In order to sit for an up close and personal interview, it’s imperative to find the perfect location. Fortunately, Rahsaan was quite aware of his surroundings. It was lunchtime, and it was a Tuesday. Still within a Los Angeles frame of mind, (you guessed it), he suggested ‘Taco Tuesday’ was the only appropriate approach to our afternoon rendezvous. I was starting to like this guy already.
The Chicago native spent a significant amount of time around Hollywood, earning his stripes as a filmmaker. Naturally, I was inclined to listen to what the actor-director had to say about his experiences and his new film Bengali Beauty. With expectations out the window, there was a genuine curiosity to what Rahsaan had to bring to the table. Taking a step further, to win me over, we both felt rebellious and decided to order enchiladas on a traditional ‘Taco Tuesday.’ These are some serious rules we were breaking, people.
“The other day, someone came up to me, talking about how they want to bring Taco Bell to Bangladesh. They asked me how it would do here. My eyes lit up because I’m a Taco Bell fiend,” Rahsaan exclaimed, to my utter shock. As a Californian, this is somewhat frowned upon, but I decided to give him a pass. This young man went against the grain and his affection for Mexican cuisine, and current Hollywood address spoke to my lonely heart that never left the past.
It was an indication of two complete strangers bonding over similar tastes and likes, sharing stories that were welcomed by both parties. Not only was he mature beyond his years, but Rahsaan also seemed quite comfortable in delivering the carefully chosen dialogue, and with the right amount.
The slight cultural jabs continued as he laughingly replied to how it feels to be following in the footsteps of other famous Chicago greats, such as Barack Obama, Michael Jordan, and Kanye West. “I don’t know if I look up to Kanye West too much. But Michael Jordan was and is a huge inspiration, regarding his work ethic, focus and passion he brought to his craft. I was a basketball player myself [at a university level], so I could relate.”
The 30-year-old actor reflected on when he began his craft and driven passion behind it. “When I first started making movies, I was 26. People would ask me how old I was. They were genuinely surprised when they found out. They thought I was older. And now, it’s quite the opposite,” as he explains with a sarcastic ending to the query, “I’m trying that Amir Khan anti-aging cream.”
On the topic of age, it was essential to understand when, where, and how Rashaan developed his passion for film. Without hesitation, “A lot of people say it’s in my blood. My grandfather was a well-known journalist. He was the editor of the Daily Ittefaq at one point. And my parents were culturally involved in the Chicago community. By default, I had to perform at these functions. I was six years old when they decided to put me on stage.”
Strolling down memory lane, Rahsaan could vividly call back to the moment he first set foot on stage. “My grandmother had me recite a poem. And my Mukit Uncle, who unfortunately passed away a few years back, was pulling the curtains back, looked at me and asked, ‘Rahsaan are you ready?’ I said yeah I’m ready.” Unfortunately, it wasn’t what he expected as he recalls, “But I wouldn’t call it an actual performance. The curtains go up, and all I see is just a sea of black. I was a six-year-old kid who couldn’t see a single thing besides a spotlight shone on me. I don’t say a single word. A minute or two go by, and I start hearing a few people laughing. I was aloof and called out to the crowd, asking who was making that entire racket. Fortunately, my grandmother came down to the rescue, and word for word, I repeated the poem after her.”
It was one of those moments you just look back and laugh at. Rahsaan fast-forwarded to his high school days, performing as a teenager. His classmates took a fancy to his work and encouraged him to do more. With acting classes and playing for the basketball team on the schedule, he had a gruelling day-to-day just like any other active student of that age.
Rahsaan further took this practice into college and started making videos of his own. “I shot my brother’s graduation. I made a 30-minute short film for my parents’ anniversary. At that point, a lot of people kept asking me to keep doing more because they enjoyed it so much. Naturally, I kept doing more.”
The connection with people is a vital one. It’s one thing to be encouraged by them, and another when it feeds inspiration to a filmmaker’s work. Rahsaan thrives on being inspired by his travels and conversations with people, rather than being influenced by the films he watches. “I do, however, sometimes feel jealous while watching certain films. I kick myself for not coming up with the idea that these filmmakers have come up with on screen. Ultimately, it’s about interpreting the world around you.”
Interpretation and perspective sometimes go in sync, especially when you are both the leading actor and director of Bengali Beauty. “As a director, it’s about your vision and the collaborative process. Sometimes as a director, you don’t want to collaborate,” this was followed by a grin and laughter from the both of us, “and sometimes you do want to collaborate. Then, there are egos to deal with – managing all that is much more difficult than being in your space as an actor. But even as an actor, you have to work off each other. Fortunately, I had good co-artists for this film, so the chemistry is there on the screen.”
The balance between being in front of the camera and behind it is something Rahsaan has got down, regardless of so much he still wants to learn and improve on. “Being a director is all about organising your thoughts. On the other hand, an actor has the responsibility of expressing those thoughts.” In case of the Director-Actor of Bengali Beauty, these thoughts took fruition after a couple of years of developing the script of the film. Although sceptical at first, the story gradually grew on him once the angle became clearer. He gathered that Bangladeshi films revolving around the 70s were all about the war. “You don’t get to see what happens after that. The war, the famine and so on. However, the period stuck with me. Worldwide, the 1970s was pretty much a revolutionary time. But there was so much flare and style too. I wanted to explore how that part of life was in Bangladesh during that period – the romantic side of things.”
What was also eye-opening was the significant difference in talent and experiences he observed in multiple cities around the world. “There is a big difference between the people in Los Angeles and even in New York. Forget Mumbai, Kerala or Kolkata. Just their abilities and talent leaves a huge gap between them and L.A.,” Rahsaan explains, “I hadn’t realised this until I got to New York.” He half-jokingly stated that he would have reservations about hiring people who weren’t trained in Los Angeles.
Be it a film with nuance or a complete popcorn movie, making a good film is a daunting task; nearly impossible stated by some film pundits. When asked about the hard work behind even in the films he’s not a fan of, his response was of a sound mind. “It’s very tough to make a great film, but you just really hope that your movie connects with people. Now, do I appreciate the effort? If there is an actual effort, you’ll appreciate it.” There was a slight pause, in gathering his thoughts, as he was about to share a personal experience of an excellent example of unprofessionalism.
“I’ve been on a set of a Bollywood project with a popular actor attached. The director came on set two minutes before they began the scene, sat down with a laptop, while his assistant called the action. As everyone else was carrying on with their duties, there he was booking tickets for his vacation.” Clearly, for some, this is an alarming account, but at the same time not too surprising from the stories you might have heard in the media.
“It’s crazy how some people go on cruise control with that type of high-budget film.” This would raise anyone’s eyebrows, as he continued, “If actual, genuine effort is given, you can’t knock the hustle. In this industry, a lot of people want to be famous without putting much effort. I’ve seen this everywhere. It’s like, come on, man! Be honest,” his passion couldn’t be more apparent, “there are people here who work hard, spend their money to watch you on screen. Give them something that’s value for money!”
His conviction and overall intent speak volume in a world of a sophisticated audience and an equal amount of those who are satisfied by the mediocre. So far, Rahsaan Noor gives no hints of the latter. Perhaps Bengali Beauty will set a new standard for how films are executed here at home. Maybe, just maybe, his way of storytelling can spark a movement into an international quality of filmmaking; a kind of renaissance that is much needed in Bangladesh. Only time will tell. For now, we’ll sit down for another ‘Taco Tuesday’ with real tacos.