Film-maker Rubaiyat Hossain achieved great heights with her three feature films. Meherjaan (2011) created controversy for its anti-war narrative. Under Construction (2015) garnered international acclaim premiering at New Directors Showcase at Seattle International Film festival. Her latest feature film Made in Bangladesh (2019), premiered at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival and is releasing at 40 theatres in the US this weekend. The celebrated director joined Dhaka Tribune Editor, Zafar Sobhan in this week’s Straight Talk to discuss her films, journey, and inspirations
Tell us about your filmmaking journey. What brought you here?
I always wanted to be a painter. It was a childhood dream. I loved colours, crayons, painters, the whole nine yards. But I also loved stories, and was in awe of how much sway they hold over our lives. So, I think it was back in college that I started taking my desire to be a filmmaker quite seriously, partly because that was when I discovered Satyajit’s films too. They were not readily available. So, I would borrow the DVDs from our college library. It was an exciting time, but I also learned a lot. I think my discovery of his filmography bolstered my passion for cinema.
You know, it is somewhat more common that you would see a Bangladeshi child saying that he or she wants to be a writer, precisely because how rich our literature is. We have had great painters too, so children might express their wish to be painters as well. But for a child in the country, especially a female child wishing to be a filmmaker is of course not very common. Did you have to overcome any mental baggage?
I always knew how hard the profession would be. I mean, I never kidded myself. To tell you the truth, I still have doubts sometimes. And that’s just part of the process. Along the way, I have learned that despite the difficulties, I truly love my job, and I am humbled and passionate enough to muster the courage to go on.
Tell us about homegrown filmmakers who have influenced you.
Growing up, I hardly even went to the theatres. When I was really young, my family took me to watch Padma Nadir Majhi, which at that age I did not really understand. In college, I returned to theatre to watch Tareque Masud’s Matir Moina. And I remember thinking, alright, this is actually possible! A homegrown filmmaker can really make a film about his people for his people. Masud sort of opened a window for me on what one could achieve, at an age, when I desperately needed to figure things out.
How does the industry look to you now?
A wave of young, promising, independent filmmakers has ushered in recent times which makes me hopeful. I am friends with a couple of them, whom I resort to for emotional support; we share our resources and so on. I think there is a nice ongoing camaraderie here.
Another thing that has been proven positive for us in recent time is that Locarno Film Festival introduced a new section called Open Doors. So, what they do is they invite independent filmmakers like us and teach about raising funds, co-production, visual language, penning scripts et cetera. All of it has been very useful if you ask me.
Do you see yourself working in television?
Not really. Bangladeshi television does not really provide the space stories need in order to breathe. The standard episodes are usually 20-minute long, punctuated by five or more commercials. I don’t think I want to tell stories that require such short attention span.
What common theme runs through your three films?
Well, my protagonists are always women. I try to present a view of the world through a woman’s perspective, through the lens of her very personal experiences.
The story of Meherjaan stemmed from my thesis, which focused on Birangonas. I was very traumatized by what I was learning at that point. Sometime later, I met Ferdousi Priyabhashini, who was a very kind and warm woman. She told me about her hardship and suffering. But she also mentioned a soldier who protected her for five weeks. So I found this story of two people, who displayed incredible compassion by going beyond the limits of war and the unprecedented violence that unfolded around them, very inspiring. This served as the foundation for my first feature film.
Were you surprised by the backlash your debut film was subjected to?
I certainly did not expect this degree of controversy. I thought I presented a balanced narrative. So I was surprised by how the nuances were completely lost on the critics. But then again, a lot of people did not really see the film and expressed their outrage by what others had to say or write. Given that in Bangladesh, we present a very black and white nationalist narrative of ’71, in hindsight, some backlash was inevitable.
Tell us about Under Construction and Made in Bangladesh.
My second film, Under Construction, is about the reconstruction of Rabindranath’s last play Rokto Korobi by a middle class woman who is coming to terms with her identity, sexuality and creativity.
Made in Bangladesh is about a housemaid turned factory worker, who starts a union to fight for her rights. I wanted this film to specifically focus on working class women since we are not a homogeneous group; and factory workers are most visible in our work force.
How long will we have to wait to see Made in Bangladesh?
Unfortunately, releasing films in the country is not a straightforward process. The censor board employs a very old-fashioned approach to this day, which massively impedes creativity. Films in Bangladesh are in essence state-sanctioned pieces of work. For most countries, it is just entertainment. But we’ve got national flags at theatres. So that says a lot.
I have family and friends who own factories. I have spoken to workers and activists. Consequently, I have tried to focus on the reality of what is going on. Honestly, I don’t see any harm in making a film about working class women asking for better pay, better work environments.