By Sadia Khalid Reeti
While the entire world’s box office is dwindling, Bangladesh is experiencing a boom. Mejbaur Rahman Sumon’s Hawa is leading the charge
When was the last time the whole of Dhaka made plans to go to the cinema to watch a Bangla film? When was the last time the said film was partly arthouse and yet had housefull screenings a month into its release? No millennial can recall such an event because it never happened before in their lifetime. Director Mejbaur Rahman Sumon’s Hawa created such a phenomenon, setting the bar high for local films, squashing international competition like a mosquito bat waving every which way, fully charged, manic.
While the entire world’s box office is dwindling, Bangladesh is experiencing a boom. With Poran, Din: The Day, and Hawa releasing on the same month to mammoth commercial success, audiences have a renewed interest in local films, Hollywood escaping their notice, Bollywood kept at bay by the authorities.
This was not the case even in the first half of this year. Since theatres woke from a Covid induced slumber late in 2021, the floodgates were opened for Bangladeshi films that had been patiently waiting in line for nearly two years. Shimu: Made in Bangladesh, Chandraboti Kotha, Nonajoler Kabbo, Laal Moroger Jhuti- all had short stints at the theatres. Some of these films had an impressive festival run (Toronto International Film Festival, BFI London Film Festival etc.), which piqued the interest of a few, but not enough to fill the seats, not for long.
Hawa was dead serious about filling those seats long before its release. They weren’t selling prestige of first world festivals; that bore little meaning to a handful of mostly artists/activists/critics who refuse to be impressed for the flimsiest of faults. Nay. They sold songs before they sold tickets, the classic Bollywood formula for a hit. Dancy number “Shada Shada Kala Kala” for the mass and brooding “E Hawa” for the Meghdol cult- songs even haters couldn’t resist.
Audiences loved the movie even before entering the theatre
Audiences loved the movie even before entering the theatre. Many were indifferent after actually watching it, but the indifference kept them from spreading a negative opinion. Rather, the technical finesse of the film restored their faith in local directors, despite the story and character progression oversights. It wasn’t preachy like how people have come to expect arthouse films to be. It was entertainment. At long last, a tastefully made film has tapped into this gold mine previously guarded by FDC griffins.
Hawa takes place on Chan Majhi’s (Chanchal Chowdhury) shabby boat, part Jaws, part Pirates of the Caribbean. On a fishing expedition, mid ocean, a snake charmer Gulti (Nazifa Tushi) is caught on the net. The all-male crew know it’s a bad omen to have a female on board, but they can’t just cast her back into the ocean. The seamen on the boat lust over her as they meet their demise one by one under mysterious circumstances.
As their hearts break and they fall dead, we observe, unflinching
As captivating as Tushi’s performance was in the film, a common observation of most audiences was that had we not been told she is a “bede,” one could never guess. Her drive to harm the boat, instead of going after the one person who wronged her was arbitrary. Such inconsistencies were glossed over by carefully crafted details like Chanchal Chowdhury’s broken voice, which is a common trait among captains for having to shout a lot. The other boatmen, however, were more or less interchangeable. We know so little about Shariful Razz’s character that the central emotional pull of film fails to tug at anyone’s heartstrings. As their hearts break and they fall dead, we observe, unflinching. In fact, many even laughed during the climax, which was, one can only assume, intended to be anything but comical.
What the film lacks in character development, it makes up for with stunning visuals. Underwater shots of anchors plunging into the ocean, the mysterious sea creature circling the boat were sights for sore eyes. Why they didn’t keep more wide shots of the sea or why the boat didn’t move during the storm will remain a mystery like the film’s characters with no backstories.
And just like that, Hawa cast a wide net, capturing the imagination of the mass audience like that mysterious sea creature that transforms into the film’s only female protagonist. Maybe its success will finally convince film-makers that our audiences aren’t repulsed by art if we throw entertainment into the mix. Creating tasteless “content” with the tragic excuse of “audience khabe” may very well become a thing of the past. Whether enough of us are capable of creating entertaining art to fill up theatre slates, however, is a whole other story.
Sadia Khalid Reeti is a film critic/screenwriter. A Berlinale Talents alumna, she served as a FIPRESCI jury at Cannes Film Festival 2019