening at the Montreal World Film Festival in the first week of September.
This is the second consecutive project of Rubaiyat, in her late thirties, that Indian actors find prominent roles after her controversial debut work "Meherjaan" (2011) featured veterans Victor Banerjee and Jaya Bachchan. The film had to be pulled down from cinema halls in Bangladesh following a major controversy over its story.
Both "Meherjaan" and "Under Construction" are women- centric and the reason for that is that "I am always interested in women’s vision in cinema and women’s realities.
I find it very important for women’s voices to be heard and women’s visuals to be delivered. The unique experiences of womanhood are not widely represented in films, and most of the time women become the subjects that men represent."
"Self representation is important for women through their work to claim their own subjectivity and narrate their own versions of reality," Rubaiyat told PTI.
If "Meherjaan" is the story of a woman’s love affair with a Pakistani soldier during Bangladesh’s liberation war, in "Under Construction", we find the protagonist Roya (Shahana) playing the role of Nandini in Tagore’s play "Rakta Karabi" ("Red Oleanders") for a number of years before being replaced by a younger actress.
As an uncertain future stares at Roya as a stage actress, she also has to face pressure from her husband, mother (played by Mita Rahman of Bangladesh), and friends to leave acting for motherhood and a housewife. But she has little interest in it and yearns for assertion of her independent identity instead of subjecting herself to the role and conditions imposed on women around her.
She gets an opportunity when she meets Imtiaz Ilahi (played by Rahul Bose), a Berlin-based curator who wants to represent Bangladesh for a series of European theatre festivals. Roya re-interprets "Red Oleanders", placing the play in a contemporary garments factory in Dhaka.
Asked if one can term "Under Construction" a modern-day adaptation of Tagore’s play which was written in 1923-24, Rubaiyat says "Not really. ‘Under Construction’ is not a modern day adaption of Tagore’s ‘Rakta Karabi’. The protagonist of ‘Under Construction’, Roya, a theatre actor, interprets ‘Rakta Karabi’ in modern day context but that’s just a fragment of the films narrative.
"Having said that, ‘Rakta Karabi’ has been a very important text for me. I find Tagore’s vision of modern day capitalism very apt and contemporary even though the play was published in 1926. When I look at Dhaka city, the working class population, may they be the rickshaw-wallahs or readymade garment factory workers – I can see Tagore’s vision of Jokkhopuri (Yakshapuri) reflected – where each person is defined by a number and profit weighs heavier than human lives," says the director.
Why does Roya begin her search for identity after being replaced on the stage? Her setting the play in a modern-day setting like garment factory juxtaposed by her domestic help Moyna’s (played by Nikita Nandini Shimu) journey to a garment factory worker- can one call it an attempt to juxtapose real life and art? Is that what you aimed at in the film? I ask her. And Rubaiyat replies, "I think art is just an expression of real life."
"In juxtaposing Roya (the theatre actor) and Moyna (the house maid) I have tried to demonstrate that ‘woman’ is also not a homogenous groups. The journey into emancipation might be very different for women belonging to different social classes and realities."
What made the Bangladeshi filmmaker choose Rahul Bose and Shahana Goswami for the lead roles and is she happy with their performance in the film?
"I had co-written Diary of Housewife with Bhavani Iyer.
For that project, I had met both Rahul and Shahana in 2011.
They became friends and when I was going to do ‘Under Construction’. I naturally thought of them. I had auditioned a few actors in Bangladesh and finally I chose Shahana," says Rubaiyat.
The director is all praise for Shahana who she says "has really done justice to her role, from picking up the Bangladeshi accent quite accurately to realistically representing many faces of a woman I wanted to depict through the character."
Asked if she has left behind the controversy over "Meherjaan" and if looking back, she thought she was not mindful enough to sensitivities of majority of Bangladeshi people in making that film or that you failed to anticipate the hostile reaction to it, Rubaiyat said, "I don’t believe it is a filmmaker’s job to censor themselves thinking about what might or might not offend people. When I write or direct I don’t think of public reaction, I am on a creative journey and I let it be spontaneous and free."
"Also, there are many Bangladeshis who loved ‘Meherjaan’ and were not offended by it. I think the people who were against it were just much more vocal than those who loved it," adds the director.
To a question if working with a cast drawn from India and Bangladesh in "Meherjaan" and "Under Construction" has posed any problem for her given their contrasting background, Rubaiyat says, "I have always enjoyed working people from diverse backgrounds. In ‘Meherjaan’, there were cast and crew from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. In ‘Under Construction’ our crew members came from Germany, the US, Mongolia, India and Bangladesh."
Asked to talk about her next project and whether this too will involve Indian actors or other film artistes, she says it’s going to be "a psychosocial thriller based in Dhaka city.
It’s too early to think of actors at this point. I am still working on the screenplay."
Which filmmakers have influenced Rubaiyat as a director and who are her favourite filmmakers? Pat comes the reply from her: "to my core, since a very young age I have been deeply influenced by Satyajit Ray, both his writing and his films.
"Today there are too many great directors making films. My list could go on, but to mention a few directors whose work I deeply admire and who has influenced me are: Ritwik Ghatak, Aparna Sen, Rituporno Ghosh, Agnes Verda, Ja Luc Godard, Warner Herzog, Martin Scorsese, David Lean, Lars Von Tier, James Ivory, Iran Riklis, Abbas Kiarostami, Bertrad Bonello, Jane Campion, Alejandro Inarritu and Sean Baker. Lately, I have been intoxicated by Bonello’s work," says Rubaiyat.
Asked why Bangladesh has had only a few women directors, she says "I think not only Bangladesh, worldwide there is a lack of female directors. We can only hope that the situation will turn for the better."