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Recreating the Dramas of Life

Kajalie Shehreen Islam

In the red-brick building of daily soap fame, Krishnachura, the shooting of “Doll's House” is in progress. In an otherwise dark corridor, Banya Mirza and other stars face the lights, cameras and start the action. On another floor, actor Intekhab Dinar sits reading, waiting for his part. And on the top floor, the person who holds the whole “house” together, sits in her office and talks about her work.

From her earliest television commercials and her first drama serial, Humayun Ahmed's “Kothao Keu Nei” where she played the role of Bakul, a young woman eager for marriage, to directing popular serials like “Bandhan” and “Kachher Manush”, actor-turned-director Afsana Mimi has made a place for herself in the hearts of millions of viewers as well as on television with her easy charm and natural talent for acting, direction and production.

Mimi started her acting career on stage in 1986, with the play “Rajdarshan”. She belonged to an irregular theatre group called Byatikrom. She never thought she would go into acting, she says, and was doing it only as an extracurricular activity during her college days. But she was enjoying it so much that she did not want to quit the stage. Later, when a friend suggested that they both join the more regular theatre group Nagorik, she did. One thing lead to another and, from 1990, Afsana Mimi modelled on television, acted in dramas and films, including a mainstream film called Dil and the critically acclaimed Chitra Nadir Paare.

Having been the brand ambassador for Lux and later for Square products, when Anjan Chowdhury Pintu, Managing Director of Square Toiletries, formed the production house Machranga in 2000, he asked Mimi to be at the helm of it.

The star cast of drama serial “Doll's House”

“I have a tendency to take on challenges,” says Mimi, “and though I had no experience in production, I took it up.” Despite the production house being Chowdhury's “brainchild”, Mimi says that as executive director, she had full freedom at the house. She soon formed a strong team with which she made dramas “Hawa Ghar” and “Bandhan”, the first which she considers her best work to date, and the second the most popular.

In 2003, when Machranga was temporarily closed down, Mimi and her team established their own production house, Krishnochura. It was from this house that she produced and directed the popular drama serial “Kachher Manush” with big stars such as Alamgir, Humayun Faridi and Shubarna Mustafa and is currently working on another mega-starrer “Doll's House”.

Having been a part of both the worlds of acting and directing, which does she prefer? “I like acting,” says Mimi, “and many people liked my acting and told me that that's what should have been my priority.”

“But in acting,” she continues, “you need to concentrate on your character. You also need to get enough rest, always be prepared. Production takes up a lot of time. There was a time when we first formed Krishnochura when we would literally be working 24/7 except for a few hours of sleep in between. It took up all my time and I had to move away from acting. But now that I'm in production, I have to say that I enjoy this more.”

Unlike many women, Mimi does not feel there are any major differences between the challenges faced by a man and a woman in her field. Neither does she feel that it is difficult working in a male-dominated system. “Except for the actors, 90 percent of the crew, from the light and camera crew to makeup artists is male,” says Mimi, “but when I'm on the floor as a team leader, I'm a director and it doesn't matter whether I'm a man or a woman and neither do they treat me any differently because I'm a woman.”

“I'm very happy with my identity as a woman,” says Mimi. “And when one is as comfortable with who one is and what one does, one doesn't even notice if others put them down. Yes, I have faced many obstacles in my career, but I believe that if it were a man in my place, he would have had to face the same things.”

Women may be different in the sense that they pay more attention to detail, but otherwise, Mimi does not think that perspectives vary according to the sexes. “If one works with total honesty and dedication, they will do well regardless of whether they are a man or a woman.” She cites the example of her current work, daily soap “Doll's House” which focuses on the lives of nine women. “The concept was mine,” she says, “I knew what I wanted to do with it. But it's written by Azad Abul Kalam, who is a man, and he has done a great job, because he is very enlightened and dedicated to his work.”

Asked how she feels about directing senior stars with whom she worked in her early acting days, Mimi says that it is not at all difficult. “Before I started directing, I acted with many of these senior actors as colleagues and already had a working relationship with them. They're all very professional and it's great working with them. Sometimes they may disagree with my approach but if I can prove my point logically they are convinced.”

“I'm a very strict director,” she says, “and I keep repeating takes until I get just what I want. My senior artists enjoy this and are never irritated.”

