Shaaticup review: Bangladesh Underground

Mohammad Touqir Islam’s web series, streaming on Chorki, is a regional crime caper with stylistic swagger.
Shaaticup review: Bangladesh Underground

Director: Mohammad Touqir Islam

Writers: Mohammad Touqir Islam, Omar Masum, Ahsabul Yamin Riad, Khalid Saifullah Saif

Cast: Omar Masum, Ahsabul Yamin Riad, Sajia Khanom, Amit Rudra, Najmus Saaqib, Shah Asif Ahmed

Streaming on: Chorki

Shaaticup begins in a moment of calm – two men, fairly young, in the middle of riverine landscape, at dusk, looking out into the horizon – before throwing us into a state of chaos. Moments later, we are in a different kind of a riverine landscape – vast plains formed by deposited silt – where a couple of gangsters hide in tall grass waiting to ambush a group of cow-herders. Soon we are plunged into the alleyways of a complex network of slums. The episode ends with a tense scene staged at a railway station. It's about these drug peddlers who are trying to push some stuff into the market; the cops are after them – but you've still not quite got a grip on where this is all going.  Until a character uses the magic word, that is: 'Shaaticup maar' Babu tells Fazu. Fazu is in trouble after Babu has failed to get the 'maal' he had promised him. Babu doesn't have his money either, and now Fazu has to save his ass from the local gang who he had promised.

What Babu is telling him, in a dialect spoken in Rajshahi, where this is set, is not exactly to 'go underground' – that's for the big boys and this is a story about the low level guys – but a far more substratum, localised version of it. Later in the series, we see this 'hideout': a big, sprawling tree in a patch of forest right in the backyard. (It provides a safe haven for Fazu, except he is seen by the gang when he comes down to take a dump, resulting in him being chased without having his ass washed, a sequence of frenetic pace set to the rap-metal title track).

It's an ingenuous, and funny, bit of detailing that says a lot about the show: Shaaticup operates in the lower echelons of the drug business in a particular region of Bangladesh, going into the deep pockets of the topography – a construction site leads to a pond, a rampart to the river, and heroin is passed through cows being smuggled from India.

What should have been a standard bike chase sequence under nocturnal lights of the city becomes a riveting stretch of action filmmaking, because Islam has the idea to play around with frame rates and make it visually interesting.

Hannan and Joynal, the two men we see in the opening scene, have got their hands on a consignment that belongs to one Sohel bhai, the reigning drug lord. Now Sohel bhai has a leading investigative officer working for him who he has sent after these guys with all the resources of the police. (It's never made clear if the officer's team members are in on the plan with him, although this is a pretty no nonsense, hellish portrayal of the police, some of who are shown smoking marijuana with the matter of factness of a regular smoke-break).

But that's the premise of the show and the eight episodes, around twenty minutes each, are about how they manage to keep slipping away, one upping them every time they come close to catching them. In the penultimate episode, a subordinate tells the officer that the guys they have been after have hiding under their nose all along. 'All the information we need is in this 200 metres', he says, leading to a meltdown that's a sight to behold. All roads lead to the title, that illuminates the series with its phonetic ring and weird sense of slang poetry. Shaaticup is not so much about the plot, or even characters, as much as it is about the energy with which the thing unfurls. The tremendous flow with which it plays out resembles a hot hip-hop single the new kid in the next block has dropped, an R-Rated series that has Q, and then Anurag Kashyap, at the top of their thanking list in the ending credits.

The music is not just in the language the characters speak but also in the visual language that the director Mohammad Touqir Islam, also the cinematographer, employs to keep us engaged through its roughly two hours forty minutes runtime. A scene of morning rituals of going to the bathroom becomes a piece of silent comedy – not by the physical performance so much as by a combination of rhythmic cuts, sound effects, gesture and camera movement. What should have been a standard bike chase sequence under nocturnal lights of the city becomes a riveting stretch of action filmmaking, because Islam has the idea to play around with frame rates and make it visually interesting. 

Shaaticup belongs to a sub genre of regional crime capers (like, say, Angamaly Diaries). Their rootedness is precisely the secret of their appeal. There is a stylistic daring that seems audacious and irreverent, like the opening credits. As bizarre as it is intriguing, it uses a scene that's not in the series (but might appear in season two) and treats it like it's playing inside a kaleidoscope. The effect is trippy but it's also a nice throwback to a basic, local visual medium, peeping through whose eyehole for a paisa could provide a whole other world contained in a small box. It makes sense that Shaaticup was made with a cast and crew that's completely from Rajshahi. Almost all the main actors are involved in more ways than one. Omar Masum and Ahsabul Yamin Riad, the two actors playing Babu and Joynal, are also credited as co-writers – they don't seem to play the characters so much as inhabit them. While Amit Rudra – who plays corrupt cop and antagonist, ironically named Uttam Kumar – is also the art director. The show describes itself as '100 percent local' and it comes pretty close. 

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