Tanvir Ratul in conversation with Tanvir Mokammel
Tanvir Ratul , Lecturer, University of Liverpool, UK
We know, storytelling is an essential part of our DNA. Human beings’ innate, primal search for meaning is the birth of narrative. We impart meaning to the events we experience. Our personal identity is created through the story of our lives. It is this innate gift for narrative that as film-makers we must recognize and source for our work. Film-makers are storytellers, working in the medium that has the most impact and relevance for today. So firstly, what particular realisation drove you to choose film-making as your life and living ?
TanvirMokammel :Since childhood I used to be fascinated by cinema, its visual potency, its sound effects, its background music. You will be surprised to know that when I was a student of class VI, not even a teenager, I decided to make film named “Chitra Nadir Pare” in which I wanted to describe the plight of the Hindus in the then East Pakistan!
And the immediate cause which drove me to film-making was, while studying in the Dhaka University, I was deeply involved in the film society movement. We were then immensely annoyed with the crude and philistine state of commercial filmdom of Bangladesh. So I decided to make a short film “Hooliya (Wanted)” based on a political poem by poet Nirmalendu Goon in 16mm format. That was the beginning.
As an educator, I meet a lot of people who want to be film-makers, people who want to take that journey, but they don’t know how to begin. The craft of film-making has much to blame for this. Except for the occasional post-modern or experimental work, film-makers do everything they can to hide the film-making process. Lights, cameras, crew are never shown. They want the audience to get lost in the movie, to experience the story unaware of the arduous tasks necessary to create that cinematic dream. Because of this slight of hand, film-makers tend to come to two conclusions about film-making: either it’s EASY or is it’s IMPOSSIBLE. Would you tell more about your process? Such as how do you finalise a script and when do you decide to lock edit ?
TanvirMokammel :I only make a film when a theme strikes me. Generally the script ideas come to me as images or dialogues. I jot down those. Then I have to draw a convincing story line and all the visual details. As I only make films with my own script so it is not a problem. But sometimes the process of finalizing the script, especially the shot division, may continue to change even just a minute or two before the actual shooting. I always remain open to changes. For a fiction film editing is not difficult as shots are more or less pre-determined. Challenges remains in editing the documentaries where no pre-written script remains.
Have you ever experienced a gap in your vision and final product at the editing table ? How have you, or would you, deal with it if there was no option to reshoot ?
TanvirMokammel :My films are very low-budget films. We hardly have any scope to reshoot. So we have to be very careful in our planning during the pre-production and actual shooting phases and remain vigilant not to make any mistake. But improvisation is a thing which you cannot escape in film- making. And that is true not only in shooting, but during editing as well. For a fiction film it is difficult to make much changes on the cutting table as the shots are generally pre-selected. But in the documentaries we always have to make changes as new or better ideas often come across during editing.
As you mentioned, your fist ever film was ‘Hooliya’ and although it was attempted and is regarded as an experimental short film, it’s not a short film in conventional sense; is there any particular reason that you didn’t consider making short films ?
TanvirMokammel :“Hooliya” is a highly political film. It was about the life of a young leftwing political activist who was being shadowed by the police detectives during the Martial Law regime of General Ayub Khan in East Pakistan in the 1960s. When we made the film in the early 1980s the regime of General Ershad had just taken over power. We wanted to draw a parallelism between the Martial Law of General Ayub of the Pakistan era with that of General Ershad of Bangladesh. And Nirmalendu Goon’s poem “Hooliya” justly served our that purpose. Hence we made the short film on that poem. The film was made in agit-prop genre as I knew a linear conventional story- telling wouldn’t serve our purpose. So in “Hooliya” we played with the time, time as a plastic elementÑpast, present and future. You have to understand we are political film-makers and the style of an agit-prop cinema, a genre which the poem “Hooliya” also belonged to, seemed a perfect choice.
It is said that there are only six stories and we’ve seen it all. I know, only six is a very low number, lets say in other words, it’s a limited number or possible stories and all the stories are known, it’s just our human cognition that are able to describe the same phenomenon is indefinite possible ways. How do you curve that rawness to etch brilliance into your endeavour?
