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<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 138 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

January 16 , 2004

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Still, Reel and Reality Bites
The Photographic Odyssey of Anwar Hossain

Mustafa Zaman

European Rhapsody
"The mental success and the earthly failure," is Anwar Hossain's phraseology that sums up his life in retrospect. It also reveals an attitude and an outlook that hinges on the pursuit of life rather than material success. A man in "self-exile" since 1993, Anwar is frank about his dilemma in living in France where he finds a populace intoxicated with the energy of life as well as art yet trapped in a social infrastructure that tends to commodify art and every adventure that life has to offer. He testifies, "When some people started to see me as a member of Magnum or Gama, I was told by them... these extremely important people... which I would like to quote verbatim 'Its a pity Anwar that you have spoiled thirty years of your life photographing an insignificant country like Bangladesh'". His reply to this always used to be the same. He answered back as a rule that most of the world is third world and "My whole oeuvre is the ultimate essay or the Iliad of the third world people and their condition." "Third world means humanity, it could be representative of that...," says Anwar. He has all the doubts stored in one nook of his discursive mind for people who are churning out works that fit the definition of the third world set by the first world.

"There is too much dignity in your work... " was the accusation that Anwar had to stumble upon in his first few encounters with the first world dignitaries. In lieu of the plethora of images that cross the subcontinent volleyed towards the west, Anwar's humans, however destitute or encumbered they are with material concerns, seem to want to speak of life in all its primal glory.

Work brings this master photographer back home. He is here every once in a while. Though many may not have any inkling of how out of 20 best Bangla movies produced in this land, Anwar's photographic signature has made a difference in 15 of them all. Constant homebound trips made it happen. Yet, this is a rough figure. The most important bit lies in the exquisitely done cinematography of Emiler Goenda Bahini, Puroshkar, Dohon, Hulia, Chitra Nadir Parey, Nadir Nam Modhumoti, Lalshalu,--- movies that have earned considerable critical acclaim. Their are soon to be released works like Lalon that will again reveal his acumen as a cinematographer.

Looking Back: The First Scene
"Working in the movies opened up a 'Pandora's box' for me, not in the negative sense of course..." says Anwar. The movie Shurjo Dighol Bari revived his passion and set him on a course through memory lane. "Everything came together in the movie; my childhood, the paintings I used to admire, the life I led, my education in Pune and all the photographic experiences, everything came together for an explosion that created Shurjo Dighol Bari," recalls Anwar.

This was his first venture. It also became one of the milestones in the history of Bangla movie.

At a village in Manikganj, back in 1980 the longhaired and big-moustachioed Anwar Hossain with his recently acquired degree from Pune, India was filming his first scene decked in a lungi. He was directing his camera assistants and crew to ready the scene for the first shoot. About the contingent that was there with him he now reflects, "We were all equipped and with people who despite their very, primitive idea about movies had a kind of enlightenment in their soul to do something extraordinary. It certainly catalysed my vision."

The crew that he worked with was not at all well versed in movie making. "The problem that started from the very first scene of Shurjo Dighol Bari lied in the fact that my crew had exactly the opposite ideas and practice of film making compared to what I had achieved," says Anwar.

The scene had Joygun (Dolly Anwar) and Mymoon (Elora Gaohor), her daughter, doing some chores in floodwater next to the house. "The water was quickly receding and we panicked," remembers Anwar. He was shooting from the boat that was stabilised with four banana trees propped up in the water. Anwar remembers his handsome assistant cameraman in John Travolta-style garb and hair in meticulous detail. "He had this very high heeled black shoes on, Travolta type of course, and he was a sight of incredible contrast. I was wondering about how this person would be assisting me..." says Anwar.

From the very beginning, everything went wrong. There were six reflectors all together and Anwar wanted only one for the two actresses, two for the ducks, one for the mango tree and another for the sloppy riverside and the last one was set to give the house and its bamboo trees salience. His crew was shocked. "Everyone was objecting to the fact that the actors had only one reflector, never in their life did they see such a technique. With few working in the field of cinema for the last seven or ten years, and the assistant cameramen with experience of ten or so prior projects, they were saying that they never had this bitter experience of having reflectors allocated for the surrounding objects," recalls Anwar.

