Mejbaur Rahman Sumon is one of the few filmmakers in the Bangladeshi film industry that are moving the needle forward when it comes to the quality of art we can expect. Not just content with telling a story that audiences will expect, the filmmaker bravely waded into uncharted waters with one of the best films of the year 'Hawa' to great critical acclaim and box office returns.
TBS sat down with the writer/director again to get a more indepth look into his aims and artistic process.
Congratulations on your new film. With a great story, you have presented the excruciating details of the life of local fishermen as valuable elements of the film. Could you tell us your inspiration and backstory for making this?
The film depicts a fictional story in light of the local culture of sea fishermen. Before making the film, we closely observed the culture, traditions, festivals, joys, and sorrows of the life of sea fishermen for a long time. Besides, we went through relevant literature and research to comprehend their culture and activities in depth. The film starts from a very realistic position but ends with a bit of a surreal turn of events. I prefer that type of illusion because it helps me tell the story in a way where the audience will think about the story by themselves rather than reaching a set in stone conclusion. Throughout the story, you will see the use of the concepts of realism, magical realism, and absurdity in different contexts. Observing the various scenes will give you intriguing points to think about.
You have already mentioned the transformation from realism to magical realism in your story. How did you work in the absurdist tilts in your story about a seafaring community?
First, the way we perceive absurdity in our culture is entirely different from the west due to cultural differences. For example, let's speak about a scene from 'Rupban,' a popular folktale of our culture. We see that in the jungle, Rupban is begging for the life of the king's 12 year old son from a tiger by saying, 'Khayo na, khayo na, Bagha' that's an absurd situation. Still, the audience is not perceiving that in that way. Or, what about the famous children's folktale 'Thakur Maar Jhuli'? In most of the stories, we see absurd situations, but interestingly it is for the children. Because people in our region never went through that industrialisation to emotionally connect to the story of Kafka's Metamorphosis, where after waking up in the morning, Gregor Samsa suddenly noticed that he had turned into a cockroach. The absurd aspect of the film is the folly of individualistic agency when confronted by the full force of mother nature. At the film's beginning, the dialogue, 'In this world, there is no science,' worked as a prelude to the rest of my story by giving nature more priority over the human will. In most scenes, you will see the 'blue sea' as a background, a personification of nature as the ultimate arbiter in my story.
If we talk about this film's musical aspect, the song 'Shada Shada Kala Kala,' became popular even before the film's release. Could you share the backstory behind using that song in your film?
I had a good relationship with the song's writer Hashem Mahmud from my days as a student. I first listened to the song in the 90s. I still remember that we used to sing that song on our campus. In 2017, as part of this film's pre-production, we visited locations on the sea for the second time with some local fishermen. Some boats got together in the evening. They had their dinner with us. After that, they told us some of them could sing. Then from our side, my friend Shiblu sang a song. Then some of them sang a couple of their local songs by using oil drums and many other things like that as instruments. In my film, there was an actual scene where several boats from different fishermen get together. That is how this idea came into my mind about using this song for that scene.
If we look at the casting line-up of 'Hawa", there are many big names. What were your techniques for dealing with actors during the shooting?
The pre-production work of our film was done in an exhaustively detailed manner. We spent six months in rehearsal before the shooting started. That is why while we were on the spot, we just needed to decide on small things like how the blocking of any particular scene should be and this and that. All of them were very serious about their craft from the very first day; that is why they took the responsibilities on their own after reading the descriptions of their characters.
Considering the history of Bangla Cinema, in general, do you think there has been enough exploration of our own culture when it comes to portraying different stories on screen?
In my opinion, most aspects of our culture are still unexplored in films. I think the reason behind that is our tendency to be influenced by external cultures. However, our audience will only connect with a film when it reflects something about their lives; that way they see themselves in the narrative and feel an emotional resonance. If we look at the western tradition, we see that with development, they reached a situation in their culture where most of their stories have been told. Now, the new source of novelty is the culture of Asia. So, it is high time we go back to our roots and explore our own culture, whether in films or literature.
In light of your experience, we would like to know the potential aspects of Bangladesh's film industry in the current context.
The success or failure of the film industry is related to several cultural, social, political, and economic factors. It needs to be discussed on a larger scale. We can say that the film industry has been running at a low ebb for a long time. Though with the increased accessibility of technology, more cinemas are being produced than ever. However, the quality of those films can be questioned. Recently we have seen a revival of audience interest in Bengali cinema. I also see discussion and criticism in various fields from social media. I want to be optimistic. Our country has no dearth of talent. I have seen stunning thoughts in numerous filmmakers of the new generation. The propensity to do creative work is very high among the new generation. This is expected to increase the use of our indigenous stories and content in films.
Nevertheless, many talented filmmakers fail to make films due to socio-economic barriers. In the absence of sufficient patronage and coordination, many good projects remain without pursuit. In this case, we can take collective action by identifying the obstacles.