TanvirMokammel :Only six stories..well…well… the answer, I guess, will be both yes and no. Yes in the sense as the themes of two of my films “The River Named Modhumoti” and “The Sister” (Rabeya) are deconstructions of the themes of Shekpeare’s “Hamlet” and Sophocles’s play “Antigone”. The films were endeavors to present these two age-old classic literary characters and situations in contemporary situations. I placed both those two themes in stories created by me on the backdrop of the 1971 liberation war of Bangladesh. And the answer is no in the sense as I have also created completely original themes and stories to make films, as “Quite Flows the River Chitra”(“ChitraNodir Pare”) or “The Drummer” (Jibondhuli). These films have original themes and storyline created by me for the purpose of presenting my ideas into films. It is difficult for me to judge my success. But, as even after twenty years later after its creation, people still like to watch the film “Quite Flows the River Chitra”, I guess, our labour was not lost.
You have directed eleven documentaries and seven fiction films till date. Is making documentary closer to show the reality, unaltered, empowers you also as a film-maker in expanding a scrupulous vision rarely found within the space of creative freedom ?
TanvirMokammel :I normally try to make a documentary after a fiction film. You know why ? Though our fiction films are known to be “realistic”, yet I know that I have evolved a storyline, has designed the sets, collected the props, made the dresses and actors utter the lines written by me. So an element of artificiality remains in any case even though, the films are realistically made. But when you make a documentary you have to delve deep into the real life situation of our peopleÑthe slums, the poverty, the wage issue, the police, the traffic jam, all the crude realities of present day Bangladesh society and politics figure in. It is very important for an artist to remain rooted in his given time and place. Otherwise making one after 4 another arty fiction films, you may inadvertently, move into the world of unreality. Or may indulge in wishful thinking only. That’s why I try to make a documentary on a down-to-earth practical subject after making a fiction film. I want to remain rooted in the realities of contemporary Bangladesh. And I also personally believe that a good fiction film should look like a documentary. And a good documentary should have a story line.
The hill people are a historically neglected entity. Tears of Karnaphuli was banned in Bangladesh, though it had been released later, but when the problem is multifaceted and, the communities still continue to suffer the pain, and therefore retain a grievance, would it in your opinion make a difference in people’s approach towards the problem of CHT?
TanvirMokammel :The film “Teardrops of Karnaphuli” was finally released by a court verdict by the High Court of Bangladesh. The film is now free to be shown. The film definitely had some impact. After the release of the film the attitude of the Bengalee ruling class towards the hill people has softened a bit. Military actions have also reduced. But the core issue of the problem, the issue of land and forest, is a deep rooted politico-economic issue. It can only be resolved if there happens a major shift in the policy of the Bangladesh state and polity towards the Chittagong Hill Tracts. We are still waiting for that. But as a documentary, the film “Teardrops of Karnaphuli” has contributed to some extent in spreading knowledge about the real issues of CHT and in sensitising the people of Bangladesh about the plight of the hill people.
The liberation war of Bangladesh has influenced quite a few of your films; I can go on with the influence and impact the was has on the country’s political spectrum today including but not limited to, turning the history into a political product, a commodity; but besides portraying the fateful destiny of people, what have you desired your massages to be?
TanvirMokammel : Yes, “The River Named Modhumoti”(“Nodir Nam Modhumoti”), “The Sister” (Rabeya), “The Drummer” (Jibondhuli), three of my fiction films, dealt with the 1971 liberation war of Bangladesh. Besides there are quite a few documentaries on that subject as well mega-documentary “1971”, “Tajuddin Ahmed: An Unsung Hero”, “The Promised Land” (Swapnobhumi), “Reminiscences of ‘71 (SmritiEkattor)”. Actually the theme of 1971 liberation war has figured in many of my films, both in fiction and in the 5 documentaries, again and again, almost like a leit-motif. The reason is simple. When I was a teenager, an age when a person remains most sensitive, the war of 1971 happened. And I experienced a brutal genocide, inhuman sufferings of the people, torture on the minorities and on the women, obnoxious atrocities perpetrated by the Razakars and the Islamic fundamentalist forces and also the heroics of the freedom fighters. All these perhaps made such an impact on my young psyche that later, whenever I wanted to make a film, some events of 1971 crept in, sometimes even subconsciously. And it still does. But on the conscious part as an artist, the events of 1971 have also provided me a profound backdrop to portray my characters. The events of 1971 in Bangladesh happened in epic proportions. Three million people were massacred, ten million refugees migrated to India, more than two hundred thousand women were rapedÑall happened on Biblical figures. So as a film-maker 1971 presented me a platform on which I can present the agonies, dilemmas and destinies of my characters against a gigantic backdrop which I have done in “The River Named Modhumoti”, “The Sister (Rabeya)”, or “The Drummer (Jibondhulu)”. Had not the war in 1971 happened these films could never have made.
