The festival year started for me in a most unexpected way, on January 14, 2023, I landed in Bangladesh, a place I’d never been before and would not have normally made it a destination. But I had been invited to serve in the International Film Critics jury at the 21st edition of DIFF after a brief encounter I had with the Director of the Dhaka International Film Festival, Ahmed Muztaba Zamal, in September 2022. Having almost no prior knowledge of Bengali cinema in my viewer’s arsenal expect a couple of films I had seen from Bangladesh that premiered in Cannes and Berlin. Also, I had quite a few stereotypes about the country itself with associating it first and foremost with the vast production of cheap clothes and unjust women’s and children’s labor. However, those stereotypes were challenged by the varied selection of Bengali movies from the Qatar Airlines library. Later, I was granted even more extensive immersion in the local cinema since the jury I had been a part of was watching the Bangladesh Panorama program. One of my co-jurors, Bangladeshi film critic Bidhan Rebeiro, was a devoted and patient guide that helped us to discover the cultural, religious, political, and social-economic reality depicted in the local films. That is something very important about the cinema of Bangladesh: without an understanding of its history, both past and present, it is hard (if not impossible!) to fully appreciate Bengali films.
Bangladesh, the far-distant and less-known Southern Asian country squeezed between the dominating India and troubled Myanmar, is the most densely populated country in the world. With a turbulent past that most western people are unfamiliar with, it is a country that paid for its independence in the liberation war of 1971 with 3 million lives. During the 9-month war with Pakistan that claimed dominance over Bengali land (called East Pakistan back then), 400,000 women from Bangladesh have been brutally raped. Now, being the 35th economy in the world, Bangladesh is a country with a shocking number of people, the dirtiest rivers in the world, the most polluted air in the capital city of Dhaka, and Islamic fundamentalists that consider cinema a sin. Nevertheless, among the chaos, every January film lovers are gathering under the wings of the Dhaka International Film Festival which tirelessly implements the mission of promoting and supporting local filmmakers to present the country outside of the infamous media stereotype.
The festival has a strong focus on female cinema, with a broad competition in the Women Filmmakers section and the annual Women in Cinema Forum that gathers activists and female leaders from the region and the world. Ahmed, the founder and father of the festival is at the same time a father of two daughters. As he explains, having his beloved wife and daughters by his side taught him to look at the world through women’s eyes, to see beauty, and to strive for kindness and equality. This is especially precious within the present context of the country, which seemingly has many more urgent problems rather than fighting for women’s rights.
What have I learned about Bengali women after watching 20 short and 10+ feature national independent films? The women of Bangladesh function in a harsh reality. No matter if the woman belongs to the upper or the lower class of society (and the division between them is striking!), they face the reality of a rigorous Muslim environment, with Sharia often being the primary law, particularly in rural areas. With the peculiar interweaving of Muslim and Bengali cultures, local female activists have to withstand both radical Islam and female objectification in mainstream Bollywood cinema. In a search and a fight for their identity, they are presented in cinema in a varied, bright, sometimes traditional, sometimes very unexpected way.
In the film “Kingdom of Clay Subjects” by Bijon, we follow the 10-year-old Jamal and his mother, who struggle to make their living in rural Bangladesh. After losing his best friend that is forced to become a child bride (a burning issue of society!) little Jamal resorts to a dream of receiving an education. Alas, this dream is endangered by the boy’s mother’s past. Sold to a brothel at a young age, she got pregnant with Jamal and escaped to start life anew. After begging on the streets, she found shelter in a rich peasants’ house where she lived as a humble and silent servant. Upon bringing her son to school, in one of the teachers she recognizes the former brothel’s visitor who threatens her to expose her past. Afraid of the son’s future, she agrees to become the man’s lover but can barely hide the aversion. Enraged, he gathers radical village men to execute a fallen woman. Her little son (the hope of the future of Bangladesh) and mullah (the character representing soft and enlightened Islam) are the only two people protecting her. And though the director grants us a happy ending, we can easily deduce that what is shown in a movie is a reality as progressive people want it to be, but what it very often is not. Too many women are suffering in misery in inhuman conditions, incapable of granting their children a better future; too many are stoned to death for the mistakes they didn’t choose to make; too many will never know what a happy ending is.
