The only time you may have consciously seen Bangladesh on film is the recent Netflix film Extraction starring Chris Hemsworth, where it’s shown as a congested, yellow-filtered hell, a breeding ground for terrorist child soldiers, similar to how third world countries are often portrayed in Hollywood action films. The Bangladesh in Mostofa Sarwar Farooki’s Television (2012) is a world apart—and probably truer. It’s a water-locked village, and in the first scene of the film we see a man approaching the place on a steamer boat, bringing with him the day’s newspaper. He is doing something peculiar—pasting white sheets of paper on each and every photograph printed on the newspaper. All images are covered except that of a scantily clothed Katrina Kaif in a movie advertisement. The man takes a good last look at it before plastering it up. We will soon know why: the newspaper in question is for the village leader, Amin (Shahir Kazi Huda), who perceives images as haram, and hence the arrangement.
Even before we have met the main characters of the story: Amin, his son Solaiman (Chanchal Chowdhury), his girlfriend Kohinoor (Nusrat Imrose Tisha), and Mojnu (Mosharraf Karim), who works under Solaiman as a help and is also in love with Kohinoor, director Mostofa Sarwar Farooki has established the main theme of his film, which won the Jury Grand Prize at the Asia Pacific Screen Award, closed the Busan International Film Festival and was Bangladesh’s Oscar entry in 2013. It is now streaming on Bengali digital platform Hoichoi with subtitles.
Farooki, Bangladesh’s best known filmmaker internationally, grew up in a well-to-do family 80s Dhaka, when one day his father decided that TV is haram—he called it shaitaner baksho (the devil’s box)—and sold it off. Along with it went the pleasures of watching cartoons such as Popeye and Tom & Jerry, and the English Premiere League, the filmmaker had told me in an interview in 2016. He would often sneak into other people’s homes to watch TV.
There is plenty of filmmaking flair on display in Television, especially the eye-popping use of colours… The cinematographer tells the story, appropriately, by making use of mirrors, reflections and windows.
Television was also the medium through which a new generation of filmmakers in Bangladesh like Farooki began telling stories in the late 90s-early 2000s. Television, then, was Farooki’s ultimate rebellion. And the first scene, described above, encapsulates all its concerns: human desire, movies, religious orthodoxy in Bangladesh, the conflict between tradition and modernity. Some of these themes reappear and overlap in Farooki’s other films, such as Ant Story (2013) and Third Person Singular Number (2009).
For Indian audiences, Television is a good entry point to the filmmaker who has been making strides outside Bangladesh and working on bigger projects. One of Irrfan’s last roles was in Farooki’s Doob: No Bed of Roses (2017), in which he played a character loosely inspired by the controversial life of Bangladeshi cultural icon Humayun Ahmad, and which ran into censorship troubles in the country. And just last week, his long gestating No Land’s Man (that won the most Promising Film Project in Film Bazaar, India in 2014) came through, with the announcement that Nawazuddin Siddiqui will play the lead, and AR Rahman will compose the music and will co-produce the film. Set largely in New York, it’s about “an individual’s search for identity in a world that is brought together by communication technology but torn apart by intolerance.”
In Television, Amin detests the idea of images because he thinks that imagination of the enemy of Allah. The film brims with imaginative visual ideas. There is a scene where one of his men tries out an alternative to television, a ‘halal television’ that’ll fill the need for entertainment among the villagers but also keep them away from the impurities of the outside world that a real TV broadcasts: a stage constructed as a giant television set where actors perform live drama. It gives the film one of its most arresting images.
There is plenty of filmmaking flair on display in Television, especially the eye-popping use of colours, whether it is the magenta coloured walls or the bold designs of the costumes (by Farooki and Tisha, also his wife). The cinematographer, Golam Maola Nobir, tells the story, appropriately, by making use of mirrors, reflections and windows.
It’s a social satire—while also being a charming love triangle with a wry sense of humour—but there are no villains in it, as satires tend to have in a deliberate, caricaturish sort of a way. You expect the village leader to be one, but he is empathetically portrayed as a man who is a prisoner of his own belief system. Perhaps because the character is rooted in Farooki’s own father. In the end, the director invents a wondrous, transcendental and satisfying redemption arc for the character in the way only cinema can.