Rafiath Rashid Mithila is a woman of many talents, and it is impossible to fit her in one box. The phenomenally talented multi-hyphenate allows us a glimpse of her life
By Zareen Nawar
Following the release of the buzzworthy web series Myself Allen Swapan, the entire cast and production have garnered much-deserved appreciation. The ever-charming and multi-faceted Rafiath Rashid Mithila, also garnered noteworthy appreciation from audiences, critics and other members of the industry including veteran actor Suborna Mustafa. MW recently caught up with Mithila over the phone to learn about her stance on the reactions and more about herself and her contemporaneous activities. The scholarly hustler also gives us a glimpse into her life growing up.
I think it would be best to first talk about your character in Myself Allen Swapan. Did you expect the outpour of overall positive reviews when you said yes to the web series and did all of it meet your expectations?
When I said yes to the series, I did not completely comprehend how significant my character Shayla would be. I however liked the character because I had never played anyone like her before. I had been playing more glamorous characters, rather unlike her at that point. The prospect of presenting myself differently to the audience is why I even accepted the work. When we then began rehearsals by conferring with the director about the building of characters and script reading, I realized that Shayla is actually a relatively layered character. Normally I play educated urban characters. On the other hand, Shayla might be an unscholarly housewife living in a small town but her greed for surviving well with her daughter changes her as she begins to fear her uncertain future with her daughter once she finds out that she is not living with her husband anymore. At the end of the day, she was never really foolish.
It was difficult for me to showcase her survival instincts kicking in whilst she was navigating dealing with a husband swap. So, I actually went in with not as many expectations. I eventually found the role very fulfilling and I enjoyed playing her once I started filming and fitting into the role. Having said all of that, the appreciation that the web series and Shayla have been receiving has been beyond my expectations. In terms of numbers, it definitely feels like a great success.
You’ve said that Shayla has been a new experience in your career so would you say that this particular journey shifted your perspective as an actor or impacted how you would pick future roles?
No, I would in fact say that I have been trying to bring about a change in my choices for the past three to four years because as an actor, I have been feeling typecast and I wanted to explore more so I actively tried to not play the girl next door or the typical romantic partner. I did a telefilm called Shahoshika where I played the role of a criminal defense lawyer. I then did Ekattor for Hoichoi when I first began doing web series and there, I played the role of a Pakistani journalist. In the web series Contract, I played the part of a political opposition leader. In terms of films, Omanush was a completely commercial one which I had undertaken for the experience. In Jol e Jwale Tara I play the part of a sex worker working at a circus although it has not been released yet. I also did a rather different role in Montu Pilot in Kolkata. I have done Mayaa, the adaptation of Macbeth where I play a type of character that I have never played before. The pursuit of picking different variations of characters led me towards saying yes to the unglamorous Shayla opposite Nasir Uddin Khan.
What important factors do you personally look at before picking any work?
The story is very important to me. Then I will look at my character despite the genre of it. I access the amount of acting space my character takes up. For instance, in Giasuddin Selim’s Kajol Rekha, I played the role of the antagonist. I played the bad queen there. Then again, the length does not matter to me. The depth of my character is very important to me. The director is also an important aspect but I don’t really select work on the basis of how famous a director is. I have worked with several new directors in Kolkata and I do the same in Bangladesh when I can. The popularity of the director does not matter to me as long as I can see the vision of the project.
Now you obviously have experience working in the film industry in Bangladesh and Kolkata. What are some of the biggest differences between the industries in your opinion?
First of all, when I began working in Kolkata with the film Mayaa directed by Raajhorshee De, I was made to feel very comfortable. They never made me feel like I was an outsider even though the Kolkata film industry was a new place for me to work at, as an employee, so to speak. I thus didn’t feel the new jitters of joining a new workplace which really helped me.
On an overall basis of comparison between the two industries, I would say that Kolkata is a more mature industry as it is the older industry. Kolkata is technologically ahead of time. Technical work like color correction is beautifully done there. In terms of passion, I would have to say that they are both similar. The independent film industry outside of FDC in Bangladesh is fervently coming up with good work involving original, bold and out-of-the-box stories. Bangladesh industry actually also has the opportunity to do a lot of experimental work considering it is not very structured as of yet. On the other hand, Kolkata has structures, guilds and many more barriers that can be obstructive. Kolkata does plenty of adaptations including the likes of Feluda, Byomkesh and various other novels that we grew up reading. Whereas Bangladesh comes up with authentic stories of its country and people.
