Saturday, January 28, 2017

Under Construction: A Document of Time and Space Under Construction

Under Construction is a film about women made by women. It is also a critique of contemporary Bangladeshi society in two ways. First, the story skillfully weaves together an examination of gender relations in Bangladesh, which is followed with a powerful critique of the exploitation of labour and the underlying political structures governing it in the country. The trope linking these two disparate social phenomena is that of construction. The film looks at and deconstructs how gender is constructed in a conservative, patriarchal society against a backdrop of urban blight caused by the over-construction of dwellings in Dhaka. The latter is of particular importance as the construction industry and the multistory building it produces signify the deep and lasting changes modernity has on shaping contemporary Dhaka. The single storey bungalow is disappearing and the social life it supported is now a thing of history, especially in respect to the role of women. Thus Under Construction has enormous relevance for our understanding of the changing worldview consumer capitalism has brought to Bangladesh. This is made abundantly clear in the manner in which the film deconstructs a classical Bengali play, Tagore’s The Red Oleander.  Roya, the female protagonists seeks to ‘modernise’ the play, which antagonizes some of friends who revere Tagore while a visitor (someone without deep cultural roots in Bengali culture) is attracted to the idea. Thus Under Construction is a multi-layered production that is good to look at but biting in its criticism of contemporary affairs.

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). We conclude with some observations about the current state of Bangladesh independent film and how it reflects contemporary urban Bangladesh and how Under Construction fits this cultural arena.

The main character of the film Roya is an actress and theatre activist. The film begins with a performance of Rakto Korobi (The Red Oleander) by Rabindranath Tagore. It is quickly established that Roya is giving her final performance as the main character Nandini. Roya has become disillusioned with the play and the manner in which it is presented but more importantly she is aware that she is gradually ageing and a new girl has been caste for the character. She is interested in modernizing the play, making it more contemporary and challenging. Other characters revolve around Roya. There are two females who are connected with Roya; her mother and her housemaid Moyna, which sets up a nice contrast between the past and the present in narrative terms. The males who complement Roya are Russell, the producer and theatre owner who is the custodian of the traditional culture and Imtiaz, a European-based Bangladeshi who is interested in Roya’s desire to transform Tagore’s play into contemporary terms. Roya’s husband is quite rich but marginal to the unfolding narrative but it is he who has the wealth that enables Roya to pursue her career in theatre and consider taking the play to Europe, something Roya’s mother reminds her about.

Roya is highly conscious of the fact that she is ageing.  Returning home from the theatre, at a traffic signal, the flower seller child in the street called her ‘aunti’, which upsets her. After entering home, Roya asks the housemaid Moyna whether she looks like an ‘aunti’ or not. In the bathroom, in front of the mirror, she looks at her body and tries to imagine how she will look in the future, as she ages. Roya’s concerns about ageing, her husband’s desire for a child and the fact that she has played the role of Nandini for twelve years place her in a deep quandary; whether to pursue her art or let biology takes its course. Her mother and Russell also advise her to leave the theatre and have a baby.
A minor female character in the film underscores this theme. She is a woman who exudes modern attitudes but has give up her PhD studies because ‘being a mother is the most precious thing’ and she suggests Roya also become a mother as well before it’s too late. However, the friend remains interested in how she looks wants to bring back the body, which she feels she lost for her motherhood. She wants to enjoy her life in every way. She wants to continue ‘breast feeding’ and ‘power pumping’ at the same time.  This episode convinces Roya to remain childless and pursue her art. 

Theatre owner Russell introduces Roya to Imtiaz, who is interested in her ideas about ‘modernising’ Tagore, which he sees as appealing to the European market, something Russell is deeply opposed to because he sees it as disrespectful of Tagore and all that he stands for. Roya wants to deconstruct Nandini’s beautiful, loving and sacrificing character changing her from a servant of the king to a garments worker and transform Jakshapuri (the ‘factory’ in the play) into a RMG factory in Bangladesh. Earlier, in a write-up, Roya identifies Jakshapuri as the coalmine at Foolbari and she argues that this could easily become a garments factory thus making the play contemporary and relevant. Russell is a traditionalist and strongly opposed to any tampering with Tagore’s play. On the other hand Imtiaz admires Roya’s concept and offers the opportunity to perform it in an international setting, which Roya sees as the crowning achievement of her career. Moreover,as her relationship with Sameer cools she finds herself sexually attracted to Imtiaz. Thus Rubaiyat Hossain, the director, very neatly sets up the central dilemma confronting Bangladesh’s cultural elites; whether to continue to revere Tagore as canonical and therefor above change or adapt to changing conditions, like the advent of a westernized global consumer culture.

