Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Ant Story: Modern Man’s Descent into Madness

Mostofa Sarwar Farooki’s The Ant Story explores the issue of contemporary Bangladeshi sexuality from a psychoanalytical perspective. Briefly the narrative is driven by the search to recover a sex tape made by an actress (a celebrity). The attempt to recover the tape allows Farooki to comment on other aspects of contemporary Dhaka City making the film a powerful critique of Bangladesh in the age of consumption

We look at this complex film through the lens of Gerard Genette (1980) and his concept of narrative discourse, emphasising three aspect of narrative, histoire (plot), recite (the voice) and narration (the techniques).

An intimate videotape featuring a film actress and her boyfriend in a compromising situation accidentally falls into the hands of an ordinary Bangladeshi youth, Mithu, who is struggling to come to terms with life in the big city. He has insufficient funds to meet his every day needs let alone his desires – for consumer goods that are representative of the move of Bangladesh into the global economy. Consequently Mithu sees possession of the tape in toe ways; as an opportunity to acquire things and as an investment that may bring power. The actress Rima contacted Mithu  to retrieve the sex tape but Mithu, realizing the commercial value of the tape in his possession, becomes a play master and he starts blackmailing Rima.

Before acquiring the tape Mithu was jobless but later obtains a job in a MLM (Multi Level Marketing) company (what’s the significance of this?). Upon Rima’s request, he returns the mobile phone he found to Rima but keeps a copy of the sex tape. Possession of this tape affects a change in Mithu; he sees himself as empowered and able to move up in the consumer society he aspires to. He uses the  to make Rima a client of his company, which brings him credit in the eyes of his employers. However, Mithu decides to take his putative control of Rima beyond using her for financial advantage; he decides to enter a world of psychosexual role-playing. First Mithu takes Rima to his ex-girlfriend’s house to make her jealous of his new girlfriend; a glamorous celebrity thereby signifying his social rise. He also visits Rima’s film set, which was shooting at Cox’s Bazar, much to her annoyance. The role-playing concludes with an extreme act (in the Bangladeshi context), where he compels Rima to play the role of his wife for one hour and he invites her into his bed in an attempt to possess Rima as though she were like any other commodity. Rima responds to the blackmailing by Mithu, complying with his requests but refuses to go to the bed at the end judging that Mithu will not ruin her life. Rima’s boyfriend also tries to get the copy of the sex tape from Mithu, but these efforts failed. Rima then changes her approach to the problem and arranges for gangsters to kidnap Mithu. The sudden arrival of the police at the scene of the kidnapping allow Mithu to escape but his office then comes under the scrutiny from the government and is shut down for illegal activities, which leads to his clients, alarmed by the turn of events, started visiting Mithu’s house to demand the return of their investments. 

From the moment the authorities are involved, Mithu’s life is filled with troubles and to survive he becomes a fugitive. Rima cannot find Mithu, and she begins to fear that the release of the sex tape on-line will destroy her career, which drives her into depression. But Mithu’s life becomes even more miserable. He has no job and no prospects, the creditors are relentless in the pursuit of their money and he comes to fear death, which leads to a mental breakdown. His only solution is to rush to his house and ask his parents for their protection saying that he would be a good boy like before and he would start going to school. In short he reverts to. In the last scene he is presented in school uniform, staring at nothing. His sister is skeptical about Mithu’s mental degeneration and asks whether his mental status was true or false. Mithu remains silent and continues to stare at nothing.  

The skill of Farooki in making film lies in the fact that he deals with a contentious issue, sex among the young alienated members of a changing society but never depicts anything sexual explicitly. He negotiates the grey area of sexual activity astutely, on the one hand conforming to local norms by not showing explicit images but on the other hand challenges local conventions with frankness found in few local film. The sex tape remains as the central motif of the storyline. Thus the audience is engaged with a libidinal item but without ever seeing anything explicit.  The director’s approach to the topic is essentially psychoanalytic showing how an object, the sex tape, can bring change to the lives of people caught up in its tail, either directly or incidentally, by playing of the subject’s fears about sex in a repressed culture. This leads Farooki to adopt a rather gloomy view of life and apart from a few comic lines of dialogue between Mithu and his ex-girlfriend’s husband, the director does not leave any comfort space for the audience. No human relationship is a good shape; cunningness, ugliness and tension occupy the storyline. Love and innocence have all taken place in the past – Mithu loses his humaneness, Rima’s fame is fragile dependent on a video tape, Rima’s boyfriend loses his credibility (he was responsible for loosing the phone in the first place), Mithu’s lost his love quite earlier, she is married to another guy. In short Farooki takes a bleak view of humanity, suggesting that in globalized city like contemporary Dhaka humanness is a victim of a predatory consumer culture; it objects and not people that are important.