Context for Anwar has always been important. In fact in his stills as well as in his cinematography, contextual representation is what he so daringly achieves. In the first shoot Anwar depended on the reflection of the water too. Life in its truthfulness and natural phenomenon are the two elements that always drove him. In the shooting of the first scene of the historically important movie that Shurjo Dighol Bari later became, the man behind the camera took charge and transformed a bleak scenario into an insightful observation of reality. Sheikh Niyamat Ali, the director of the film, gave his cameraman full support. Whatever Anwar proposed, he gave the green light to it and it is this freedom with which Anwar applied to his art. One must recall that the same man who was so particular about using reflectors for the whole scene, discarded their use while shooting the scenes in the city in the same movie. "I wanted to create a harshness that would be representative of city life," said Anwar back in 2000 in an interview with the Star Weekend Magazine.

The history of photography and cinematography in Bangladesh did not remain the same since Anwar burst into the scene in the sixties and masterfully turned the course of cinematography in the 80s. Though Anwar regretfully says, "It still remains the same," while referring to the state of cinematography and the technical supports involved in cinema in Bangladesh. As for still photography, he is in great opposition to working project by project with only mercenary motive in sight. "If you are a creator you cannot create without falling in love. Otherwise you should call yourself a businessman, not a photographer or a cinematographer but a photo-businessman," stresses Anwar. Empathy with the subject and the medium, for him, is the only assurance of artistic excellence.

Down Memory Lane
How did a man who was born in a slum of Aganwab Deury in Old Dhaka in 1948 become what he is today? The cue to the answer lies in the fact that Anwar never regretted his reality. The reality he was born in was his first springboard. Being the oldest in a family of twelve, he had to scavenge with other kids in the area to help out whichever way a child could. "It was from the Haat (Bazaar) of Gani Mian that we used to collect saw-dust to sell a sack full for 8 ana (half of one taka)," recalls Anwar who would wake up very early to finish his home work for school and then go scavenging in the morning. After the scavenging stint he would then go to the bazaar and then straight to school.

Anwar remembers how his name was often dropped from the list of the registers though he was the first boy of his class at the Armanitola Govt. High School. "Very often the fees remained unpaid and though I used to get scholarship for my position in class my name was never mentioned during roll calling," reflects Anwar.

But, every predicament had its other side. Struggling for survival at such an early age, studying in the light of one hariken (kerosene lamp) at night out in the open porch, the aspiration to live a better life, and most of all the joy of living, only served to widen his perspective and bring in an intensity to his photography. Anwar harks back to his early days to throw light, "I wrote about the way we used to sit down in a circle like a 'well', I delineated the surrounding--- the split sky above, the pomegranate tree at one corner, and the dreamy reflection on life of a child. This was hugely appreciated by my teacher at school."

His creative flair was aflame from the very beginning. He kept on writing poetry. But as he grew up Anwar developed a kinship for paint and brush. He used to get his paint, brush and paper free of cost from the Shishu Kala Bhaban at Art College (presently the Institute of Fine Arts). "I wanted to become a painter," recalls Anwar. "We had no TV or even radio for that matter, we could not afford them back in the early sixties. So, I resorted to expressing myself, my child-feelings, in paper. I remember becoming some thing of an artist in my class," adds Anwar. In 1963, when he was in class eight, Debdas Chakrabarti, the eminent artist, was the art teacher of his school. Anwar too, back then, seemed all set to become an artist.

His father, who was working as a manger at a local movie studio, stood in his way. "It so happened that despite the difficulties in life, and an enigmatic childhood revolving around poverty and family obligations I stood fifth in the SSC exam," Anwar recalls. In his family, he was the first person to have completed the entrance exam, which is equivalent to SSC. So the road to paint and brush came to a close.