OK, let’s rewind to the beginning of your career and choices. Did you want to be an actor growing up or did you have a different plan?
Growing up, I had a busy childhood. Aside from my studies, I learned to dance, sing, draw and act in theaters. I was a part of a theater group for children. I would also remain busy with participation in competitions here and there, in performances for diverse events including dancing and singing events or competitions on TV too. All of that was a natural part of my upbringing and so I simply continued with the assortment of participations until I began working on commercials around 2003 or 2004. My track toward acting in particular just inadvertently happened due to simply being involved in the cultural scene. I did not hold any specific vision of becoming an actor or a dancer or what have you. Acting however is still not my primary profession. I am an early childhood development professional. I studied at Dhaka University and when I completed my Master’s I joined BRAC. It has been 15 years since I joined BRAC.
I might have received an edge on acting since I grew up being trained at it but it never occurred to me to pursue acting professionally. I do act now as maybe a side hustle and my passion because I do enjoy acting but it most certainly isn’t my main source of income.
You are obviously a multifaceted personality in the industry, you are a development worker, an actor, you used to sing and you even wrote a book. Now please do talk to us about your inspiration. Do you have an inspiration or multiple inspirations?
Currently, I have a full-time job, I am also acting and I am pursuing my PhD degree. All the aforementioned roles for me are woven together by two elements. First of all, I am very inspired by music and other creative outlets. I am culturally motivated and like I previously mentioned this was a huge part of my upbringing. My family also has that cultural and creative inclination. Arnob is my cousin for example. This inspiration directs me toward holding onto some form of a creative journey at all times be it through singing or acting and even writing. The second element of my inspiration would be my work with children. I am the head of the early childhood development program and I have always worked with and for children. This aspect is also rather personal for me because I have a child and I only write books for children. In general, I am inspired by children so that I can do more for them in connection with their healthy upbringing. I might try to follow through with this inspiration professionally but it also feels like an inner calling for me. As far as multi-tasking is concerned, I was never a person who only did one thing at a given time. I have always needed to have a constant cycle of productivity.
And who were your heroes growing up?
Truthfully, I do not often get starstruck so I don’t necessarily have fictional heroes. My near and dear ones have always motivated me. My parents would always listen to music and they are the ones who would motivate me culturally. They have been very open-minded while raising me. As a kid myself, I would make up to songs being played in the cassette player. I know songs from any and all eras including those from the 50s, 60s, and 70s. My parents made way for me to accomplish things by myself for my sake so definitely my parents are my heroes. Arnob’s elder sister, who is also my cousin, is one of the most creative persons I personally know. I would even say she is more talented than Arnob, although Arnob is more popular. She is the older sister I really look up to. She could draw, sew, sing, and dance and she made me want to grow up to become like her. And lastly, I take a lot of inspiration from my daughter. She is 10 now but I feel like we have grown up together for the past 10 years because I learned a lot from her.
When she was just a year old, I started my second Master’s in early childhood development. I would return home to observe everything I studied then through my daughter, I would check and recheck the age at which a child is supposed to learn something against my daughter’s growth concerning social, emotional, and communicational developments for instance. My result actually turned out to be really good back then because of her as I obtained the chancellor’s gold medal for the highest CGPA. Funnily enough, I only got to know about earning that medal a day before my convocation because as a student I was so passionately immersed in the subject matter that it made me feel as though I was studying and getting to know my child. She has helped me a lot in the general pursuit of becoming a better human being. She looks up to me now and I am her role model which again makes me want to take measures to make this world a better place for my child.
Can you share more about what it is like to work in the development sector?
On the development side, I work for BRAC International and most of my projects are in East and West Africa, some projects have begun in the Philippines. I work with children and parents in the marginalized communities of Uganda, Tanzania, South Sudan, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. In this sector, when we get to work for the people who are the most marginalized, we ultimately also get a reality check on just how privileged we are and this can be a blessing too as we learn to appreciate life more. So, this is what I have been doing and this is what I will do for the rest of my life, hopefully. Subsequently, my next target is to complete my PhD in early childhood development at the University of Geneva.
