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Bangladeshi movie ‘Under Construction’ reinterprets Tagore for today’s times

Director Rubaiyat Hossain relocates the play ‘Red Oleanders’ to the readymade garment industry

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 Tagores 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.

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German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.