In terms of money, fame and class, Rima has status in the city but the presence of the tape puts her in an awkward situation; in the thrall of someone inferior and insignificant in terms of class. Mithu actually lives outside of the city and needs to cross the river to reach his house. These two persons, from two different classes and backgrounds encounter one another in a context created by modern technology, which is the most obvious sign of Dhaka having entered the globalized economy.  However, the main focus of the director is not the class of the protagonists, rather his interest lays in psychology of the characters, especially of Mithu. As a result the film  can be divided into two distinct halves. In the first half of the film the narrative trajectory of the film tends towards a docudrama, presenting the facts and commenting on contemporary life through the images and the status of the main characters, but in the second half he investigates the psychological world of Mithu. This is portrayed surrealistically through dreams such as the beach scene where we see Mithu’s imagined intimacy with Rima. A lot of masks are placed on the beach, as if these are representing the time and people around. Some ants attack Mithu’s face that is lying on the beach. Mithu rushes to the water to save his face. The ant is a symbol here, which also a nickname of Rima’s boyfriend Ayon, the name is given by Rima that suggests Ayon is a greedy ant that wants to taste Rima’s sweet body. This greed was evident within Mithu as well but for him it becomes the source of his ruin. The ants attack Mithu more than once in his dream that turn into nightmares.

The fugitive Mithu sleeps in a relative’s clothe shop where he appropriates a mannequin from the shop as a surrogate for Rima and sleeps with it, his arms wrapped around the model. This fetishistic act symbolizes his sexual desire for Rima. In another sequence, Mithu meets Rima for the first time, and Mithu imagines the first encounter with Rima in three different ways. These imagined encounters, or dreams, allows the director to show us Mithu’s state of mind, which is in turmoil.  Rima’s imagination is also given substance. Her depression, or mental disorder, is the ultimate consequences of her actions, exacerbated by her interactions with, Mithu, on the other hand seems to face two options leading to an open-ended closing – he has either gone mad, or to avoid the problems he has created through his desire for success and Rimi (they are virtually the same) he has taken to pretending madness as a weapon of defence.

Despite political turmoil, structural constraints, and global volatility, the Bangladeshi economy  maintains macroeconomic stability and is moving forward. GDP growth of the country for 2015 is nearly 7.0 and the percentage of young in the workforce is quite high. Moreover, Bangladesh is the only country in South Asia that has an economy that has achieved above 2% annual growth in the last two decades. Bangladesh remains in top three countries manufacturing ready-made garments (RMG) for the global market and the money flow generated from the remittance of the Bangladeshi labour force in the global market has created a robust national reserve. Historically the country has a strong base in agricultural production and is now self-sufficient in food production. Mithu wants to engage himself in this economic euphoria but until the mobile phone into his possession he is destined to remain forever on the fringe. Mithu’s desire for class transformation leads him to take a job in a multi level marketing (MLM) company, which is essentially a pyramid selling company that promises untold riches for very little effort. However, under the pressure of post-globalized consumer culture, people want to earn money anyway possible, even if it is not legal or ethical. Thus the combination of the commentary on technology the mobile phone), human desire, and economic cupidity presents a penetrating analysis of contemporary Bangladesh. In passing, it should be noted that in 2013 pyramid selling was outlawed in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh has one of the highest rates of mobile telephony usage in the region. Within a very short period of time mobile phones have penetrated every level of society. In many respects the phone is a boon because of its flexibility to people like rickshaw drivers and housemaids as well as international business but it has also acquired the reputation for sensational misuse. The celebrity sex tape has become a phenomenon with intimate video clips of the celebrities being released online. In many cases, the boyfriend often does it after the break-up of relationship. Thus Bangladesh enters the world of revenge porn. In many respects the incident narrated in The Ant Story is similar to an actual case where a sex tape of the actress and model Sadia Jahan Prova became available on internet, released by her ex-boyfriend Rajib and the subject of  much talk in Bangladesh in 2010.

The film also portrays the contemporary landscapes of Dhaka city. Rather than show the exotic and antique it focuses visually on the newly made flyovers, the Buriganga river, buses and cars in the street presenting a composite a picture of the city. In this way, the film suggests that Mithu’s search for masculinity and the contemporary city feed of one another.

In this film Farooki adopts some novel and interesting narrative strategies to tell his story. The sequence where Mithu coerces Rimi into pretending to be his wife is a case in point. Rima is situated in a darkened room, and the light coming from outside of the frame falls on to Rima’s face, her face emphasizing her hatred and helplessness. Meanwhile Mithu is enters the room with a mechanical doll suggesting it is their imagined daughter. The doll is put on a table, Mithu calls Rima to come to bed – in the background a part of the bed is seen and in the foreground the doll continues nodding its head. This scene signifies that what scene the camera focuses on the torso of a sculpture, which signifies the agony, and pain of Rima.    

The relationship with the shop owner in whose shop the fugitive Mithu passes his nights is not clear in the film. In the first encounter, the owner rebukes Mithu but his words as well as the reason for them is not clear. In other scenes, the characters are taken to an open place at the outskirt of the city, but again the reason for this action is not clear. In addition the film curiously paced with the first part of the film largely occupied by the video clip issue, and at one stage, the audience might feel how limited was the plot. These might be some limitations of the film  but in many senses this is a well-made film. The selection of the actors, cinematography, background music, use of sound – everything is done and performed in a consistent manner. The director’s minimalist style can be noticed easily. The first two films  made by Mostofa Sarwar Farooki (Bachelor and Made in Bangladesh) are dialogue driven but in The Ant Story, we find the small characters talk less and sometimes do not talk at all. Farooki allows the images to tell the story, suggesting a mature approach to the craft of filmmaking. We see also Mithu’s sister several times, but she only talks in the last scene. Mithu’s father was seen in many scenes, but he never talks suggesting to us, at least, something about the emasculation of males and the older values of society that have come under assault in contemporary Bangladesh. Something Farooki captures with skill and insight in The Ant Story.   

Co-authored with Brian Shoesmith.

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