From your perspective, how can people become more empathetic and open to development work in every aspect, without thinking of making profits off of their intentions?
I feel like the act of self-reflection has diminished in this era of social media where the genuine faces of people are not really seen but are judged nonetheless. Individuals are somehow increasingly concerned about what others are getting up to. People now think less of themselves and not in a selfless way at that. When a person begins to think generously of maximizing their own existence, their intentions could lead them towards making this world a better place for the generations to come. If more people were to self-reflect then the need to look at others for validation will decrease. People can become more empathetic this way. It just isn’t fair for one to judge another from a place of privilege when that person doesn’t even know the struggles of the other person. Every individual journey is different and these humane stories are supposed to be different.
What is the best piece of advice that you have ever received?
The people who know me and care about me have often advised me to love myself a little bit more. According to them, I am empathetic and I get too concerned about making the lives of others better through my work. They remind me to take it easy and make more time for myself. They tell me to not worry about others as much. Now these pieces of advice obviously come from those that love me but I’m not someone who can take advice well. I might listen to what they have to say but at the end of the day, I continue doing whatever I feel like doing.
Do you perhaps have plans on coming back as a singer?
Not really. I was never a professional singer and I don’t even call myself a singer. People do often refer to me as a singer because there was a period of time when I sang a bit but I have not been constantly practicing. Singing requires a lot of dedication and practice which I am unable to provide. I sometimes sing casually and play my guitar and upload a video of it on Facebook but I do that entirely for me because I feel the sudden desire to share it.
As an actor is there a director that you would love to work with?
In this case or scenario, there are way too many directions that I would love to work with. I would love to be able to work with someone like Martin Scorsese as dreams are limitless and nowadays geographical borders are irrelevant when you have a genuine desire and dedication to reach a certain goal. I however really don’t have any specific director like that because there is a long list. I must also again mention that I am not a very ambitious person. It’s not as if I plan on taking the acting world by storm by getting an Oscar one day. I just don’t think like that. The fact that the web series Myself Allen Swapan received such good reactions is a huge deal for me. If I were to never get more successful work later then I personally would not mind and I won’t have any worries at all. I don’t particularly think about having to go far with acting. Whatever suitable happens will happen.
What new projects can we expect immediately after Myself Allen Swapan?
I haven’t worked on further new projects because I already have to travel a lot due to my full-time job. I end up having to travel to Africa every alternate month. I’m even scheduled to go to Switzerland next week. But some works that are awaiting release are Mayaa and Meghla from Kolkata and Kajol Rekha and Jol e Jwale Tara from Bangladesh. I’m not sure if all will come out this year. I’m in the talking process with potential new content and if I am able to provide time with sufficient dates then I might say yes.
What do you normally do to prepare for any character?
First of all, I always try to follow the instructions of the director. I share the visualization of my character with the director, then we both work together to perfect the character in a collaborative approach. We also discuss the character’s manner of speaking, gazes, gestures and postures. Specifically for the past two to three years, I’ve been paying particular attention to the details of my characters by providing them with a lot of time considering I take up a small amount of work as it is. Back in the day, dramas on tv (natok) had two-day shootings and I could only work on weekends due to my office timings. As a result, I wouldn’t get any time to prepare myself. I would get told what sort of clothes to bring for my character over the phone. I used to never get time for any kind of preparations for (natoks). Nowadays OTT contents are actually performed with a lot of time and care. Films are also given a lot of time for production which allows me a lot of time to think about any particular character.
Do you have any preference regarding which platform/medium to work for due to your limited schedules?
No, I am still OK with working under any medium even if it is a natok but now I do look at which content will allow me the time to build my character. I just don’t want to go on set, read the dialogues, then deliver them without preparations anymore. I plan on taking projects where I will be able to take my time to prepare for the character.
Fashion Direction & Styling: Mahmudul Hasan Mukul
Photographer: Rafiqul Islam Raf
Make-up & Hair: Aura Beauty Lounge
Assistant Stylist: Arbin Topu
Jewelry & Location: Amishee