Scenes from “Doll's House” -- (Above) “Sara” with her autistic
son “Abir” and (Below) “Elita” with her drug addict boyfriend.

“Doll's House”, which is currently being aired on ATN Bangla, is the story of nine women, their families and friends, their work, their lives. It is not based on Ibsen's “A Doll's House”, says Mimi, but the work is a favourite and Ibsen's character of Nora is a great inspiration for her. Now in its 180th episode, the drama has touched on many contemporary issues such as autism in children, drug abuse among teenagers, migrant workers and the personal lives of the leading women. According to the executive producer, the serial is scheduled to run for 500 episodes, for a total of over two years. Other issues which will be dealt with in the drama include war criminals of the Liberation War and the conflicts faced by their children in today's Bangladesh, and breast cancer.

“The drama is about the lives of the main women characters and various problems which they face but always with friends by their side,” says Mimi. Though the biographies of the main characters were prepared well before starting the project, what will ultimately happen is not yet known. “As the story progresses, things happen. Sometimes in long serials, characters we thought were strong don't do as well, or characters we didn't really plan on highlighting as much really flourish. So it really remains to be seen how the drama ends.”

According to Mimi, this and other dramas could have been even more realistic, but there are many restrictions on television. “Film, for example, has a specialised audience who purchase tickets to the screenings. Television is a more open and accessible mass medium which anyone can watch if they turn it on, so we have to be more careful about what we depict and how.”

The dramas of the 80s and 90s had better storylines, thinks Mimi, being based more on literary works and classics. “We need more of that and there will be more,” she says, but she also thinks that our dramas have improved in many ways though we could do even better. “There are many new and young talents with fresh ideas but they don't have the resources to work as well as they could. They need a good working environment. Television channels should patronise them. More money is invested in television than in film, but channels need better policies. They should look beyond purchasing the cheapest dramas (financially) or on big names attached to them, and emphasise on quality. At Krishnochura this is what we focus on and I believe this is our biggest strength,” says Mimi.

The young director says that she gets most of her ideas and inspiration from regular “adda” with her colleagues and friends with whom she works. “We all have ideas, things we want to do and show, and these all come out at these sessions and act as inspiration.”

As for messages in her works, Afsana Mimi says she does not try to exclusively give messages or to simply entertain. “People will get the message from what they see, even if it's a part of the entertainment. For example, in our depiction of an autistic child in 'Doll's House', we did not actually tell the audience to do anything, but the love and care shown to the child on screen sets an example, in a society where people are often irritated by children who behave differently.”

Afsana Mimi's next project is another drama serial called “Diary '71” which will focus on the months of March to December 1971 during the Liberation War. She started it in 2007 but felt that she was not adequately prepared, in terms of the research required as well as funding for such an intense periodic drama. Though it will be based on the war and political events of the time, it will not focus on the war or politics itself. “It will be about the lives of people during the war,” says Mimi. “Because during those months too, people celebrated Eid and Puja and other religious festivals. They fell in love, got married, had children. But there was also fear and the struggle to survive. This is what we want to show. It will be a story parallel to the war, depicting the lives of people during that time.”

The story is half-finished and is being written by a team of five, led by Azad Abul Kalam. It will be fiction based on the war, but with very authentic visualisation and to ensure that history is not distorted, the help of the Liberation War Museum will be taken, to make sure that the script is historically accurate, says Mimi. She hopes to have it done by 2010 at the latest.

Afsana Mimi does not find direction difficult, but says that it would be made easier and work would be of better quality if there were higher budgets. Other than that, she considers the script and the team, including everyone from artists to technical crew, to be the most important factors for a production. “If you have these two things, it's pretty easy.”

Mimi wants to focus on making dramas and films in the future as well. After a break of six or seven years years, she has returned to the stage and is currently starring in Prachyanat's “Raja”. “I didn't miss the stage while I was working in production, but I always wanted to return and I knew I would.”

No matter which form of media, however, Mimi does not wish to be constrained in her work. “I don't plan on working with women's issues only,” she says. “It can be on anything. I don't want it to be restricted to certain issues. 'Doll's House' happens to be about women, but next I want to work on the Liberation War. I will do whatever I feel is needed for the time.”

Photo Courtesy: Krishnachura Productions Ltd.

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