The Indie Action of Shaaticup

Mohammad Touqir Islam, the creator of the Bangladeshi web series, on shooting a show in the pandemic with a bunch of first timers, and the virtues of low-budget filmmaking.
The Indie Action of Shaaticup

Shaaticup began almost on a whim. Mohammad Touqir Islam, the director of the show, and a few members of what was going to be his cast and crew, hit the streets of Rajshahi at night with a camera and some basic equipments. Lockdown had just been imposed. The idea was to see if they could shoot action scenes with limited resources in real locations with a group of largely first timers. They came up with impromptu situations, with members doubling up as actors, like a chase scene unfolding at a desolate railway station. When they went back and saw the rushes, it gave them confidence. Soon, they were developing the screenplay: a cat and mouse like cops and robbers story set in the drug world of their hometown. 

This was in 2020. It's 2022 and Shaaticup is making a splash in Bangladesh, being talked about for the raw authenticity it brings to the screen and its eye for local details. The show's billboards are up in Dhaka and elsewhere. The country's new streaming platform Chorki acquired it, giving it a reach that Touqir and his team hadn't dreamed of when they started out, running out of money on more than one occasion. Everybody stepped up. Besides direction, Touqir handled the cinematography. His core collaborators on the script Omar Masum and Ahsabul Yamin Riad acted as the two leads Babu and Joynal (low level drug peddlers who land in trouble). The guy who was supposed to be their chief AD took over the sound department, and a friend of his, who has never been to a movie set before, was made the chief AD. Almost everyone worked without a remuneration. "If you provide me 200 or 400 member professional team, I won't be able to make something good. This is the style I like working in. This is more fun," he said over the phone. 

Making an indie production on a shoestring is one thing, and pulling off tricky action scenes within those constraints is another. Not only did they film sequences without safety gears, there were times when Touqir had to take some extreme calls to achieve what they wanted. In a torture scene that might be hard to watch for the faint-hearted, the actor playing the cop really did beat up the actor playing the suspect. (If the suspect was played by a professional actor, he might have been able to fake it convincingly).

"We found out that these guys are actually pretty simple and uncomplicated and there is an innocence in them. That became out guiding principle," said Touqir.

Shooting one of the most impressively staged fight scenes in the series – shot in Majhardiya char, plains formed by riverine deposit and a well-known route for drug smuggling from across the border – was full of dangers. Their boat almost sank at 2 in the night, and when they made an emergency landing, they were in the middle of nowhere in a dark place infested with rattle snakes. The scene, to be shot the next day, demanded that they worked with the rakhals (cow herders), who are outlaws themselves. The land's unique vegetation added to the hurdles – the plants are sharp and pointed, often piercing through your feet if you aren't careful. But as the scene involved running the process left the team with deep cuts, with only first aids as a backup. "When you are directing in such conditions, sometimes you have to let go of ethics and morals,' he told me. The scene comes in the beginning of the first episode, and lasts for a few minutes, but it gives the series a scale and is breathtaking to look at. 

Touqir (in a blue down jacket) and his team shot in real locations, sometimes dangerously.
Touqir (in a blue down jacket) and his team shot in real locations, sometimes dangerously.

Bangladeshi cinema is having a bit of a moment. A new generation of filmmakers, empowered by digital technology, is telling their stories. Touqir, and others who worked in Shaaticup, were driven by the same urge. "We have all the means to reach out to people thanks to technology and it's a shame if we can't tell our own stories," he said. Touqir grew up in Rajshahi, which is known for its universities and is the seat of education in the country; but it's also the hub for drug trade due to its proximity to the border.

The makers of Shaaticup tapped into the local life, interviewing and talking to real dealers and cops before writing the screenplay. The show portrays the peddlers sympathetically (while the investigative officers are shown as exploitative and corrupted). "We found out that these guys are actually pretty simple and uncomplicated and there is an innocence in them. That became out guiding principle," said Touqir. Despite its grim subject matter, Shaaticup is surprisingly goofy, with much of the colour and humour coming from the characters and the lingo they use, each in their ultra local dialects with their own distinctive quirks. "You go to the other side of the river and the accent changes a bit. It can change from one neighbourhood to another. We tried to incorporate these things," he added. The title itself is a little known slang – meaning, 'to go into hiding'. 

Touqir and his collaborators are huge fans of Anurag Kashyap, acknowledged in the ending credits (a hand-to-hand mud fight recalls Gangs of Wasseypur). He started out early, making his first short film when he was in the eighth standard. It was a based on a bizarre, and probably apocryphal, story he had heard from his mother about a dimwitted boy from his neighbourhood who was tricked by others into cooking a dead crow. He later did a course on filmmaking in Delhi, but the seeds of creativity were sown even earlier. As part of a fine arts collective for children, Touqir used to make mud houses. "If I wasn't a filmmaker, I might have been an architect," he said. With his first full length feature, he has made something that feels, in its own way, hand-crafted.  

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