The Wildcard

By Sabrina Fatma Ahmad

You may have seen him onstage in numerous productions such as Maharaj, Mangula, Daak Ghar, Char Deyal and more. You probably caught him in the 1971 themed films Lal Moroger Jhuti and Chiranjib Mujib. But unless you’ve actively avoided the recent OTT revolution, there’s no way you would have missed Shahjahan Shamrat in Amitabh Reza Chowdhury’s Bodh, the runaway Hoichoi hit of 2022. Recently, the man behind DBI Officer Ehsan sat down with MWB for a coffee and conversation about craft and process

With a few minutes to go before our scheduled meet, he’s already called and texted twice to inform us he’s on the way. Keeping me company at the festive café we’ve agreed to meet at is a cap he left behind at the photoshoot ahead of this very interview. This quirky, self-effacing persona is miles away from the intense roles he plays onscreen, so one has to wonder which one is closer to the “real” Shahjahan Shamrat. And then he’s here, with that Kubrick stare, which he is quick to mitigate with frequent quicksilver grins. Without preamble, we launch right in. 

You’ve spent a number of years on stage, before moving to screens both big and small. When and how did you know you wanted to become an actor?

Growing up, I used to watch my older sisters watch television and speak about the actors they saw with so much admiration. I wanted to receive that kind of admiration and interest, and it made me think that becoming an actor was the best way to get that. But there was a lot of time between feeling that way and actually getting into the world of acting. I grew up around Mirpur, went to school and college there, and only happened to start acting when my older sister nudged me towards theater in 2004.

But you took to theater quickly enough, so there must have been something more than just a desire to be famous.

I was painfully shy. So shy that for the first decade of my life, my family was worried if I would ever learn to talk. I used to hide behind my mother when guests came to visit. But I used to love watching people, and absorbing their mannerisms. In school, I was known for being the kid who could do impersonations of the teachers in between our classes. [proceeds to demonstrate]

So how did this ‘painfully shy’ kid manage to get up on stage and perform? 

It hasn’t been easy, I can tell you that. For me to get to a stage where I can even sit in front of you and talk to you was a tremendous act of overcoming. For the longest time, I would freeze, literally freeze moments before getting onstage. You could touch me and find me as cold as ice. To this date, we don’t really have a proper structure in place to help performers with this kind of anxiety, so each of us has to find our own mechanisms for coping with it. 

When I saw my first stage plays, and went to the first few rehearsals, I was a little unimpressed, to be honest. I thought the way people acted on stage looked very exaggerated and artificial. It took me a while to understand things like projecting voice and body language. I would say the period between 2004-2008 was a period of learning, unlearning, and becoming for me.

I got my first role quite by chance. I was training as an understudy on the play Maharaj, when the lead actor fell ill. I consider myself especially lucky to end up landing the lead role as my debut performance! 

“To achieve mastery over any craft requires a singular dedication to it, a sort of tunnel vision, if you will. Unfortunately, that kind of dedication can come at a great personal cost”

Let’s talk about your films. Both Lal Moroger Jhuti and Chironjib Mujib were 1971 themed. What drew you to the projects?

There are so many stories directly or indirectly related to the Liberation War and our history that are as yet unknown and still being told. It was my honor and privilege to be involved in bringing these stories to light. The Unfinished Memoirs by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman is a book that still gives me goosebumps when I read it, and that’s why I was happy to be involved in Chiranjib Mujib.

Your performance as DBI Officer Ehsan in Bodh was so complete and realistic, was it hard to get into character?

For me, the struggle is actually to get out of character. Even back in my theater days, I remember playing the lead role of Maharaj, growing out my hair, and having that persona for the many days that it was staged. Later, after the production ended, as per the protocol, we cleaned up our stations and packed up our props ourselves. I was strapped for cash at the time so I was walking home with my props and costume in my bag, and asking myself “I am Maharaj. What am I doing walking the streets?” My journey in acting has been a little lonely because at the time, there weren’t many facilities an aspiring actor could access, in terms of mentorship or training, so we had to find our own way, and perhaps my trial-and-error approach to method acting had some problems. Sometimes I’d look into the mirror and see not me, but the character I was playing, long after the role was over. I’d have to inflict some kind of physical pain to bring me back to myself. I’m searching for a healthier way. 

Rapid fire

International director you’d love to work with
Ram Gopal Varma

Actors you admire
Vicky Kaushal, Nawazuddin Siddiqi

Last film you saw that really affected you
Bahubali

A book that made an impact on you
The Mother by Maxim Gorky

Dream destination
Switzerland

Fashion Direction & Styling: Mahmudul Hasan Mukul
Photographer: Farabi Tamal
Make-up & Hair: Ferdous Ahsan Orko

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