By Sabrina Fatma Ahmad
Syed Ahmed Shawki dishes on all things Karagar and his whimsical foray into filmmaking
Sincerely Yours, Dhaka won big at the Jaipur International Film Festival, praise continues to pour in for Taqdeer, and Karagar has accrued legions of fans amongst Bangla speaking communities across the world, and yet somehow Syed Ahmed Shawki, who co-directed the first and helmed the latter two projects, seems surprised at all the attention he’s getting.
Back from a whirlwind trip to Kolkata, which he described as ‘madness’, the man behind the multi-hyphenate titles sounds utterly exhausted when he gets on the phone, but is quick to assure yours truly he’s game for answering any and all questions that are asked of him. With this rather pleasant first impression coming at the heels of all the positive reviews written about him, we jump into conversation.
First things first. Karagar. How did that happen?
Honestly, about eight or ten days after we wrapped up Taqdeer, we – or rather, our writer (Neamoth Ullah Masum), came up with a single line concept: “What if Rip Van Winkle woke up inside a prison?” When HoiChoi came knocking about our next project, that’s all we had at hand, to pitch. This single concept.” It turns out that the concept was intriguing enough to hook Anindo Banerjee, who was the head of content at HoiChoi at the time, and over a three-minute conversation, as the story goes, agreed to Shawki’s vision for Karagar. “It would take our team about 6 more months to fully realise and develop the story before we were ready to go into production” he recalls.
It’s such a complex story. What were the challenges of filming it?
“The biggest challenge was the location, honestly” Shawki explains. “Other countries, especially in Europe, they have older castles/dungeons/prisons that they can rent as shoot locations. Or they have huge budgets for realistic sets. We don’t have that many options over here. I didn’t want to do it on a set either because that would look fake. We were incredibly lucky to get the Dhaka Central Jail as a location to shoot in, but that wasn’t easy to manage, as you can understand,”
When it became clear that the narrative would not be wrapped up in one season, the next hurdle was in convincing HoiChoi to allow them to film the two parts at one go. “This usually doesn’t happen in their format,” Shawki explains. But eventually, the power of the story, and perhaps the trust built up in the quality of a Film Noir production were enough to get the project greenlighted, especially as Shawki and his team refused to budge on the location and the decision to shoot it all at once, and the rest is history (and a binge-able mystery).
So you got an actual jail to shoot in. What was that like? Any spooky encounters?
“Sure” he said, with a laugh, and then paused meaningfully, to let us know he won’t be sharing spoilers. “Initially, when we went in there was a lot of, ‘Oh my God…so-and-so was imprisoned here, these many hangings happened here, these political events took place, but after a few days, the jail became our office. Everyday, we just got up and went to prison.”
So you shot both parts together. Since the first one is already out, did looking at the finished product, and seeing all the reactions make you wish you’d done anything differently?
“You know what? I’m glad I did it all in one go. That way, good or bad, I can retain the purity of our original vision. Will I tweak one or two small things, like a score here or there? Maybe, but I won’t let the pressure of audience reaction make me rethink my vision…because I haven’t given myself scope to do so. I think that’s for the best.”
Because otherwise there’s always the danger of the show pandering to viewers and then going off the rails like Game of Thrones did.
“Haha! Let it be known that you said that. I didn’t.”
We have got to talk about the cast. was the experience of working with such luminaries?
“We had a story, with many moving parts, about 500 pages of script to work through. I wanted actors who would feel the same level of excitement about page 500 as they would with page 1. I needed artists who would be able to put aside their egos and put in that kind of energy, and in this respect, we were very fortunate to get the cast members that we did. Everyone put in so much effort, and worked with such dedication, that the cast became like the crew. When production began, we got into the mindset so that you couldn’t distinguish between cast and crew. That was incredibly rewarding” Shawki says. And indeed, when one gets to work with veterans like Afzal Hossain, Jayanta Chattopadhyay, Shatabdi Wadud, and Bijori Barkatullah, seasoned actors like Intekhab Dinar and the inimitable Chanchal Chowdhury, and then add the hottest new faces on TV – Tasnia Farin and FS Nayeem – what can one expect but excellence?
MWB spoke to FS Nayeem in our inaugural issue, and he talked about how all the cast members stayed in character throughout the entire production. Was it a conscious choice to take the method acting approach?
“The way I see it, the writer provides the story, but to get believable results, the actors have to become, in some ways, the authors of the characters they play. So, I asked them to inhabit the mindset of the characters, to really understand and flesh out the personalities and identities from inside out.”
How do you feel about the response Karagar has received?
“We’re all completely overwhelmed. Of course, we all hoped it would be a success, but the amount of attention it has received, and that too, after Part 1…it’s…well, it’s unbelievable, honestly. I haven’t processed it. But we’ve only set up the story. In the next part, we’ll start solving the mystery, so how the series does overall depends on how the conclusion is received. It’s all rather exciting, but also nerve-wracking.”
Who would you say your influences are?
When it comes to film-making, I don’t have anyone I’m consciously influenced by. I just go with my instinct, and what feels right and serves the purpose of the story I am trying to tell. Maybe in post production, I’ll catch myself thinking ‘Oh, that colour looks like a (David) Fincher palette, or this shot is something I’ll see in a (Martin) Scorsese film. But it’s not like I went in with the intention of creating those effects, you know?” When pressed to name at least a favourite director, Shawki thought for a moment and named Academy Award winning Iranian director Asghar Farhadi.
So how did you get into film-making again?
“Completely by accident” he is quick to respond. “I’m not going to feed you a cliché line or story about following one’s dreams or whatever. I used to always joke about how my dream job would be to get paid to watch movies all day. When you spend enough time with the art, you do get curious about the craft or process of creation. It was that curiosity that led me to start working as an AD on short films in 2009”. The film bug would bite hard, and Shawki would go on to dip his feet into writing and directing, starting with short films, and mini series, before jumping straight onto Taqdeer.
Is it cliché to say that film-making chose you?
“I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m at that stage where I’m learning about who I am as a film maker” he muses. “What are the stories I want to tell? What even is my style, if I have any. I’d like to continue experimenting with various platforms, and exploring those things when this is done, and things become quiet again.”
We ended the conversation on a positive note, with Syed Ahmed Shawki talking with some excitement about OTT platforms and how they changed the game for storytellers.
Karagar Part 1 is available for streaming exclusively on HoiChoi
Photos: Film Noir