Music Knows No Casteby Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri March 23 2022, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 12 mins, 35 secs
After garnering critical acclaim and winning the FIPRESCI Award at the Bangladesh International Film Festival 2022, Bangladeshi filmmaker Shabnam Ferdousi’s debut feature starring Parambrata Chattopadhyay is gearing up for the festival circuit in India (Pune, Nagpur and Thrissur). The filmmaker spoke to Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri.
Music knows no caste. The color of our skin may be black or white or brown, but the blood is red. Likewise, the artist has just one caste: his art. An impoverished folk singer, Dilu bhai, says, ‘Khali petey gaan hoye?’ (Can one sing on an empty stomach?). And he immediately follows it up with, ‘That’s why to forget hunger I sing.’ It’s a profound statement, in keeping with the philosophy that informs the rich tradition of folk music on both sides of the India-Bangladesh border. Dilu bhai, who tills the land to make a living, is one of the many real-life folk minstrels we meet in Shabnam Ferdousi’s debut feature, Ajob Karkhana (Song of the Soul) - the title inspired from the mystic poet-philosopher-songwriter Lalon Shah or Lalon Fakir’s influential ‘Jaat gelo jaat gelo boley eki ajob karkhana’.
The film, essentially a paean to the folk music of Bengal, is the story of a contemporary rock superstar Rajeeb, played with a delectable mix of arrogance and vulnerability by Bengal star Parambrata Chattopadhyay, who is cajoled by a TV network to anchor a show on folk music artists of Bangladesh. The journey takes him into the lives of these singers, a discovery of his own musical roots, offering a new perspective on his status as a singing superstar.
Despite the rough edges to the film, the conflict that Rajeeb experiences between two schools of music could have been explored more subtly perhaps, the digression into the story of Rajeeb’s ex-wife and daughter seems rather needless and serves little purpose, the condemnation of contemporary urban culture and the liberating influence of native traditions is simplistic - Shabnam manages to infuse it with heartfelt moments. Her singular achievement lies in the way she integrates real-life folk singers and their lives and philosophies into a fictional narrative to make a larger statement on music. Also commendable is the way the poetry of leading Bangladeshi poet Helal Hafiz is woven into the narrative and underlines its theme. The cinematography captures rural Bangladesh in all its glory, the panoramic views of fields stretching to the horizon, the mist hanging over them at twilight complement and at the same time offer a counterpoint to Rajeeb’s troubled soul.
For Indian readers can you please give us a background to your career as a filmmaker leading up to your debut feature Ajob Karkhana? Which films and filmmakers have influenced you in your journey in cinema so far?
I started my audio-visual career as a TVC model back in 1995, when I was twenty-three. And the very first day, as I stood in front of the camera, I decided that I would work behind the lens. I fell for the production process. So, I started to watch films by masters, reading books and getting involved with the Bangladesh Short Film Forum.
In 2000, I arranged a national film festival for the forum and was the festival director. After a successful festival, I participated in a three-month-long documentary filmmaking workshop. I was hugely attracted to the format and have been a documentary filmmaker for the last twenty-two years. But I am a fan of fiction films as well. Working on documentaries, I realized that there is a thin line separating documentary and fiction. Both are basically storytelling. A real-life story is a reflection of reality and fiction is creating another reality. So, it is all about presentation. Having worked in non-fiction for long, the influence of documentary in my film language is obvious. In Ajob Karkhana I have tried to combine the two.
I’m influenced by a huge number of filmmakers. Wim Wenders, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Fellini, Truffaut, Bergman, Kiarostami, Wong Kar-Wai, Ritwick Ghatak, Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Mrinal Sen, Patricio Guzman, Agnes Varda, Alain Resnais, Fernando Solanas, Anand Patwardhan, Manzare Hassin. I fell in love with fiction after watching Cinema Paradiso in 1996. If I didn’t watch the film, I could never think of becoming a filmmaker.
As someone making her debut feature film what it is that drew you to this as a subject - your vision as director of the film?
