Still, Reel and Reality Bites
The Photographic Odyssey of Anwar
"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.
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.
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.
was his first venture. It also became one of the milestones
in the history of Bangla movie.
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
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,"
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..."
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,"
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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,"
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,"
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.
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.
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..."
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.
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.