The relationship between the traditional conservative worldview and the modernist version is also explored in Roya’s relationships with the other major female characters. Her mother is a conservative women locked into a traditional view of the role of women in society. Her husband left her long ago, but she believes one day he will return, something Roya sees as implausible,  and behaves accordingly; she mixes with hijab clad women and expresses reservations on Roya’s attire. She is also unhappy that her daughter is a theatre actress and reminds Roya in one exchange that actresses are considered as prostitutes by some segments of society. Clearly the mother and daughter have a very uneasy relationship but interestingly the mother cherishes her independence and refuses to change her lifestyle despite her ideological viewpoint.   

By contrast the housemaid Moyna is young and representative of the changing society and Roya is, in reality, dependent upon her to maintain her lifestyle. Moyna has a relationship with Sabuj Mia, the liftman at the building and eventually falls pregnant much to Roya’s dismay, for two reasons; it reveals Roya’s lack of traditional femininity in refusing to have a baby and at the same time throws her house into disarray as Roya is incapable of performing normal domestic duties.  Sabuj takes Moyna away from Roya and they start their new life in a bostee (slum). Interestingly Moyna starts working in a RMG factory. After initially attacking Sabuj Roya reconciles herself to the loss of Moyna and visits her in the slum with ornaments made of gold and silver. She asks Moyna to come back realizing that she was more than a servant but was in fact her only friend. But Moyna decides to stay with her husband. The relationship between allows Hossain to comment subtly on the fact that middle class Bengali women can only sustain their cosseted lifestyles through the labour and support of the working class maids. Moreover, Moyna’s decision throws into question the orthodoxy that the RMG factories are there to exploit working class girls. Moyna chooses the factory over being a servant because it gives her identity and agency, and probably more money as well.

At the conclusion of the film Roya realizes she is at a crossroads and she makes a number of significant decisions in order to sustain her creative journey. She decides against having a baby, she cancels the idea going to London and taking her sick mother there for medical treatment, which her brother desires. Thus her husband deems her ‘selfish’. However, Roya’s decision to be selfish for her theatre career is a masculine perception. Her decisions are not clearly stated in the film but signified obliquely. At the end of the film, Roya is found rehearsing the dialogue from The Red Oleander, the scene where Nandini promises to support Raja with her last strength although this may cause her death, which will haunt the Raja. Nandini/Roya, indeed all women, it suggests have no weapons, but her death will ensure that she wins. Which is a confusing, open-ended conclusion; the audience must decide whether Roya has succeeded or been defeated. The question remains whether death is the only ‘solution’ to the problems confronting women in a patriarchal society or whether there are other alternatives.  
Under Construction is made by women who fill most of the important roles in composing the film; direction, production, cinematography art direction, production design and so on. The main protagonist are three women from different  eras and differing classes. But this is no typical feminist film, Roya is not a radical woman. Rather she is an opportunist taking advantage of circumstances as they occur. She is dependent on her husband for her material well-being and comfortable lifestyle but there demonstrates no warmth in the relationship. Roya’s affection and love towards Moyna is also ambivalent. It is partly motivated by sef-interest but there is also an element of affection and genuine feeling. After Moyna and Sabuj left the house, Roya visited Moyna’s house twice, giving Moyna wedding gifts but also in an attempt to lure Moyna back into her employment but without success. Moyna had decided that the job as a house maid did not provide any dignity to a woman or more importantly, an identity. In marrying Sabuj Mia, finding a job at a RMG factoty and having baby provided Moyna with an identity. Indeed she acquires agency that permits her to make decisions and is no longer dependent on Roya.

On the other hand, Roya’s conservative mother lives a religious life, like a conventional wife she waits for her husband to return after a long absence with a belief that he will come back one day; yet she is self dependent and she has the mental strength and capacity to live her life by her own. She has own management capability and enterpreneurship to earn money for herself and other hijabi women by sewing clothes. Again the characters have an identy and agency that Roya seems to lack as she oscilates beteeen her husband, Russell and Imtiaz, always seeking their approval for her actions. It is Roya’s sincerity to theatre, her aspirations to creative freedom to re-interpret a classic text, that provides the capacity for her to take decision about life . The creative journey she chooses gives her character shape.

