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     Volume 5 Issue 98 | June 9, 2006 |

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Reviving an Old Ritual

Aasha Mehreen Amin

'Going to the movies' maybe the most common and pleasurable form of entertainment for people all over the globe. Sadly for Bangladesh, this simple way of forgetting one's troubles for a few hours has been a rarity, especially for the middle class cine-goer. It has very little to do with the advent of cable TV and seduction of scores of channels offering oodles of glitz and glamour. It has a lot to do with the storm of low-grade films with exaggerated acting, poor plots and of course jarring vulgarity that has repulsed the sensitive film buffs and confined them to small screen entertainment. Yet very few of them would not drop this poor substitute in a second if they were promised a good, wholesome film on the big screen in a reasonably decent movie theatre.

Samia Zaman, shooting her first feature film

Such a comeback may seem mere wishful thinking. But a few filmmakers have been struggling to keep the palatable film movement alive in the hope of luring back the disillusioned cine-goers to the theatres.

Samia Zaman, a well-known face of the small screen, being an anchor and producer for now closed Ekushey TV, has joined this slow but steady movement. Zaman has extensive media experience being a former news presenter, producer and film editor for the BBC as well as having formal training in filmmaking.

Her debut feature film 'Ranikuthir Baki Itihash' is being released today (June 9), in major halls including Star Cineplex (Bashundhara City Complex), Modhumita and Balaka. What is surprising is that this is not a thought -provoking art film delivering important social messages. 'Ranikuthir Baki Itihash' is a full-length feature film that is merely aimed to entertain.

With popular movie stars Ferdous, Poppy and Alamgir in the leading roles plus the regular song and dance numbers, the film will no doubt attract the usual crowd of current cinemagoers. But the plot, direction and cinematography has given the film a more sophisticated look that sets it apart from the recent barrage of tacky, unrealistic and often obscene films. This, the makers of the film believe, just maybe the magic ingredient to bring back middle class viewers to the halls.

In an exclusive interview with SWM, Samia Zaman explains her reasons for embarking upon the world of celluloid and the challenges, involved with her first commercial feature film.

So what is the film about?
Samia Zaman: It's about a new couple, they go to a Nawabi palace (for his work): it's not a historical film or anything, it just happens to be the setting of the film. She starts to find the place very familiar. She gets little signs that she has been here before. She sees things that remind her of her childhood and then starts to find out more about her childhood because she grew up as an orphan. She realises that she was actually from the family who lived in this mansion. At that point the cinema changes pace in the sense that

Set in an old Nawabi palace, and with special attention given to costumes, Ranikuthir Baki Itihash has a sophisticated ambience that sets it apart from the regular commercial film

she starts seeing a dead body at a certain place in the house and from then on the film through the two characters is trying to solve the mystery of this dead body she is seeing is it just hallucination or is it something that really happened during her childhood or is she going out of her mind?

Why did you choose this theme?
This particular genre mystery/horror ghost/adventure story we have quite a rich tradition in our literature although it's more so in popular literature. But there are also some very classic examples e.g. Satyajit Ray and his children's stories but also Tagore's short stories e.g. Khudito Pashan. Then Promindu Mitra and Humendu Kumar Roy… In Bengali cinema in the 60s and 70s there have been films on psychological mysteries but after the liberation especially this side of the border, we haven't really seen this kind of film being made.

From an audience point of view they are hugely enjoyed and they can be very challenging. The first thing that comes to mind is Hitchcock but even in (present context) the latest Da Vinci Code thriller or mystery story - there are plenty of examples of stories that really grab your attention. Though I have made my film in a much milder tone compared to any of them I would like to call it a psychological mystery. The pace is not very fast. I thought since as a reader and a world cinema viewer some of our audience are already exposed to this kind of film but we don't get this purely in Bangla. So in my first film I wanted to explore this and see how I can deal with this. I will confess now, after the film has been made, it is not easy to create suspense and maintain that tension till the end of the film. I find it very challenging. Of course the audience will judge how it came out.

Why did you choose actors from mainstream cinema?
The main leading roles are played by two very well known and well-established actor and actress. I was very conscious of making a product for the big screen. Ntv, the producer of the film, was also very clear on this. And I realised that big screen chemistry is something different from the small screen. Not all small screen actors translate well on the big screen.

After working with them I am totally convinced that most actors and actresses of the current film industry are actually quite talented and very hard working. They were very cooperative. Ferdous, Poppy and Alamgir all worked very hard.

