January 8, 2014
Film director Mostofa Sarwar FAROOKI is in the UAE this week with his actress Sheena CHOHAN to present the world premiere of Ant Story Pipra bidya, in competition at the 10th Dubai International Film Festival. He discusses the importance of fantasy, the growing audience for a different kind of cinema in Bangladesh and the difficulties of recouping his domestic box office.
You seem to have an interest in creating fantastical worlds?
To be very honest, there were two layers in Television (2012). On the surface, I wanted to study the Chairman who said that television is sinful and the revolt against that. But under the surface, I wanted to explore which world is stronger: the real world or the imaginary world. There’s a guy who believes that when he makes love in his imagination, it’s real enough for him. It’s a way to face a world that doesn’t feel appropriate to you. You want a certain kind of life, but how do you achieve it. You either improve yourself, or you enter a world of fantasy.
In Ant Story, it’s an extension of Television. But it has a deeper social and cultural connection to it. There is a Bengali phrase, chapa mara, which means “fibbing”. In Southeast Asia — and even the first world from my experience — if I go to tea stalls, one can see people fibbing everywhere. They fib about their successful uncle or their legendary grandfather, their wonderful car. They create big fantastical stories. Why? Because they have these aspirational heights. They want to feel that they have already achieved their goals. This fibbing comes from the imagination. They are great at creating stories. That is the heart of Ant Story. Creating fantastical worlds is a method to counter real world deprivation. I want to explore which world is stronger, the real world or the world in the mind
How did this film come together?
The man who plays Mithu in Ant Story is not an actor. He came to Dhaka to look for work. He applied for hundreds of jobs, but he’s shy and can’t even speak properly. At one point, this complete stranger knocked on the door of my home. “Boss,” he said, “I want to be a film-maker.” Just like that. I found it very interesting. My wife fed him. I asked why he thought I would help him. He said, “I have no confidence. I can do nothing. You are the last person who can help me.”
So he started assisting me on set. He was like a model sitting in the corner that I was sculpting every day. I kept gazing at him for hours. He was never shy. We kept exchanging our gaze. The first month I didn’t know I would get something out of looking at him. But right at that moment, the MLM loan scam was going on and the story clicked. I said, “I will make a film and you will act as the victim and the victimiser!” Then I started writing the scenes. It all came together.
It was like a workshop process. It took two months to write the script. I couldn’t wait to start shooting. I cast it and we started shooting immediately. I had the luxury of editing every night because we were using digital 4K. It was fun, it was just like a workshop. It was about half the budget of Television at just €180,000. For Television, I had to go rural areas, so the production was bigger. This one I shot in the capital, so it was completely under my control.
What is the Bangladeshi “new wave cinema movement”?
To be very honest, there is no such concrete movement. Looking back, the first breakout film was Tareque MASUD’s The Clay Bird Matir Moina (2002), which premiered in Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight, and then Golam Rabbany BIPLOB’s On the Wings of Dreams Swopnodanay (2007) five years later in Toronto. There were more films on-and-off, but it was never really a movement. Later, my film Third Person Singular Number (2009) was selected by Busan and then Rotterdam. And more recently my film Television was the closing film in Busan, and it’s competing for some awards at APSA.
Regarding the New Wave, it’s happening in television rather than film. All over the word, television is supposedly killing cinema. But in our country, television helped groom a new generation of film-makers and create an audience. I myself am an example. In 1999, when I was very young and thinking of making my first feature, I couldn’t find any producer willing to trust me. I understood that cinema was not open to me. Cinema is not for Bangladesh. But there is satellite television with its bullshit soap operas and other hard-to-digest stuff. So I approached one channel to make tele-films, but to shoot them as if I was making cinema, not in their soap opera style. Somehow it created an instant fever among the young audience in Bangladesh. And other young directors started making tele-films.
There are two reasons that the young audience loved our tele-films. The first is that it looks so real to them, like it’s something happening around them everyday. The second reason was its language. We had to go through a huge fight for that. Normally, if you make an urban television production, you are expected to use standard — “bookish” — language, which people rarely speak in real life. I started using lines that reflected how people talked in their daily life, which struck a chord with young audiences.
But the intellectuals started bashing me for not using formal language in the dialogue. They actually went to the Bangladesh High Court and they actually won. The court issued a decree, demanding that films and television must not mix dialects or use slang; they must only use so-called “proper” language. But If I want to make a film, I must pay attention to the details, which includes using the right dialogue for the right character. There was a protest against the decision and we began to ignore it.
So there are two things that shaped the so-called new wave cinema movement. The language debate has shaped us. And we cannot make cinema if we do not win this fight. And the younger generation, who want to become film-makers, they now know we can now make tele-films with which we can make some money and and invest in making a feature. That’s the way that people are looking at entering cinema as young film-makers now.
Why did you choose to premiere Ant Story in Dubai?
When my film was completed in late October, I shared the online video link to the Dubai festival’s Nashen MOODLEY and Dorothee WENNER because they’re very good programmers and have helped Asian films so much. They immediately said that they loved the film and wanted it for the Dubai competition. I was actually going to wait until 2014 and try for some bigger festivals. But with the warmth I got from the Dubai programmers, I just fell in love with them. Recently, Cameron BAILEY listed the world’s ten most important film festivals, and he including Dubai and Busan in Asia. This festival in recent years has played a very important role for both Arab and Asian titles.
How important are project markets to you?
Very important. Really, very important. There are two aspects to this. You have the chance to meet so many co-producers who may come on board your project. Even if nobody does join your film, getting elected for a prestigious project market like Film Bazaar in India or the Asian Project Market in South Korea, or any other strong film market in the world is a validation. Before you make your film, the industry knows that an important title is coming up. Even before you finish the film.
When is Ant Story opening?
After the election in January. But it’s difficult to get money back from cinemas in Bangladesh. For Television, we screened the film in 42 cinemas for one month and it had more than one million admissions. Through our local distribution network, we never got to know the exact box office. And we only get 15% of the ticket price. The theatre takes 85%. They claim that 70% is for the toilet, the seating, the electricity, etc. It’s crazy. I only got back about US$100,000 from the theatrical release. If I could have received a true 50:50 share from the cinema, I would have become a rich film-maker overnight.
This distribution problem is something we need to tackle urgently. If a film like Television, which is not a typical formulaic film, can draw so many audience members, it means that Bangladesh cinema has hope. We need to organise our cinema networks and our funding process. We are trying to communicate this to our government. I have written about this in Bangladesh’s largest circulation newspaper, and it was picked up by other papers. I even told the Information Minister, who is in charge of the film industry. In Bangladesh, we have an audience now that is excited about cinema. We cannot lose this opportunity.
And what’s next?
Now I’m the executive producer of the Boutique Cinema Project, which is exclusively for debut film-makers. Already, there are two features in production and one in pre-production. Hopefully, within the next one or two years, we’ll see some new young film-makers emerging. Our cinema has been traditionally influenced by Bollywood and Calcutta art-house cinema, but we’re now making movies a little bit differently with our very own signature. It’s an exciting time.