The memories of Shishu Kala Bhaban, where Anwar used to paint in his childhood, however, haunted him even after he took admission in Notre Damme College. "I used to paint strange pictures. As my father used to arrange for me to enter the theatres without tickets to see English movies like Spiderman, Tarzan and other action flicks to improve my English, I became so obsessed with them that in the pictures that I painted the movie characters prominently figured," recalls Anwar. The painter had to give up painting to study architecture, a subject that he never took to his heart. He saw it as "a compromise solution."

On the Image Maker's Trail
To be a painter was not an 'honourable' profession, nor was photography taken as seriously as it is now in our culture. So, what set this aspirant painter on the course of a sinuous photographic journey? The man whose love affair with his camera has only bloomed over time reveals, "One of my friends at college approached me and said he wanted to sell his camera for 30 Taka as he was giving up photography." Anwar bought the camera on an instalment basis.

The eighth exposure of the first film that Anwar filled in his newly bought camera was spent on a scene taken from opposite Kamrangir Char. Anwar remembers how he got down into knee-deep water to take the scene of dhopas of Dhaka city. "This was the last exposure of that eight exposure film, and this picture got me an award in Bangladesh," Anwar goes back to his early start. Golam Kashem Daddy used to run the Camera Recreation'? Club, it was at the exhibition of the Club that he got the award.

This is the club where Anwar met legendary figures of photography like M.A. Beg, Golam Mostafa, and Bijon Sarkar, who inspired him. "I did not have money to buy films, my scholarship money was often spent to support the family. So, it was Shadhan Da, the great, great cinematographer, who used to provide me with cut pieces of films that was put into cassettes to be used in still cameras," remembers Anwar.

"Ultimately I ended up buying a better camera shared by four people, buying an enlarger shared by four people, and buying my first colour film at 36 Taka shared by four people," It was around the end of the sixties that Anwar got his hands on his first colour film which they sent to Germany to develop. "It was very exciting to get my own first colour film from a photographer for the army whom I used to call Alok Da, and to see the roll when it came back from Germany," recalls the maestro. "Till today colour slide development is not done properly in Bangladesh, and this was in 1969," adds Anwar.

Anwar came a long way after that. He completed his diploma in architecture, though never practised it in life. He was in love with photography. "Fortunately I did not have girl friends, and looking at girls did not even occur to me as something interesting back then. Therefore, I could spend my time in observing life through the lens," Anwar says jokingly. It is the truthfulness of photography that at last won over painting, which is practised in isolation at one's home or studio. As a member of a poor family who never felt poor, son of a caring and giving mother, Anwar took life for granted. "All the difficulties and hardship was part of life," he feels in retrospect.

Anwar remembers what slowly drew him to the movies. "It was Khosru Bhai of Film Society and Badal Rahman who pickled my young mind with ideas of exploring the reel," he recalls. The spectacles in movies amazed him. He went on to study cinematography, heading for Pune in 1974 on an ICCR scholarship, causing resentment in the family. He sat out on a journey that would later put him in the path to greatness.

"My grandmother kept banging her head on the wall, she kept at it and lived a longer life than my parents..." Anwar jokingly emphasises. Braving opposition both at home and from outside, he left behind a contingent of teachers in BUET as well as friends who considered his move an outright aberration. Anwar made his choice. He now proudly proclaims, "Life changed after Pune..."

The history of cinema in Bangladesh changed with that. Anwar Hossain is a living legend now. The imprint of his skill as well as his sensibility is now in demand. Though not many films could provide him with the turf that Shurjo Dighol Bari did. His signature is still something that most of the new filmmakers crave to have in their work. He often finds himself behind the camera. Though he is not satisfied with the kind of shoddy equipment he works with, his impression is clearly visible in the end results.

As for still photography, Anwar continues to record the real with all its bites intact. "Abstraction works only when it remains eloquent, when it strongly proposes a concept," this seems like a motto to him. The distanced look at life and the cultivated 'rarefied taste' is not in his vein. For him everything harks back to the reality that they came from. His word stand for his work, "The purpose of art is not to please or to beautify, but to transmit your own soul or thoughts or conviction into the media you are working with," believes Anwar Hossain.


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