Writer and Director: Mostofa Sarwar Farooki
Cast: Tasnia Farin, Partha Barua, Afzal Hossain, Nur Maria, Hasan Masood
Streaming on: Zee5
Mostofa Sarwar Farooki’s Ladies and Gentleman is a #MeToo story hijacked midway by a murder mystery. I use the word “hijacked” because the transition seems unfair, even dishonest, as if the natural flow of the story has been disrupted: Sabila (Tasnia Farin), a woman working in the Bangladesh cultural department, is molested by her boss; she fights for justice through a system that is both rigged against her and not yet evolved enough to tackle cases of sexual assault. Then something happens; it prompts the show to change tracks and shift its entire focus on to something else: from Will Sabila get Justice? it becomes all about Who Killed X? Of course, it all evens out in the end, or does it? By denying us the catharsis we want as an audience, Farooki wants to make a bigger statement—there is no justice for women like Sabila, not even in the movies.
Is he entirely successful? This narrative shift also leads to transitional issues; logical loopholes aren’t taken care of; characters, such as the lawyer friend Sabila consults (who seem to be of some reach and influence) are conveniently forgotten; and for all its accuracy in its depiction of the media, Farooki completely bypasses the all-pervasiveness of social media. The resolution in the end, that talks about deeper themes of male ego and masculinity, doesn’t quite “earn” them; not enough is invested in those particular areas, which is why they have to be literally spelled out in the climax. I’m getting the problems of the show out of the way, tiptoeing around spoilery territory, because there is so much else to admire. If only…
Where Farooki somewhat loses cohesiveness in the storytelling, he makes up with his understanding of characters, his ability to extract good performances and his grasp over the film form. Consider the way he stages the scenes of assault: when Khairul Alam (Afzal Hossain), Sabila’s boss, calls her to his cabin (after everybody else has left office) and makes his move, we only get a window-frame view of the action, filmed from the outside. As Khairul chases Sabila from one end of his cabin to another, and back, we catch glimpses of them only when they cross the window screen.
The scene is remarkable for two reasons: it’s an interplay of showing and not showing, sound and our imaginations, and, as a result more terrifying, more effective (besides being more “cinematic”). Two, it also works around the ethical dilemma of filming sexual assault in cinema, making sure that it doesn’t fall into the trap of overly graphic content in the current web series landscape, which allows copious amount of permissive sex and violence. When Khairul attacks Sabila the second time, we don’t see anything of the action at all; it’s played through sounds.
Ladies and Gentlemen shows the predicaments a woman in Sabila’s position has to go through after a sexual assault with care, insight and a conviction that feels authentic. Khairul’s daughter, Laura (Nur Maria)—a smart, foreign-educated entrepreneur and an empathetic human being—is eager to invest in Sabila’s boutique; it’s an offer that will rid Sabila of her many financial woes (including the treatment of her father, who is suffering from dementia). Laura shares a kind of sisterhood with her that’s genuine and touching, but it makes all the more difficult for Sabila to do the right thing. You think this conflict is where the story is leading to, with Sabila finally mustering up the courage to tell Laura about her father and how she will respond to it; but Farooki, of course, has other plans.
That scene comes rather quickly, but not unnaturally, and this is how he shows the aftermath: Sabila texts Laura the next day to tell her that it’s okay if she changes her mind about the offer (now that she’s told her that she’s filed a case against her father). We have seen them exchanging texts prior to the event, and we’ve seen how prompt Laura is with her replies; but, now it’s different—we don’t know if she replies at all, all we are shown is that her reply isn’t immediate, which leaves the Laura-Sabila subplot with exactly the kind of ellipsis needed at that point in the story.
Khairul is a fascinating character, played fascinatingly by Afzal Hossain, who, on the one hand, wears the sheepskin of a helpless old man too weak to control his urges, and on the other is a predator who makes calculative moves to protect himself.
It’s also a testimony to Farooki’s ability to say a lot without saying a word. Days after Khairul is publicly outed by Sabila, who addresses the media at the press club (the lawyer friend by her side), he appears in the same venue to tell the media “his side of the story”. He is accompanied by his family; his wife sits next to him stoically while his daughter remains seated in the car outside. In the following scene they go to a restaurant and occupy a table, like they would do normally, out of habit; but things have changed drastically and the moment that dawns upon Khairul’s wife, she leaves the table and occupies a different one. As Laura remains seated, undecided and tentative about what she should do, Khairul makes it easier for her—he gets up and sits at another table and we are left with an image of three members of a family seated at different tables in a restaurant. Without a word spoken, with gestures and performance and a feel for mise-en-scene, Farooki shows the cracks the scandal generates in this family unit (a theme he dealt with in Doob—in which a much venerated filmmaker, played by Irrfan, is in a relationship with a woman his daughter’s age—with far less success).
This father-daughter angle also holds the key to what Farooki is getting at. In Sabila and her father and Laura and her father we get mirror images, of economic privilege (something which Laura is acutely aware of, which is why she wants to help her out in her business) and of political hypocrisies: Sabila’s father is a devout, god-fearing man who realises (in a beautiful touch) that he has started forgetting things when he finds out that he has forgotten his prayers; whereas Khairul is a 60-year-old liberal icon in casual suits, a sort of a more amiable version of Tarun Tejpal, if you may, who believes in the women’s cause…but it doesn’t stop him from committing a heinous act, twice.
Khairul is a fascinating character, played fascinatingly by Afzal Hossain, who, on the one hand, wears the sheepskin of a helpless old man too weak to control his urges, and on the other is a predator who makes calculative moves to protect himself; there are times he genuinely elicits sympathy and seems weak and vulnerable. Credit for which must go to both Hossain, who injects it with a personality, and Farooki, for who characters are just people and they are never black and white. (Think of the father character in Television—an orthodox patriarch who deems images as “haram” and doesn’t allow television in the village, but in the stunning climax of the film, when he is denied a visa for Mecca, he watches a live telecast of the Hajj on a TV set, crying inconsolably).
They aren’t quirky for the heck of it; instead they seem observational and laced with an absurdist sense of humour. If the elderly peon at Sabila’s workplace (a sensational Hasan Masood) seems like a creepy weirdo, it’s because his excessive subservience to his bosses hides a secret backstory (through which Farooki examines the notion of power structure important to the story). He’s the kind of TV series character who deserves his own spin-off, except Farooki gives us that spinoff in the latter half of Ladies and Gentlemen, during which minor players assume greater importance and a dead character is substituted by a new one (in the form of the CID officer in charge of the investigation: no-nonsense and ruthless, but not heartless, played by the subtly charismatic Partha Barua). And if Farooki turns the story into a police procedural, if somewhat jarringly, it’s because he wants to investigate into the soul of Bangladesh itself.
Little details shine through: Sabila’s restless feet when she is sitting by herself in the terrace of her office building, unable to contain her anger at her harassment at the hands of the management for filing a case of sexual harassment against the boss; a forensic personnel hangs a hand-painted chart displaying the layout of the scene of crime–the Bangladesh cultural department–its rooms segregated into various wings: dance, drama, literature, and so on written in beautiful Bangla and tracing the path of the suspect in red miniature footprints, a simple pictorial representation of the story, and a telling one too: Farooki is traversing the cultural corridors of the Bangladeshi society, and it’s got blood in its premises. I wish the show had probed more incisively into the cultural circuit of the country, like I wish it had a more imaginative background score. But one thing is for certain: like the Pakistani web series Churails, another post #MeToo story, Ladies and Gentlemen is a more complex and compelling take on the subject than anything else made in Hindi and Bengali this side of the border.