In 2012, I designed a music travel show for television. The idea was to introduce folk music artists from remote areas of Bangladesh. Viewers would learn about the priceless treasures of folk music and its many genres. To present the show, I selected a popular pop music artist Bappa Mazumder as an anchor. With him we sprinted from one corner of Bangladesh to another, from one artist to another. We tried to capture the aesthetics, the beauty and the philosophy of folk music.
We also observed the daily life and routine of these artists, many of whom worked as daily laborers. Despite the extreme poverty, as soon as the artists stood in front of an audience, the daily laborer transformed into a powerful performer charming the spectators. We were also astonished that most popular city-bred artists were not even recognized in these distant suburbs and villages. To them the real stars were their own folk artists. The light emitting from the superstars of Dhaka does not reach the dark remote areas of Bangladesh.
While shooting the show, whenever the pop star faced the folk musicians, I could not help thinking: Who is the real artist, the urban pop star or the underprivileged rural folk musicians? These folk artists rarely find mention in our mainstream media, which caters to pop and rock music celebrities performing in the city.
This restlessness found an answer one evening when I was shooting in a village in Netrokona. In front of us, the vast green paddy field spread across to the horizon. Farmers working at the far end of our vision and the melting rays of the setting sun caught in the branches of a lonesome tree enveloped in fog. The whisper of the breeze, the songs of the birds and the sweet smell of the soil enchanted us and I envisioned a film. As if the horizon in front of me was a vast screen and one by one the scenes were being played on the screen. It was this mystic allure that I wanted to capture in my film.
I found it very interesting that you juxtapose a fictional rock star against true-life folk singers like Helim bhai, Kitab Ali bhai, Nitai. As a result, the film exists in a strange world halfway between fiction and documentary. Please tell us something about this and your interaction with these folk singers.
It is something my script demanded. If I cast professional actors in my film as the rural folk artists, I would need to train them, which would involve money and time. That is what dictated this particular choice. Once I had shot with them, I realized that an artist is an artist. They are born with a universal power of adaptation. These folk singers ‘acted’ out their own real life without any effort. That is what I needed. The dialogues they delivered came from their own personal experiences, which I edited as per my requirements.
I have known these folk artists for over ten years. We share a unique relationship. I’m like their family. They call me with whatever problems they have. I never cease to be amazed with their day-to-day life and the philosophy that informs their lives and songs. Everything is so simple and pure to them. You can feel the peace if you spend some time with them. And the most attractive thing to me is the wisdom they have achieved. I admire them for their plain living and high thinking.
Another aspect I really loved is the way the poetry of Helal Hafiz is woven into the narrative musically - a decisive plot point (the way Rajeeb approaches the rendition of ‘Ekbaar daak diye dekho’) hinges on his poetry being set to music. Could you say something about the poet and your decision to incorporate his poetry in the narrative?
Helal Hafiz is one of the major contemporary modern romantic poets of the country. He is famous for his 1986 book of poems and his bohemian lifestyle, much like that of the film’s protagonist Rajeeb. There’s a similarity in their lifestyle. They both love to be aloof and at the same time enjoying their popularity. There is a craving inside him, which is depicted in Rajeeb as well. Helal Hafiz’s poetry brings together the love for the soil with that for one’s beloved. He fuses the two aspects in his poetry as a lover. We tried lots of lyrics for the film. Samia Zaman, my producer, thought Helal Hafiz was the perfect choice. Her vote gave me the confidence to go with his poetry as a theme of the film.
At the outset, there’s a conversation where a character says that all music flows from the same source, the genres influencing each other - yet towards the end one senses folk being a higher calling than rock. Is there a dichotomy there? Would you like to elaborate?
Dichotomy! Not really! I see it as a manifestation of the confusion Rajeeb is going through at the time. People question his stand on folk fusion. So I chose Lalon Sai for the answer. Lalon is a school of Bengali Sufism. The common thread running through most folk philosophy of the land is Sufism. The Bauls of Boiragis don’t believe in caste, class and religion. Not even God and mankind. They respect all artists and their creations. On the other hand, urban art has this fondness for genres and tries to define everything according to preconceived notions and theories. They label creation for the purposes of selling or marketing. Rural Bengal is very liberal on this score. So, Rajeeb’s new composition is also an art. But he is caged by his image, which is a creation of the market.
