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     Volume 5 Issue 126 | December 29, 2006 |

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Cover Story

Abu Sayeed
For the Love of Film

Kajalie Shehreen Islam

Though few and far between, independent filmmakers from Bangladesh have made their mark on global cinema. This year too, Nirontor, directed by Abu Sayeed (of Kittonkhola and Shankhonad fame) has earned critical acclaim at home and abroad. SWM takes a seat across the Director's chair for a look at the man who has made a film which started out as controversial, but which has ended up winning international acclaim and bagging three awards this month alone.

Filmmaker Abu Sayeed has a number of national and international awards under his belt.

Director Abu Sayeed was interested in films from the time he was in school. As early as 1980, when he was doing his HSCs, he knew he wanted to direct films. He watched the movies of Satyajit Ray and Shyam Benegal on VHS. He read on films in whatever books he could get hold of in the mufassil town he lived in, in Bogra. He even told his friends that he would direct his first film in 1987. And he did.

Sayeed completed school, college and his Bachelors degree, all as a result of parental pressure, as he was caught up in contemporary literature and not at all interested in formal education. And in 1987, at the age of 25, he began making his first short film, Aborton, which was released in 1988 and which won the National Award for Best Short Film.

Straight from a mufassil town without any institutional training in film or experience in assisting any other director, Sayeed says he still had no problems with his venture. “Everyone involved was very helpful,” he says, “which leads me to believe that it doesn’t matter where you’re coming from, if you can prove yourself and your abilities, you will succeed.”

In 1989, Sayeed started work on his second film, Dhushor Jatra, which was held at the Film Censor Board pending release for six months. When it was finally released in 1992, it also won the National Award for Best Short Film.

Though the films won acclaim, they did not do as well financially, and, in 1997, Sayeed got involved in television production, which was more profitable and which he then took up as his profession.

In 2000, however, Sayeed directed his first feature film, Kittonkhola, which won the National Award in nine categories, including those for Best Film and Best Direction. The year 2004 saw the release of his film -- highly-acclaimed both nationally and internationally -- Shankhonad, which won a Meril-Prothom Alo award for Best Film.

Sayeed’s latest feature film, Nirontor, also titled Forever Flows, was released earlier this year, and has already won three international awards. It won the Special Jury Award -- a Silver Peacock and 5 lakh rupees in cash -- at the 37th International Film Festival of India (IFFI) and the award for Best Film (jointly with Angel’s Fall from Turkey and Greece) at the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) also amounting to 5 lakh rupees. The movie also bagged the award for Best Film declared by The International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) jury at the same festival.

The film was also screened at the non-competitive Chennai Film Festival earlier this month. Nirontor has been submitted for the Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Film category and will be screened at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in the USA next month, where films submitted for the Oscars as well as other critically acclaimed films are shown. Also next month, it will be screened at the non-competitive International Film Festival Rotterdam.

The film Nirontor depicts the life of a sex worker.

Nirontor is the story of a young, lower-middle-class woman who works as a sex worker to make ends meet for her family. Serious and down-to-earth, none of the characters in the film are absolute heroes or villains. The forced life of the sex worker is depicted with sympathy. Throughout the film, lead character, played by popular actress Shabnur, shows at least three sides of her personality: saucy, seductive and frivolous sex worker; serious and aloof daughter and sister; and, when by herself, sadly reflective, often reliving her physical as well as emotional trauma. Visions of the men she has had relationships with, pass through her mind. Brief flashbacks show how she got into the trade, starting from sexual harassment by her father’s friend to whom the family had turned in their time of need.

Ironically, it is also her relationship, or rather, non-relationship with a man, which changes the fate of at least her family. This character of a client who hired her is played by Ilias Kanchon, a polite and shy businessman. He, however, cannot be unfaithful to his wife who later on her deathbed meets Shabnur and leaves her a considerable sum of money. Shabnur’s brother, played by Litu Anam, starts a business with this money and prospers but no change is evident in the life of Shabnur. Whether or not she continues in her profession, her life as she has had to live it for so many years continues to haunt her. She hates to be touched, always reminded of men touching her body. So much so, that even her mother’s loving caress repulses her.

Nirontor is a very well-directed portrayal of women, sex worker or not, caught in the vicious cycle of a male-dominated society. Due to the sensitive subject matter of the film, it was held at the Censor Board, pending release, for eight months. “I was actually quite surprised at this,” says the film’s director, who, while making the film and after, did not find anything inappropriate in the movie that the audience should not see.

