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A celebration, a warning

  • Published at 05:37 pm October 28th, 2018

Debi brings to light many important issues in Bangladesh

The following article may contain spoilers for the film Debi.

The hype had always been there prior to the release of the film, Debi, based on a psychological thriller by the late raconteur, Humayun Ahmed. 

When movie posters are caught in a rabid competition to show flesh, this has simply focused on Misir Ali, the eccentric professor in search of unexplained phenomenon. 

One can call him the fervent seeker of the paranormal. A bit like the agents of The X Files, the 90s TV series, though the similarity ends in the mission to find supernatural events. 

Misir Ali can very well be a real person. Especially to those of us who have allowed the rebellious instinct to dominate our career and life paths, characters like him should not seem eccentric at all. 

In the world of journalism, such figures are common -- independent, free of restraint, alone but not lonely, and living in a world of books and esoteric pursuits. 

The euphoria of eccentricity 

When Humayun Ahmed created the character of Misir Ali, he was possibly giving form to a figure which he would have liked to be -- a bohemian with a penchant for the strange. 

In many ways, the character of Misir Ali strikes a chord with Satyajit Ray’s oddball people from his fascinating short stories. 

In Ray’s books, the protagonist is almost always a solitary figure, finding pleasure in one’s own company. Even the sleuth Pradosh Mitter, or Feluda as he is widely known, is not a person to fit within the common social format. His companions, the writer and his cousin, are equally quirky, their lives surrounded by a desire to be plunged into suspense. 

Misir Ali takes the quirkiness even further. He lives neither in a flat nor a house, yet there is a haunting magnetism about his lodgings. 

The film Debi depicts the place to perfection -- rays of sunlight piercing through the small holes on the wall, plants, scattered books, and of course, tea.

Plenty of tea. 

In the books, Misir Ali is the personification of the quiet social renegade -- living unobtrusively in society, yet operating outside its normal (read: Mundane) periphery. 

Debi the movie reignites the bohemian lifestyle with a vengeance. 

All throughout the film, the relentless motif seems the glorification of the maverick. 

Like I said earlier, in the journalism world, there are many like Misir Ali who have made their own choice, and adopted an unconventional lifestyle. 

In the movie, there is a scene where Misir Ali, played to perfection by Chanchal Chowdhury, plants flowers in a bathroom commode. 

For many, that may seem really odd, but let me tell you of a media colleague. He wore bell bottoms, shirts with extra-long collars, and jackets which were in vogue at the height of the disco era. That’s not all -- his eating habit was an issue of discussion: Corn soup with sweet cookies, or chicken curry with fruits. 

A classmate of my parents in the English department in the late 60s, his favourite pastime was reading Archie comics, and his greatest possession was a comic collection, and more than 1000 illustrated magazines.

The warning against cyber exploitation

Perhaps the most profound message from the film comes from the character of Nilu, played by Shabnam Faria, who befriends a man called Ahmed Saber via social media, and soon becomes enamoured with him. At the face-to-face meeting, Saber, played by Iresh Zaker, is a somewhat bumbling individual appearing to be hesitant and clumsy. 

However, under the pretext of introducing Nilu to his father, Saber takes Nilu to a secluded spot, where his actual deviant nature comes to the fore. The pretense of idiocy falls off to reveal a warped mind. 

This part is most relevant in current day Bangladesh, because as per a survey, cyber bullying cases have risen by three times in the last three years. The most disconcerting fact is the rise of revenge porn -- public disclosure of intimate moments without the consent of one party, usually the woman. 

Countless women, who live under strict family rules, try to find independence on the internet, often falling prey to men, who, in the digital world, seem impeccable. 

But the diabolical entity on the net can also be a force trying to radicalize or slowly implant militant thoughts in impressionable minds. 

In the movie, the spirit or the goddess that lives in Ranu, played immaculately by Jaya Ahsan, comes to the aid of Nilu to thwart Saber’s intentions. Alas, in reality, there may not be any such supernatural force to aid a distressed woman.  

Therefore, the whole subterfuge carried out by Saber leading to the dungeon of torture, is actually a warning about the dangers that lurk. 

Hauntingly superb

Setting aside the resonance with reality, Debi as a film is a refreshing change from the navel exposing, pelvic gyrating, formulaic and vacuous commercial trash which we usually get on the big screen. 

The serene seduction of Jaya, and the overall sense of soothing silence permeating the film, triggers introspection. Chanchal Chowdhury as Misir Ali proves impressive. 

He is so convincing that anyone playing the role after him may find it difficult to get audience approval. With English subtitles, this will be a competitive import from Bangladesh to international film festivals.

 Well, one thing is for sure: Debi has made eccentricity fashionable. To end with a quote from 17th century English poet and playwright John Dryden: “There’s pleasure in being mad which none but mad men know.” 

Towheed Feroze is News Editor at Bangla Tribune and teaches at the University of Dhaka.