What is it that prompted you to cast Parambrata? Was the decision driven by his profile of a star this side of the divide or was there something about the character that needed Param?
A little of both! Rajeeb is a superstar. So, the character needed an actor who could bring that stardust to the role. Another factor that tilted the scale in favor of Param is his understanding of music. He is familiar with the guitar and other western instruments and music. In fact, he actually played one of our folk songs on the guitar. But the most important point is his passion for the story. He said, “Yes” after listening to the synopsis over the phone. That’s a spirit I admire. He said it’s his own story.
I also realized during the shooting that Rajeeb is sort of Param’s alter ego. We had very little conversation during the shoot, but Param understood the inner workings of the character so well on his own. Rajeeb’s craving and unrest are inside Param as well - a star searching for the soul. I realize that I never thanked Param formally. I would love to take this opportunity to do so. Ajob Karkhana would not have been possible without him, without his interpretation of Rajeeb. His inputs were invaluable.
Could you elaborate on Rajeeb’s backstory for the viewers?
I do hint at it in the narrative. Non-Bangladeshi audiences may miss the clue. The name of Rajeeb’s band is Crack Platoon. It is a historical name of a young guerrilla team during the liberation war of Bangladesh in 1971. We learn from Doyel’s [the TV producer] dialogue that Rajeeb was classically trained in his childhood. His mentor, Kalim, was a freedom fighter of the Crack Platoon. When Rajeeb formed the band, Kalim named it Crack Platoon. It was a common phenomenon in Bangladesh in the early stages of the local rock band culture. There lies a clue to his background. Again, in the very last sequence when Rajeeb escapes from the city to the vast green countryside, the background score is based on Raag Ahir Bhairav. That indicated the origins of his music and at the same time his own root, the land of Bengal.
I loved the note on which you end the film. Without giving away spoilers would you like to talk about the thought behind the resolution?
I think human life is nothing but a constant struggle between reality and illusion. What we live is the harsh reality, while always dreaming of another world. That’s the contradiction we live with. The ending reflects that conflict. As the story progresses Rajeeb feels increasingly alienated from urban society. He withdraws himself. He wants to escape from all worldly things and submits himself to nature, to the vast greenery of Bengal. He breathes in the fresh air, touches the soil. We see him happy after a long time. But it doesn’t last long. He has to go back to his earlier world. He returns to his old stage with a new life, losing his inner soul. He is forever caught in the dichotomy of the two ways of life.
What were the challenges in terms of putting the project together and what were the learning’s?
The only challenge was truthfulness. I come from the reality of documentary, where truthfulness and honesty are fundamental. I am honest about my work and look for authenticity and honesty in my team. I went through a lot of turbulence during the production. Being a first-time filmmaker with an inexperienced crew, there were challenges about people taking advantage or with unprofessional attitudes. The core team had to deal with a lot of negativity.
Thankfully, those who were honest about their work and the project stuck with me. Emotion is very important to create something. Now I have buried my emotions. But I didn’t give up my duties.
My producer trusted me. She was always with me whenever any kind of crisis arose and gave me freedom to choose. My line producer, the AD team, most of the technical team, the music team, all were supportive. I think in my next film it will be much easier to choose people and handle them properly.
Cast and Credits:
Starring: Parambrata Chattopadhyay, Dilruba Doyel, Shabnaz Sadia Emi, Khalid Hasan Rumi, Helim Boyati, Dilu Boyati, Kitab Ali
Camera: Enamul Haq Sohel
Editing: Sankhajit Biswas, Rakib Rana
Sound: Amit Kumar Dutta
Background Score: Labik Kamal Gaurob
Lyrics: Helal Hfiz
Composition: Viking, Labik Kamal Gaurob
Story, Dialogue, Screenplay and Direction: Shabnam Ferdousi
Producer: Samia Zaman