By comparing the RMG factory with Jakshapuri Hossain establishes a clever interplay between the past and the present. In both of the institutions laborers are repressed and victimized as subjects leading a diminished life. Both in the Jakshapuri and in the RMG factories we see the exploitation of labor, where the workers are seemingly the extension of machines. Here we may recall Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis (1927) for the similarity of the subject matter. By exploiting the workers’ labour, Bangladesh earns the a bulk of foreign currency, but the security of the labourers is the least concern of the owners and authorities. The Rana Plaza accident in 2013 illustrates this and makes Roya’s adaptation of the original storyline contemporary and disturbing, as it is in death that the workers are remembered not through their work.

Addressing recent events in Bangladesh is a pivotal aspect of the film, which is surprisingly near absent in the art and independent cinema of Bangladesh. Bangladeshi independent cinema has not yet completed its journey. The culture and the authorities seem to demand that the films focus on the 1971 War of Liberation but it is RMG that are synonymous with Bangladeshi identity in the outside world. Under Construction has put contemporary issues dealing with gender and class at the centre of the plot. In Runway (2010), Tareque Masud also addressed recent Bangladesh society and included RMG in his narrative but as a sideline to the major concern of fundamentalism. Rubayiat Hossain’s Under Construction not only deals with RMGs but also tries to tell a story of Dhaka, a city under construction. The lives of the citizen’s mirror the material reality of a life where the streets, the buildings, the Art Academy (Shilpakala Academy), theatre as cultural form together portray the identity of a city and a country, under construction.  

The film doesn’t reach to any overwhelming or even satisfying climax, everything remains unfinished and under construction. In that way the film has a poststructuralist feel; rather than neatly package the event the director leaves much to the imagination of the viewer. To establish the theme, some non-diegetic elements have been inserted into the narrative – female workers are working on the construction sites, newly built buildings are being constructed, tiles have been cut and sometimes the whole building is shown as under construction. This non-diegetic insertion describes the situation in the storyline and at the same time symbolizes the city where the story is taking place. This signification wants to say that the Dhaka City or Bangladesh as a nation is growing but is not yet completely grown  – it is under construction.

The director uses metaphors in other scenes. Once Roya dreams of her husband in bed as a python where he is transformed into a python suggesting perhaps the power of patriarchy to crush the aspirations of women; Roya, it is suggested, slept with Imtiaz and after that the pet Goldfish and tortoise are found playfully and freely swimming in the bathtub. In one scene Roya puts her hand inside the aquarium and after stirring the water the movement seems to scare the fish. In another dream sequence Moyna is working in the RMG factory, her hand has been trapped in a sewing machine and she turns to Roya for help but is unconvincing in its execution compared to the rests of the film. However Shahana Goswami as Roya, Mita Chowdhury as the mother and Rikita Nandini as Moyna all perform well in their respective roles. The Indian actor Rahul Bose as Imtiaz and Shahdat Hossain as the husband do not have much to as their roles are limited dramatically providing little scope to explore the characters in any depth. In the role of the custodian of classical culture, the puritan Russell, played by Towfiqul Islam Imon was a much more rounded character. Martina Radwan’s camera had an informal style, it doesn’t want to seduce spectators with beautiful images. Under Construction is not a compact story, rather it is a film of statement, for that the camera plays the role of interpreter, raising question that audience are asked answer – if they can. 

Shayan Chowdhury Arnob’s background score and Sujan Mahmud’s sound design have the capacity to attract the attentive audience and to the overall effect of the film. By contrast the editing by Sujan Mahmud is not always as convincing. For example, after Imtiaz gave his approval to Roya, there was a debate between Roya and Russell on the deconstruction of The Red Oleander. We then cut away to a street scene where Roya observes a monkey dancing in the street. We then cut to a scene where Roya and Sameer have a dinner of cup noodles. Sameer is disgruntled and asks ‘how long do I have to eat food like this?’, which is a reflection on Roya’s domestic skills and the absence of Moyna. The monkey dance scene is placed between the debate and the dinner – and it is not clear why this is the case. There is no internal logic to the sequence. Again this may be symbolic, that we are all performing monkeys trapped in a cage but there is a chance to be skeptical here and question whether it was used in the right place in the narrative or not.

The film has brought many contemporary issues to independent film – the accident of Rana Plaza, the rally of fundamentalists and the demand of the death sentence of atheists and so on; but the biggest political event of the age, the Shahbagh movement was not addressed. By giving the film a contemporary edge Under Construction adds a new dimension to independent film in this country and Hossain is to be congratulated for this fact.

Genette, G. (1980). Narrative Discourse. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Co-authored with Brian Shoesmith. First published in Bangladesh Cinema and Television Institute Journal (issue 4, 2016).

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