I found that there was a huge reservoir of talent and willingness to experiment with image, speech, and acting…When you go to see the film you will immediately notice this. The way they are dressed, the makeup, the way they carry themselves - everything put together helped to create this image on screen that they are real, normal people.

How much influence did you have with the scriptwriters?
This was very much teamwork. The scriptwriter I worked with - Dewan Shamsur Rakib- I have known him for ages. We all come from a fruitful short film movement of the 80s and 90s. So we share the same wavelength. So when we were developing the story in the screenplay form the script writer did his own thing and then we had our sessions and rewrites.

Celluloid or 35m film making is very much a team effort. If I did not get the optimum input from each member of my team I would not be able to make this kind of film. For instance, there were huge inputs from the cameraman, production engineer. We had endless sessions going through all the scenes and sequences - how to bring them alive on screen, then the music had an important part to play, costume design, set design - everything had its own role to play.

The other members of the team are Maksudul Bari (Cinematographer), Junaid Halim (Editor), Salahuddin Auton (Chief Assistant Director) and Kaushik Shankar Das (Production Designer).

Why have you opted for mainstream cinema rather than intellectual art films?
I knew for a long time that this is what I wanted to do. Making a complete film is such a complete experience whatever inclination you have- artistic, if you like movies, painting, or technically inclined all sides of your intellect and passion, emotional side- everything can come together to make this two-hour-long magic that you are trying to create celluloid.

I wanted to enjoy the process of it. I want to make some films that I would be watching as a viewer. I love watching world famous 'art films'-- because I studied the all great-- masters. I could go on watching them.

On the other hand, I still enjoy the so-called commercial film. They can be from the subcontinent, Hollywood or any other part of the world.

Given all the social and other issues, one wants to deal with I have my agendas and beliefs that I carry with me, But if I can contribute in my little way in making some of the viewers who are not going to the cinema hall anymore, to think 'lets go to the cinema and have a good time.' then it will be worth it.

Film idols Ferdous, Poppy and Alamgir play characters who look and sound like real people

Do you think wholesome films can make a comeback?
If 10-20-30 films are made this way every year, then I am sure the whole mood of the industry will turn around.

If there is this flow of ideas, large and young talent then all kinds of cinema will be made here. Some of them will be going to Cannes, some to Oscars, some will be huge block busters, some will be shown around at the SAARC countries maybe some will do the festival train--- and some will be home grown cinema for our cinema viewers which will do a decent run.

One film does not need to do everything.
In next 2-3 years I do see the germs of it already; only this year Morshedul Islam's Khelaghor came out. We are waiting for Tareq Masud's film Antarjatra. There are a couple of other films made last year that did very well in foreign festivals like Abu Sayeed's Shombonath, and Nandito Noroke they were commercially successful and they are pretty much mainstream cinema. If we look simply at the number and every month 1 or 2 coming out we would like to see that would create the flow that will help the industry.

What about the constraints in making commercial films such as the financial investment involved? Wouldn't they be enough to dissuade potential filmmakers?
Money maybe a big constraint. But more than money, it's the huge bureaucratic procedure that one has to go through to get a film made in Bangladesh. It is enough to put off 99% of the budding filmmakers because it is a myriad obstacle course. You have to go through so many different kinds of paper work…Making a film should be much easier. Even if you want to put money in a film it is not so easy. You have to go through the whole FDC procedure and get permission from numerous places.

Ferdous, playing the anxious, supportive husband in Ranikuthir Baki Itihash

The entertainment tax imposed by the government is also a huge burden. This should be lowered. After the cinemas are shown in the cinema halls and after all the government taxes are paid and everything, a paltry amount goes to the producers and that is probably why people are not interested in making good films because you know you can never recover your money. That is one area where the government can take a proactive role.

What about the FDC? How helpful is it for upcoming film makers?
It is a huge monolithe. If it was kept open for anybody with an artistic inclination and enough guts to raise the money by selling his/her dream then there is a start. But (in reality) you are tested by fire. It's amazing how hard it can be.

What about the technical side of making a film? Did you go through any hiccups?
The general technical set up (in Bangladesh) is very bad. We have access to world class camera equipment but the maintenance is very poor. Plus there are very few technically competent persons available.

The sound section is also very weak. We have to rely on dubbing the dialogue later which affects the quality.

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