On the surface, Roya has everything: she is highly educated, she has consistently played the lead in a theatrical version of Rabindranath Tagore’s Red Oleanders, she has a soft-spoken and peaceful man for a husband and a beautiful apartment along with a close friend for a maid. But Roya (Shahana Goswami) but she’s still lost and searching for meaning among the mundane. Not too long ago, women were thought to be unable to decide for themselves, and their parents and husbands made choices on their behalf. In Bangladeshi director Rubaiyat Hossain’s movie Under Construction, we look at the women of today who are free from such fetters and are yet confused about their priorities and needs. These women are still “under construction”, figuring their place in the lives of others and in the society they are born into. The film, which also stars Rahul Bose and Mita Rahman , has been screened in the World Cinema section of the ongoing International Film Festival of Kerala. Excerpts from an email interview with Hossain.
Roya is trying to reinterpret Tagore’s last play Red Oleanders. When did you first read Red Oleanders, do you remember the effect it had on you then?
When I was an MA [Master of Arts] student in South Asia Studies in 2004, I came across this play. In fact, I am quite a fan of this visionary play, which proves to be extremely relevant even today. I have been very engaged with the play and I wrote a research paper defining Red Oleanders as Tagore’s aesthetic rebellion to the West. At the same time I critiqued his representation of Nandini.
The film shows a Bangladesh that is ever evolving, where old buildings are crumbling down and new ones are mushrooming simultaneously. You have juxtaposed it against a woman who is reconstructing herself. How did this metaphor originate?
When I was doing the prep for the film I realised that I couldn’t hold a single frame where a building is not being constructed. Dhaka has not fully urbanised yet. So are its citizens, they are still in the making, especially the Bangladeshi woman is very much in the making. And also I kept changing my title so many times that at one point I decided to call it Under Construction.
Under Construction is also another interpretation of Red Oleanders. Who is Nandini for you?
Tagore wrote this play in 1926. He wrote it at a time when the whole world, especially the West, was celebrating industrialisation. However, he criticised industrialisation and western modernity in this allegorical play where the setting is an underground world of Jokkhopuri, where workers are defined not by name, but numbers. Day and night they dig for minerals and their life is devoid of nature, freedom, and spirit. Nandini comes as a ray of hope in this world. She is impeccably beautiful for the male gaze; Nandini represents eternal life, youth, beauty. Her job is to be concerned about everyone’s wellbeing and to wait for her lover Ranjan who will finally set Jokkhopuri free.
I wanted to use Tagore’s construct of Jokkhopuri to represent the readymade garment industry of Bangladesh today; where thousands of dead workers, mostly women, become just numbers, not lives. At the same time, I wanted to question Tagore’s construction of Nandini, and in turn create a protagonist who is a flawed individual in her own right.
How does it feel to be one amongst the handful few female directors in Bangladesh?
Not only the film industry, but the entire world is ruled by patriarchal norms and notions. There's always a glass ceiling a woman is going to hit. If I want to speak in specific reference to cinema, I would say the biggest challenge is the lack of balance between the number of male and female director/producers. In the history of cinema, women have always been in front of the camera being told what to do, not so much behind, saying what to be done! The images of women we see in films today are products of male imagination. The biggest struggle for me is to tap into my own female visual imaginary and self representation of women.
Your previous film Meherjaan was critiqued and even pulled out of theatres in your country. Is there artistic freedom in Bangladesh? Are things improving?
Recently, a young filmmaker from an indigenous ethnic community made a film in the Chakma language. The film has been screened at the Tallinn Black Nights film festival, but the government has denied censorship to the film on the basis that it is made in the Chakma language. The situation in Bangladesh is very much similar to what you have in India today, a nationalist government that only allows a certain narrative of history and reality that resonates with the state’s homogenising tendencies.
Was Shahana Goswami the face of your protagonist since the start?
I had no one in mind really. I auditioned a few actors. I had met Shahana for Diary of a Housewife, a film I co-wrote with Bhavani Iyer. I remember Shahana to be very real, not like most actors who are fixated on beauty.