Rickshaw Girl: A transcendental film that redefines Bangladeshi filmmaking

Rickshaw Girl follows the proud teenager Naima (played brilliantly by Novera Rahman), a precocious would-be artist with no outlet for her creativity in her village and hardly enough money for chalk

I recently had an opportunity to watch Amitabh Reza Chowdhury’s latest feature film Rickshaw Girl at the Sonoma Film Institute Film Festival in Northern California, where I’ve lived over 20 years.  

The film is so many things. It’s an honest yet tender portrayal of Bangladesh.  It’s a universal story of fighting against all odds to realize one’s dream.  It’s an affirmation of the power and resiliency of the family.  And it’s a loving (and long overdue) homage to the art, culture and meaning of the rickshaw and rickshaw art in Bangladeshi life. 

Director Chowdhury superbly crafts the film with colour and light and creates moments of such tender intimacy and bravery, one can see his love of Dhaka in every frame.  So much so, that while watching, I experienced an overwhelming feeling of euphoria, as if I were physically in Dhaka throughout the movie. 

I was not alone in my admiration. Rickshaw Girl earned a rousing applause at the screening, and the film has garnered over 12 major international film festival awards, including “Top Film” at the prestigious Schlingel International Film Festival in Germany and “Audience Award” at the Mill Valley Film Festival, where it had its festival world premiere.

Rickshaw Girl follows the proud teen-aged Naima (played brilliantly by Novera Rahman), a precocious would-be artist with no outlet for her creativity in her village and hardly enough money for chalk.  She’s a girl who dreams in colours but lives in a world of grays and browns.  

When Naima’s father grows ill, she heads to Dhaka for work.  A stint as a housemaid for a wealthy Gulshan couple leaves her bereft and lonely.  She flees once again and takes to the streets of Dhaka.  With no work to be found, she cleverly disguises herself as a boy and pulls a rickshaw on the streets of Dhaka to earn money for the prescription her father desperately needs.   

All goes well at first, very well, but when her gender is revealed, she is driven back to the streets.   It’s there she meets Marium (played with daring and gusto by Gulshan Champa), a powerful and unrelenting woman – yes woman -- owner of a rickshaw garage.  No spoilers here, but let’s just say you’ve never seen an ending like this in a Bangladeshi film before.  

The cast is superb and also features Allan Shubhro as a bus driver and Naima’s sole link to her family back home, Momena Chowdhury as Novera’s mother (Momena is Novera’s real life mother!), Naresh Bhuiyan as the father who never loses faith in his unconventional daughter, and Siam Ahmed in a surprising and spirited cameo appearance.  

Bangladesh has produced directors who have garnered international attention. Satyajit Ray and Tareque Masud obviously come to mind.  But internationally, Bangladesh as a reputation for producing melodramatic fare. 

With Rickshaw Girl, Amitabh Reza Chowdhury will help refocus international eyes on Bangladeshi filmmaking and help the country reclaim its cinematic stature.   Call it the new wave of Bangladeshi cinema, bolstered, not only by Amitabh, but by a host of promising directors, including Rubaiyat Hossain (Made in Bangladesh) and Abdullah Mohammad Saad, (Rehana Maryam Noor).

After the screening, I stayed to listen to the Q&A with the US producer of the film, Eric J. Adams of Sleeperwave Films, who also lives in Northern California.  I felt deep happiness to hear all the wonderful things Adams said about Bangladeshi artists and his positive experience in Bangladesh.  I took advantage of the moment and set up a meeting with Eric to discuss the movie further. 

“First of all,” shared Adams, “the film would not have been possible if it weren’t for my Bangladeshi producing partners,  Ziauddin Adil ([CEO Top of Mind digital marketing agency], Syed Gousul Alam Shaon [Managing Partner of Gray Advertising Agency] and Faridur Reza Sagar [Managing Director of Impress Telefilm and Channel i].  Adil helped manage our business affairs and Shaon served as a creative producer.  This has been a five-year journey and there’s no way we would have made it to the finish line without them.”

But it was Amitabh and his team at Half Stop Down Productions and beyond that truly brought the film to life, according to Adams.

“Amitabh is the rarest of directors -- and I’ve worked with a lot of directors in the States.  Even though the results appear effortless on screen, he works so hard to create his cinematic vision before shooting starts.  Moreover, he’s a great leader who knows how to communicate his ideas and rally cast and crew around him.  Amitabh and team shot through monsoons, Ramadan, personal tragedies, but the film always came first and Amitabh’s vision was never compromised. 

Adams, and his wife Kathleen (who serves as a co-producer on the film), first came to Bangladesh several years ago to visit her brother, who was working at the time as the lead attorney at the US Embassy.

“We had traveled extensively throughout South Asia, but we immediately fell in love with Bangladesh, rickshaws and rickshaw art.  We understood how quintessentially Bangladeshi this mode of transportation and artform are,” said Adams.

During his initial visit, Adams, who is a feature film screenwriter as well as a producer, met with leading directors and was offered the opportunity to teach a screenwriting seminar.  

“Five hundred writers signed up even though the venue had room for only 50.  It was clear to me there was an untapped creative reserve in Bangladesh waiting to burst forward. We thought, ‘wouldn’t it be great to come back and make a movie here?’”

The Adams returned to the States and by coincidence or fate met Mitali Perkins, the Bangladeshi-American author of the young adult novel “Rickshaw Girl,” on which the film is based.

“There was no question after that – we were going back to Dhaka to make a film,” said Eric. Adams and Amitabh spent two years developing the story, casting, and finally shooting and editing. The Adams were the only team members not Bangladeshi, and Rickshaw Girl is the first-ever U.S.-Bangladeshi co-production.

Rickshaw Girl was completed right before the pandemic shut down international film distribution. “We had plans to be at the Cannes International Film Festival, canceled.   Berlin, canceled.  Toronto, canceled.  But we didn’t sit idly by.  We used the time to re-edit the film and add elements that make it truly special,” said Adams.

The film was shot in English rather than Bengali. “This was the most difficult decision of all,” said Adams. “But we want Rickshaw Girl to be accessible to a global audience.  We want people to have a window into Bangladesh.  We want the international film community to notice the great new-wave cinema coming out the country.  An English-language production helps us accomplish all of these goals.”

The strategy appears to be working; the film will have its US theatrical premiere in New York on May 5th, followed by a 52-city theatrical run throughout the US and Canada. Plans for global streaming are underway as well as a theatrical release throughout Bangladesh.

The movie is not just a feel-good story. It shows both the grit and promise of life in Bangladesh as the country strives to develop economically.  In many respects its lead character, Naima, personifies Bangladesh herself – resilient, courageous, enterprising and bold. 

Personally, I remember my parents taking me on rickshaws to school, family visits, and doctor’s appointments. I remember the sound of the bells, the jostling of the ride, the forced intimacy of the narrow carriage.  It seemed an imposition back then, but now I view rickshaws with great nostalgia, particularly since we are seeing the demise of rickshaw art and culture in larger cities.  Rickshaw Girl, if nothing more, celebrates this brilliant Bangladeshi artform and allows us all a bit of pride in what we have often taken for granted.   

But the film is so much more than that and it all adds up to a compelling and satisfying viewing experience. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to have screened this groundbreaking film, and I heartily recommend it to all.