Mostafa Sarwar Farooki is an important and notable phenomenon in Bangladeshi cinema due to his sustained and continual presence in the international festival/awards/production circuit since 2009, his depiction of the contemporary socio-cultural and political milieu, and finally, his success in ushering in a vernacular modernism in Bangladeshi cinema.
Cinema in Bangladesh, historically, adhered to a larger than life, melodramatic, and allegorical form of representation. Realist cinema on the other hand remained locked into the arena of so-called “art films” that largely failed to draw audiences. Farooki seems to have broken the binary between art and commercial cinema by creating socially realistic contemporary human stories that pull audiences, especially younger ones, to the theatres.
The Hollywood Reporter called Farooki the “maverick Southeast Asian director.” Maverick indeed, because he did not enjoy state patronage, or nod of appreciation, from the cultural elites. In fact, he was blamed for his use of vernacular Bengali in his films, and many blamed him for his lack of cinematic craft. In the face of an unfriendly tide, he swam to his own shores. He created his own brand of cinematic language, he has continued to evolve with each film, and with each film he has been pushing his boundary from being a Bangladeshi director to an international global player.
My personal confession is I have not watched any of his earlier films, except for some excerpts/trailer of Third Personal Singular Number (2009). My first experience of watching a Farooki film was Television (2012) and then Ant Story (2014). Both of these films struck me as profoundly personal and real.
In Television, Chairman Amin, the orthodox religious Muslim man, was greatly explored and humanised, which is something gravely missing in the representation of Muslim communities in cinema. The love, care, and respect that went into representing a society that is closed and conservative, the very society Mostafa Farooki must break out of in order to emerge as a film-maker, is extraordinary.
That is what lends most strength to his films: His humanisation of flawed and real individuals. His innate respect for his own culture and community reflects in his cinematic treatment of representing a Bangladeshi reality, and that is why I believe his films are popular locally, and he has been able to deal with taboo topics in a relatively conservative society.
Ant Story is a total sexual play. The whole film is a tease. Along with the protagonist Mithu, the entire audience keeps imagining what the video must contain -- which I think is such a clever play on the repressed middle class audience. The film puts them in the state of fantasising along with Mithu. It induces in them the same guilt Mithu is suffering from.
The film at the end is a dark experience. Mithu is nothing but a pest, he is every woman’s nightmare -- he is utterly useless and dangerous. Why is such a flawed character, then, been chosen as the so-called hero of Ant Story?
It reminded me of Chinese films likes Spring in a Small Town (1948) by Fei Mu and Long Live the Mistress (1947) by Sang Hu. During the Japanese-occupied China at that time, films became a powerful allegorical tool to reflect society. One remarkable feature of films during this period in China is the representation of male characters as morally weak and malevolent; the female characters, however, display higher human qualities such as morality, truthfulness, and bravery.
Scholars have reflected back on that era in Chinese cinema to draw a line between the failure of the nation-state and the representation of un-hero-like male protagonists on screen. The men of the nation have failed, and cinema must appear as a testimony of time to represent that failed masculinity.
The failed and corrupted protagonist of Ant Story also represents the moral decay of our nation in the face of upward mobility, urbanisation, poverty, lack of infrastructure, corruption, and capitalist desire. The whole film is played on this repressed, failed, powerless man’s libido; his sexual economy is the currency that is the undercurrent of this film.
In his desire to transgress, he uses his masculinity by tapping into the femininity of an upper-class woman. She is naturally weaker than him, as she is a woman in a patriarchal setting -- plus he has got her secret video. The class tension is also another very important undercurrent of this film.
Ant Story uses humour to drive home a pretty dark story. Ant Story is a testimony of time about the moral decay of Bangladeshi masculinity, and this self-reflective and critical study of masculinity coming from a male director is truly remarkable.
In today’s world, the definition of cinema has become vastly diversified. Local stories are being globally appreciated and consumed. The international market/festivals champion those films that almost always serve an anthropological purpose. When coming from the under-developed world, cinema has to bear the burden of portraying complexities of local realities in a globally comprehensible, artistic, and cinematic language. Thus, it remains a challenge to tell original local stories in a homegrown cinematic language.
The films of Farooki have done this job effectively, and on top of that, he has remained successful in creating a local and international production-distribution-audience base.
Given that he has gotten these two camps secured to a certain degree, and he has bagged Irrfan Khan -- one of the most desirable actors in today’s market as an actor/producer -- it is a matter of time to see how Mostafa Sarwar Farooki further evolves as a director, and to what heights he can fly his own dreams, and the reality of Bangladeshi cinema.