Preview | Mostofa Sarwar Farooki’s ‘Television’
Big laughs follow a cleric’s attempt to curb the small screen
Bangladeshi filmmaker Mostofa Sarwar Farooki’s third feature Television was screened to peals of delight at the International Film Festival of Kerala in December. It’s hardly surprising.
The social satire is about a Muslim cleric who bans television sets from his village on the grounds that they are evil and a source of unwelcome distraction. The resistance to the actions of the man known as “Chairman” unfolds in amusing ways: villagers start sneaking out to watch TV across the river; a lone Hindu in the village who is allowed to keep a set becomes a much-sought after tuition teacher; the Chairman’s followers try to keep their flock entertained by building a big stage that is shaped like a television screen and organising cultural events inside it. Meanwhile, the Chairman’s son Solaiman loses his heart to Kohinoor, who also becomes the obsessive object of attention of Solaiman’s employee Mojnu.
Except for a distracting sub-lot in which Mojnu practically stalks Kohinoor while all along carrying messages on his boss’s behalf, Television ticks along sure-footedly and nicely for 106 minutes, pointing out the absurdities of banning technology in a world that benefits from technology. Mojnu’s unreconstructed male behaviour towards Kohinoor seems to undercut Farooki’s other progressive attitude towards Kohinoor, but that’s the point of Television. It’s not about making statements, but about poking fun at misguided souls like the Chairman, who gets his comeuppance in a niftily constructed turn of events.
Shot in lush, bright tones in Noakhali, Chandpur, Laxmipur and Dhaka, Television will be screened at the Films Division in Mumbai on Saturday. Edited excerpts from an email interview with Farooki, who is currently working on a new feature Ant Story, about a young Dhaka resident who creates an imaginary world to supplement his impoverished real one.
How closely does Television hew to real-life events and characters?
In my childhood, my parents never approved of us watching television. It created tension and conflict in my family. In fact, my mom still doesn’t watch TV. So that’s the basic inspiration of the story. Probably some scenes have a direct connection with my own experience. Like the scene where the Chairman cries heavily after he and his people were attacked and humiliated by his son’s gang. I once behaved very badly with my dad and did hurt him a lot. Then I sneaked through the window to see my dad crying like a baby in front of my mom. This shattered my world. But this is not an autobiography for sure. I took immense liberty in crafting the story and created an imaginary world. In doing so, I collected materials from reality.
The scene in which the reporter interviews the Chairman from behind the curtain–that scene was directly inspired by a real ‘healer’s action. There was a religious healer in our locality who used to treat every sort of disease with prayers. He had two different lines for the patients. The male patients used to line up in one line while female patients used to line up in a different line and behind a curtain. So the ‘religious healer’ used to listen to their problems from behind the curtain and offer prayers for them.
Lots of things are changing in Bangladesh. People are coping with modern life; television is everywhere nowadays. But there are also a small group of people who still believe imagery or sculpture to be bad. Al-Baiyeenat is one such group. Even Hefazat-e-Islam recently demanded demolishing all sculptures. Just after a few days their demands, the chief cleric from Deoband (in India) came out and spoke against taking pictures.
Television successfully critiques religious orthodoxy through the device of humour. Was it always meant to be a satire, or did you also think of taking a serious approach?
First of all, to me, it is more of a social critique than a critique only of religious orthodoxy. Of course, there is a strong religious fabric in it. But it was like a conflict between two different times. The Chairman, representing the old time, is a nice guy otherwise; but he is an out-and-out authoritarian too. He believes he is right and has a God-send duty to keep others on right track. This very thought pushes him to stand against everything he thinks harmful or anything he is unfamiliar with like any new technology.
In our movie, when the Chairman speaks against image, we understand it came from an orthodox religious belief. But when we see the Chairman is not very comfortable with new technology like the mobile phone, the computer, Facebook. We understand it is coming from his inability to deal with new stuff. To me, this is the biggest driving force of the character. He is always unsure about the arrival of anything new.
Humour came to me right from the very outset. Humour and satire are the result of deep frustration. Since I personally went through this experience from my early childhood, it left a frustrating mark on me. Initially, when I was writing the first draft, it was all satire and “black-and-white”. During the process of script writing, I was trying to align the Chairman’s character with my own dad. At one point, I found that I was being able to feel the pain of the (Chairman’s) character more. This alignment helped me feel his frustration. I believe this gave the film a much-needed human touch, a more balanced look at things.
So does humour let you do that another dramatic approach would not?
Humour and emotion are the two strongest tools when it comes to communicating to Bangladeshi audiences. And when it comes to social critique, I think humour lets you rip through. And the emotional side of the film helped me to strike a chord even with the most religious person like my dad.
How easy is it to critique religious orthodoxy in Bangladesh? How was Television received by local critics and movie-goers?
Bangladesh is mostly a population with tolerant minds. There is also a fanatic group that is very small in number. I had no problem when the film was released. People took the film warmly and it saw about one million admissions. A lot of religiously active persons watched the film and I found that many of them got extremely emotional at the end of the film. I believe it is very important to try not to offend the person who is being criticised.
Television will be screened at FD Zone at Films Division in Mumbai 4pm onwards on 22 March along with SNS Sastry’s He is Back, about Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The screenings are free and open to all.
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