In the present socio-political structure of Bangladesh, would you consider making The Promised Land today ?
TanvirMokammel :Sure, why not ? The condition of the Urdu-speaking community in Bangladesh is not that bad now as it was immediately after the war. But it is not so good either. And there are not much avenues through which this unfortunate community can vent their frustrations and tell about their agonies. As a documentary film-maker, my job is to give voice to the voiceless. Sure, with some minor changes, I would have made “The Promised Land” even today.
Apart from getting an international exposure, does a film’s participation in an international film-festival provides any personal and intangible benefit to the director ?
TanvirMokammel : I understand what you are trying to hint at. When I was young I was very enthusiastic in participating in the film festivals, would become very elated when my films would receive any recognition. But with age and maturity I have gradually realized that film festivals can also be a kind of a racket. A kind of a vehicle of corporate greed and an avenue for dishonest event managers and unscrupulous film critics. So I have gradually lost interest in sending my films to the festivals. My main concern and desire now is to reach out to my own people. But yet I believe film festivals can help a film to be known and a film-maker to expand his knowledge and experience. Even with some drawbacks, film festivals still have some positive contributions to make.
Whom do you consider the masters of classic and (post) modern world cinema ?
TanvirMokammel :I am afraid the list will be rather long. Of course I am fond of Eisenstein, Renoir, Stroheim, Fritz Lang, John Ford, Hitchcock, Kurosawa, Fellini, Bergman and all those classic masters. Regarding the later generation of film-makers, whom you tried to label as (post) modern directors, I guess Godard, Tarkovsky, Kiewslowsky, lars Von Trier are some of my favorite film-makers. I am also very fond of Abbas Kiarostami and the contemporary Iranian film-makers.
My ideology opposes the concept of literary and art organisation based on profit making mechanism but I also understand the existence of commercial aspects and applications of a creative product. How do you compromise your venture and market your art and the possibility of the film’s popularity ?
TanvirMokammel :To be honest, I do not
care about market. As an artist, my job is to create. As I want to keep my
freedom as an independent film- maker I do not go to the corporate world or to
the cinema halls to present my films. Over the years we have evolved an
alternative distribution network in Bangladesh and as my films are not
unpopular we receive some revenues by alternative screening. My films are very
low-budget films. So after showing my films in off- cinema alternative means, I
can earn some money and then think of making my next film. It is a hard process.
But it is the only way I can avoid the commercialism of the corporate world and
maintain my freedom as a creative artist. This is why people of Bangladesh call
me as an “alternative film-
Has it been your dream to build your own audience who will progress with your every film ? Or is it better to have a dedicated audience as a whole for Bengali cinema ?
TanvirMokammel :Actually my films have an audience who make it a point to see my films whenever they are released. It is a small niche audience but a very receptive one. And they are the most educated and politically conscious section of our people. University and college students also eagerly watch my films. I am quite happy with that. Besides, our mobile film-unit screens my films in villages, where we get a good audience. But unfortunately the huge number of Bangladesh audience, the majority of our people, are still engrossed in viewing the crude commercial films. And cinema halls only cater to them with only crude commercial films.
Any Bangladeshi government has failed in epic proportion when it comes to creating infrastructures and facilitating talent. What is the scope of film-making in Bangladesh ?
TanvirMokammel :Unfortunately the mainstream cinema of Bangladesh is lagging decades behind the global cinema, even lags much behind the general standard of cinema of this sub-continent. But some well meaning films are recently being made in the alternative genre and are getting noticed in the national and international arenas. There 8 lies the future of Bangladesh cinema I believe in the alternative endeavours.
Let it be known that I’m no expert in film-making. I honestly don’t even know the criteria to be called a film-maker. There’s some debate on the definition of a film-maker, but most agree that film-making is the art of telling stories with moving images. And ‘stories’ are where my heart and passion lies, I will settle on calling what anyone similarly does as film-making regardless of debated qualifiers. Done. What is your message for those young generation of Bangladesh and to the aspiring ‘film-makers’ ?TanvirMokammel :To remain honest and steadfast to the cause of art and not to make compromises with the corporate market. And not to get awed by or become overindulgent with technology. Make technology your slave not master. And remain true to your heart’s desire. Not to be carried away by any ‘ism’ or ideologyÑreligion, nationalism, etc. Always to remember that as artists our job is to portray, and portray faithfully, the humanity in all different conditions, especially the suffering humanity around us.