Film-maker Raffael Ahsan had successfully kept a low profile for over a decade, that is until two years back, when he was summoned by an Asgardian God in a most unlikely quest. The Russo brothers, along with Hollywood hunk Chris Hemsworth, were producing a film called Dhaka (now Extraction) and they needed his help to tweak a thing or two on set in India and Thailand. Within the span of five surreal months, this unsuspecting Bangladeshi would gain the experience of a lifetime. Talking to Dhaka Tribune Showtime’s Sadia Khalid, Raffael bares all in this intimate interview
Everyone has been talking about Extraction since its release on April 24. People took offence to the portrayal of Dhaka in the movie. What’s your take on the reaction?
I totally understand. The reaction we got from the Bangladeshi audience is acceptable and natural. It was the first time we saw Dhaka and Bangladeshi characters in a Hollywood film at this scale. It’s sad that we are never portrayed positively, which is offending. But how we represent ourselves on the global stage- is something we should really be concerned about.
Whenever we make cross-cultural films, misrepresentation is very common. If someone takes me to Japan and asks me to make a film about them, then there will be a disconnect. Hollywood will do whatever that’s best for business.
It has been the case so far, but the reaction was required to bring a positive change; don’t you think? Being the only Bangladeshi on set, how much of your concerns were taken into consideration?
When I joined the team, the script was done, except for some dialogues, which I got to rewrite. My first concern was with the cast. None of them were Bangla speaking. They belong to Mumbai, Pune, Hyderabad, and so on.
Did you suggest taking Bangladeshi actors?
Yes. I raised my concern about the accent. They were not very worried about that; correct subtitles were more important to them. The accent was a big problem for us. But how many Netflix subscribers watch Bangla content?
A lot of the problems would be overcome if we just had Bangladeshi actors it seems.
Not necessarily. Netflix analyzes data and know what will bring more audience. I suggested actors, but they wanted Show Reel and work samples. I couldn’t present that. First question the director asked is where’s their IMDb profile. They would definitely take our actors if they saw impressive profiles.
When they hired an Indian producer, Pranav Sahni, he had the responsibility to present what’s within his grip, and sellable. I don’t fully blame them. I couldn’t confirm the casting showing YouTube drama. They took actors that will cover the Kolkata market and the larger Indian market. They know they don’t need to hire a Bangladeshi actor to sell the product to Bangladesh. At the end of the day, film is a product.
Lets take the example of Golshifteh Farhani (Nik Khan in Extraction). From Iran to France, to Hollywood, and Bollywood- she has become an international star. It’s their success and our failure that we don’t possess such profiles.
Did they share the full script with you? Did you have a say in doctoring the story?
I didn’t doctor the script, only the Bangla dialogue. Even the main cast had only their part of the script. I was appointed for the script, but worked in the art department as well. We created the same set in Ahmedabad and Thailand. The location manager travelled in Dhaka and India to find suitable location. For the international audience, this deviation in set is not a problem.
There was a Bangladeshi flag outside of Amir Asif’s house. I officially raised my concern about, as it indicates that he is a government representative. I couldn’t accept that. When the film came out, I checked if that flag was there. It thankfully wasn’t. Maybe that’s why they didn’t call me during post production. (laughs)
When you joined, they had already decided to not shoot in Dhaka?
When I went on set, it looked like Naya Bazar. They were painting the busses. The rickshaws were already there. They were putting up signs on the markets.
You were familiar with the South Asian film scene for some time.
Yes. In 2010, I made my first film Noy Chhoy. The DOP was from Mumbai, Karthik Ganesh. He had just graduated from Pune Film Institute. Later he worked on Yash Raj films and several Netflix projects. I was a part of a film community of Indians, Pakistanis, Iranians, and Africans.
How did you like the film?
It’s not my cup of tea. I wasn’t even familiar with Chris’s work when I met him at a hotel surrounded by police and thousands of fans. He was in a t-shirt and shorts. He’s a hit machine.
The action part was amazing. But the story as a whole wasn’t. I was missing the chemistry, the buildup, the logic; what was the backstory, why should we like the characters, what did he need the money for, the relation between Rake and Ovi, who is Amir Asif, why is he so powerful- none of it was addressed. Some things were in the script, but left out in the main movie. I didn’t look for logic. It’s a genre for the mass.
They presented us from an outsider’s point of view. What did we expect? In India, they also showed the police colluding with the drug cartel.
What do you think this means for the future of Netflix productions in Bangladesh?
Do we watch Bangla films on Netflix? We don’t see our own films in the top 10. So, why would we blame them for not making more content for us? We are hurt that we were portrayed negatively, but we often portray ourselves negatively. Film has been the biggest medium to represent your country. We haven’t been in the headline for a lot of positive things. Are we sharing the positive news as much as the negative ones? How we represent ourselves is more important. It’s high time we prepare ourselves for the international industry.