The same observations can be applied to another movie that touches upon labor rights for women. “Made in Bangladesh” by Rubaiyat Hossain shows us a fight of a strong-willed and curious girl Shimu who escaped only the too-common fate of early marriage and now is working at a textile factory. With her husband being unemployed, she is the only one providing for the family. Exhausting working hours, inappropriate conditions, and unjust payments make her stand up for herself and her fellow female co-workers. Shimu finds help in an organization that empowers women. Her situation shows how big of a difference the social initiatives implemented by the upper class can make for the oppressed majority of Bangladesh. Shimu’s story is somewhat idealized, but an inspiring example of possible changes that Bangladeshi society is only about to go through.
One more aspect of Bengali women unfolds in front of our eyes in the films that explore the liberation war period. The most painful page of Bangladesh’s history disrupts all social conventions, making us forget about the division between rich and poor, Muslim and Hindu, and artists and workers.
In the film “The Beauty Circus” by Mahmud Didar, we see how tricky life can be for a beautiful woman that performs an ungodly art: the circus. Being not only a circus star but a circus leader, Miss Beauty Circus embraces the poor and unprotected with her care and love. Following her deceased father’s mission to make people happier with the means of art, she is the head of the collective that becomes a family; a collective, that function as a shelter from the often-cruel reality of Bangladesh. With the start of the war, a woman leader is forced to become a real fighter and stand up for everyone she loves and everything she believes in. The fierce energy and the heated faith of Miss Beauty Circus show us that despite often being reduced to traditional gender roles, Bengali women have a hidden passion that can move heaven and earth.
There is one more impressive cinematic proof of that. “Damal” by Raihan Rafi tells us a story of the challenging path of Bangladesh women’s national football team with flashbacks to the national history and its most important turning point, the liberation war. This film, though shown as a part of Bangladesh Panorama that normally includes independent films, belongs to the so-called “middle cinema” (artistic yet speaking to the wider audience). Somewhat bollywoodish, it takes a viewer on a passionate and emotionally saturated journey of sport, love, and fight. Besides the intensive course on Bangladesh’s national history, this film shows interesting transformations of female characters. From the timid beautiful flowers in their parents’ gardens, young girls grow into devoted wives, patriotic citizens, and stout fighters. “Damal” is a curious mixture of local history and culture and classic western narratives. It can be a good starting point for those interested in discovering the modern cinema of Bangladesh.
Those interested in more art-house cinema can search for “Saatao – Memories of Gloomy Monsoons” by Khandaker Sumon. Reserved tone of voice, thought-through cinematography, and observational manner make it stand out from others, at first glance more impressive movies. Gathering a full house in a big hall of the National Library (the main Dhaka festival venue), it was awarded the FIPRESCI prize and chosen as a Closing Film of the festival. The story presented in the film concerns the struggles of the rural life of Putul and Fazlul, a newly married couple living in an agricultural part of Bangladesh. After losing her baby in labor, Putul becomes alienated from her husband and the rest of the village, as well as from the established rhythm of life. We see how the financial misery common for peasants deprives women of access to healthcare, both physical and psychological. The infant mortality rate in Bangladesh exceeds the official numbers, as well as the maternal mortality rate. With the looming climate change, the life of those working in fields and depending on a harvest turns into an unpredictable nightmare. In “Saatao” we observe how a young, innocent, and fragile woman is being exposed to the hardships of the unprotected village life and gradually loses her mind over the death of her first child. Putul’s husband eventually leaves for Dhaka to work as a rickshaw, making us realize that behind millions of shabby thin men seen on the capital’s noisy streets, there is a dramatic and often heart-breaking story.
The cinema of Bangladesh is diverse and unpredictable. It can’t be defined as a whole, it varies a lot from film to film, exploring numerous topics of the country of 170 million people. To be a part of this society is a challenge in itself; it is, even more, of a challenge for women that are only to gain their voice and their rightful place in Bangladeshi society. However, the tendencies shown in both independent and commercial Bangladeshi cinema bring a lot of hope: aware of the present problems, Bengali filmmakers are striving for positive changes and actively looking for ways to make these changes happen. It deserves a special fascination, which grew in me gradually as I observed the everyday life of chaotic Dhaka, the city of misery and luxury, broken lives and bright prospects, the quintessence of the Bengali nation that needs to be heard.