“Shabnur has done extremely well in the film,” says Sayeed, “and every festival I’ve been to, her work has been highly appreciated. If there was a Best Actress award in these festivals, Shabnur would have a high chance of winning it.”

“There tends to be a defining line between actors in commercial and alternative cinema but I don’t think there should be this difference,” says Sayeed. “More than where an actor has come from, whether theatre, television, or film, it ultimately depends on the director what they want from their actors and to bring it out.”

Regarding mainstream cinema in general, Sayeed says, “It’s in a very bad state.” It’s difficult to say exactly who is responsible, he says, whether it is due to producers wanting to make quick money, directors who haven’t been able to make a place for themselves, deteriorating taste of the audience or corruption in general, but the government must control it. At cinema halls, not only vulgar sequences but even inserted cut-pieces are shown, says Sayeed, which is evidence of perversion and social decay and must be strictly countered by the government, for example, by stopping hall owners from screening such films.

“Technical quality of our films must also improve,” says Sayeed. “Bigger budgets, more colour are needed to even try and get close to global cinema. Where the rest of the world is improving, we’re actually moving backwards, from how things were in the beginning, or even 10 years ago.”

As for independent films, says the director, himself one of the pioneers of independent filmmaking in our country, short films and their directors such as Morshedul Islam, Tanvir Mokammel and Tareque Masud have played the biggest role in creating a different genre of film all together in our country. “They were the first to make such films and their initiative must be appreciated,” says Sayeed, “but more such films need to be made.”

“Bangladeshi films get awards every four or five years,” he continues, “and only three or four films have won such awards. Except for the Kolkata Film Festival, more than one Bangladeshi film has never been selected for international film festivals in one year. They are very irregular, being produced every few years. And Bangladesh has never gotten country focus in any international film festival,” says Sayeed.

The government has a role to play here, he says, for less than a handful of good films have received government funding. The director also believes that independent films must be promoted by production companies and television channels. “Television channels do produce and show such films,” he says, “they have the money, they can give publicity, but they lack planning, which would enable them to produce and promote more such films and more frequently.” If all the organisations related to film production would cooperate, independent films in our country would get a boost, says Sayeed.

Making more and better films more regularly is also director Abu Sayeed’s own target. Sayeed believes that a filmmaker must always be in touch with his work, be able to make films regularly and not be distracted by other work, even in a similar line, such as television production or making documentaries. “One must be able to concentrate on making films alone,” says Sayeed, “as did Satyajit Ray, who made movies one after the other.”

“I’ve usually made a film and then had to wait around for a couple of years to make the next one,” says Sayeed. “I’d like to make one film per year, take this up as my profession and not have to seek any other. But every film has to be better than the previous one. I will never compromise on quality,” stresses the director. “And neither will I bow to pressure for fame or financial gain.” Islamic terrorism, for example, is a hot topic now but Sayeed won’t make a film on the subject just because it’s a global issue. “I’ll only make it if I feel it is really relevant, and even then, I will focus on the misguided youth caught up in such activities, their training, emotional brainwashing, etc., the real issues behind the global issue. If and when I feel I am capable of making such a film, I will make it.”

The director at work.

Sayeed’s next project is a feature film inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s “Little Girls Wiser than Men”. The working title of the film is Banshi and it is about two families who come to a village mela from the city where there is a “banshi-wala” or flutist. There is a fight between their children which leads to severe enmity and even violence between the families. “I feel that in our country, from politicians to people in villages, though they all live and together, there is an internal rivalry between everyone and this is what I have tried to explore in my film,” says Sayeed. “It’s a simple film, set in a rural context but which goes with the socio-political situation of our times.”

Abu Sayeed, married with a nine-month-old son named Aunindo, whether or not at work, is always thinking about work, be it a script or a camera angle, the form or depth of the film.

“I don’t know if I’ve made very good films,” he says, “but I don’t believe I’ve made very bad ones either. This is because I’m always thinking about my work, what to do next, what changes to make, how to make it better. I’m always striving to improve. If I ever think my quality is deteriorating, I will stop working right away.”

“The difference between filmmakers in the past and today,” says Sayeed, “is that in the past, they made many sacrifices, be it in their personal lives, or regarding profit-making.” Today’s filmmakers, thinks Sayeed, do not seem to be as willing to make such sacrifices and thus have not been as successful, or the quality of their work has waned since their first film. Thus new directors have not really been able to make too much of a name for themselves for their priorities are different. “Films should be made for love and nothing else,” says a passionate Sayeed.



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