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     Volume 11 |Issue 50| December 21, 2012 |


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Creating an Unlikely Hero

Soraya Auer

  Amit Ashraf

Nahar was in her early 20s when her husband abandoned her and their three young children in their village for a life in the city. To support her family, she had no choice but to move away and work as a domestic worker. Three years ago, Nahar told her story to the grandson of her employer, Amit Ashraf, then a recent graduate of film school, unaware of the effect she would have on his life in the following years.

“I was really affected,” shares American-Bangladeshi Ashraf. “From that I started thinking about a story about some guy who'd find these runaways and bring back to face their pasts.” While really angry, Ashraf wrote the first draft of what would become his first feature film, Udhao (Runaway), which, after a run of almost 20 international film festivals, will premiere in Bangladesh next month.

In Udhao, the unusual hero charged with making a runaway husband and/or father accountable to his past is Babu, a rickshawallah-cum-bounty hunter, who in the film catches his biggest fish, a corrupt politician called Akbar. Writer-Director Ashraf says, “Nahar said how there are these gangs who find [runaway husbands] and beat them up a little so there is that, but there's not so much a bounty hunter character. That part is fiction.” The now 25-year-old adds, “Nahar didn't necessarily want him to come back into her life. She wanted to have closure with it somehow.”

Originally only intending to make a light-hearted short film about two kids and a kanthal (jackfruit), the self-proclaimed film geek began “this crazy adventure” of making a 100-minute-long drama thriller, realising in the process how common this familial abandonment is in Bangladesh. He recalls, “People in the crew were affected by this, it had happened to their parents or someone they knew.”

Making the film was no walk in the park, as Ashraf came to learn. “When a lot of people first saw me back then I was 22, and I looked like a kid and talked bhanga-Bangla (broken Bengali) so they were thinking, 'who is this guy? Why are we working for him?' and I was thinking 'my assistant directors are older than me!'” Determined, the New York University graduate explains, “When you don't have a reputation, you want to prove yourself so much more. Once I got in there on that first day, they realised I was serious.”

Ashraf says, “Filmmaking is about overcoming obstacles and getting the shot, whatever it takes.” Even when crowds threatened the production's team's plans, there was a solution. “We used the crowd as part of a prop. They always look at the camera, you can't tell them not to because they're not professionals, so we had a fake camera so they'd look at that while we used the real one.”

Director of Photography Kyle Heslop on tracks.

Another challenge was money. “It was really hard to find financing for a first film because no one knows you. You have to beg basically, high-class begging is what I call it.” Udhao was bankrolled by Ashraf's friends and family but there were still times when he thought he'd never see the project's completion. “We were only able to shoot two-thirds of the film and then ran out of money. I went to a lot of people, friends of my parents and I myself worked to make promos and commercials and then we got a grant from Sweden that was a big help.” Ashraf, who spent most of his summers in Bangladesh, sums up, “It was like 70 percent fundraising and 30 percent filmmaking. But we ultimately begged my grandma, Amina Chowdhury, who is executive producer. We owe her so much, plus interest.”

Udhao is an unusual film for the Bangladeshi audience, not only because it is one of the first feature films to be filmed digitally, but because it is neither commercial nor, as the director insists, an art film.

“This movie is very non-linear. It goes back in time and cuts between different scenes so we've had to be open to change through all the processes. In terms of content, it is very different to what people are used to,” says Ashraf, who grew up in Philadelphia, USA. “I don't want it to be called an art film, it's not like that. It's not a slow meandering abstract film. It's different, it doesn't have the song and dance, and it isn't so much about love or the '71 war. It's more in the vein of City of God and like Tarantino movies, but it's definitely entertaining and engaging. It's not just action; there are family themes, abandonment, and ambition versus family. I think if people give it a chance, if viewers get into the halls, they will appreciate it.”

When asked whether he thought the rickshawallah he portrays would be able to appreciate Udhao, Ashraf admits, “Poor people like rickshawallahs are not going to relate to the film as much. They go for the song and dance and sometimes just pay Tk 1 to sit outside and listen to the music. But at the same time, [Udhao] is about a rickshawallah, who is one of the main characters, and it's about going back to the village so there are themes that they can relate to.”

With a team reflecting the “global world that we live in”, Ashraf says, “We wanted to give Bengalis the grandness of a Hollywood movie, like with an orchestra and big train shots.” Despite the film having been shown to and awarded prizes by international audiences before a local one, Ashraf says “I definitely want to show it in Bangladesh because it was meant for Bengalis to experience their own language, locations and their own stories in their context but in a totally different medium.” He explains, “The second you show it in Bangladesh, it's going to be pirated somehow, so a good strategy is to actually release it outside first and then in Bangladesh. Also it has that buzz already that'll help it. But it's a Bengali film, it's not imported,” insists the director.

While a Bengali film, Udhao is nothing like the films local audiences are used to seeing. Ashraf believes there is a mindset among people not to want to pay to see a clear and “clean HD picture”, “because people are used to seeing that film print that looks like it's from the 70s but it's actually a modern movie.”

Ashraf says, “I want people to know that when I say 'digital' it's not going to be like TV natok (drama) that's on the screen, it's going to look like a movie and you're not going to be able to tell it's digital. It's going to be better, it's going to have a better sound system and the projection is going to be much clearer.”

Following ups and downs, Ashraf and his patient production team, including producer Sumon Arefin, director of photography Kyle Heslop, movie score composer Jacob Yoffee and editor David Diperstein, were able to complete Udhao after three long years.

With a premiere planned at Bashundhara City Cineplex at the end of January and the general release to follow across the country, the few privileged to have already seen the film include Ashraf's grandmother's domestic help. “I've had my grandma's maids watch it and they said it was very serious, very gombhir,” says Ashraf. “Nahar saw the film and I told her, 'you know this film wouldn't have happened if it wasn't for you?' I don't know if she grasped that and what I went through for three years because of her, but she liked it.”

The young mother-of-three is now back in her village, having remarried. One can hope she found some of that closure she hoped for.

For more information about the film, check out www.runawaythefilm.com


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