Discussions with the Debi (of Bangladesh Cinema)

Model: Jaya Ahsan

Wardrobe: Nabila
Make-up: Aura Beauty Lounge
Photographs: Rafiqul Islam Raf
Location: Nabi Residence, Baridhara
Fashion Coordinator: Asif Sulaiman

I am about to ask the first question when Jaya stops me and asks for a strong cup of doodh-cha, sweetness reduced. It was late evening, before which she had spent all day with scriptwriters and directors discussing future projects. The doodh-cha was her much needed pick-me-up. After 14 years of being an actress, Jaya has recently launched her own production house, C te Cinema, which is set to release its first film in the next few weeks.
Years of drinking tea with a little less sugar than she might have wanted has paid off, as the actor barely looks her age; her Greek motif printed dress showing off her well-maintained figure. Someone brings Jaya her tea and she smiles a satisfied smile, motioning the beginning of our discussion.

Congratulations on your production debut! In Debi, you are both actor and producer. How did you manage to juggle these two roles?

The challenge is not in living between the roles. My challenge comes from a different place. When I am acting, I tell my team that I am no longer a part of ‘them’; they are free to do what they like. I throw tantrums like actors do, even though maybe as a producer I shouldn’t anymore. But my team are my strength, they are extremely supportive and make sure I get enough sleep, I am able to leave on time and get to work on time just as an actor would be treated.
From a producer’s point of view, I had a shooting schedule of 35 days initially, but I prepared it in a way that it could be done in 26 days. I prepared everything quite early in advance, which is why my team is able to work effectively and silently.

Why did you choose this story for your first film?

You know when you really like a character in a book, it stays with you forever. I had read Humayun Ahmed’s Debi many times as a child and the references from it have remained in my mind. Honestly, I’m making this film because I’m completely in love with Misir Ali. I was upset that no one was making the film so I decided to do it. I then applied for the National Film Grant which I eventually received. This made life much easier for me. My scriptwriter, Anam Biswas, is brilliant. You must know him as the writer of Aynabaji, who won the National Film award. In the novel, the introductory scenes to Misir Ali are not present, but when you hear the dialogues in the film, you will feel like they have come from Humayun Ahmed himself. I really feel that the mother of a film is a good script.

I had read Humayun Ahmed’s Debi many times as a child and the references from it have remained in my mind. Honestly, I’m making this film because I’m completely in love with Misir Ali, so there was really no preparation required. I was upset that no one was making the film so I decided to do it.

Misir Ali is the protagonist of so many stories. Why did you pick this particular one?

To be very honest with you, I chose it for no other reason but for myself. So that I could watch Debi being portrayed in cinema because it is my favorite Misir Ali story. When making a film, one has to take some cinematic liberties, but I am not claiming to re-write literature. So I have tried to keep the essence of the original as much as possible but adapted it to modern times. For example, the neel kham chithi in the book is something the youth of today won’t be able to relate to, so I have had to use the phone. But even that I have kept to a minimum. I wanted to capture a very neutral moment in time.

As an audience, what major difference will we find between the novel and the film?

An intelligent audience won’t find too many differences. But if someone is sitting there looking out for them then they will, of course, find many. Someone might say Misir Ali was thin, why is he fatter here? But I can promise that the essence of Misir Ali is there. I could obviously have cast someone who exactly fits the original character description or someone who has played him before, but then what would be new? Where is the challenge in that? If 16 crore people have read this book, there will be 16 crore versions of him. One has to go watch a film ready to see a different version. I did actually think of casting various intellectuals or artists, ones who look just like him, but I need quality acting and for that, you need a professional actor.

What kind of audience are you targeting with this film?

I want all kinds of audiences to watch it. I think it’s really wrong to classify an audience according to their social status. Sure, in Bangladesh certain movies do attract certain groups of people but they are still just people watching those movies. Why would they not watch mine? What really brings audiences to films is the strength of the story. Do you know the song “Aynate oi mukh dekhbe jokhon, kopoler kalo til porbe chokhe”? The fact that kopol means cheek and not forehead, even rickshaw-pullers of that time used to know because everyone watched the same films then. Nowadays, people are happy watching nonsense, which has brought down the standard of cinema in Bangladesh.
I suppose I have targeted Humayun Ahmed devotees to a certain extent, but youngsters of today don’t read him as much so my hope is that the solid plot line and dialogues are what will draw them.

You started out as an actress and are now a producer. In this evolution as an artist, what were your biggest obstacles?

I take obstacles as they come. I have never mapped out how things are going to go. Even when I was younger, I could not have known that I would be an actor. I think people actually find themselves through their work so that’s what happened to me. As an actor, my greatest challenge is overcoming myself. How can I present myself so that I do not seem like Jaya, or like a previous role I have played? How can I be better than I was in Guerilla? What can I create that is better than Debi? Everything I add to my basket must be better than what is already in it.

How do you choose the roles and films that you do? Do you have any inspirations that you follow?

First and foremost, I see the script, followed by the character and the director. These are the three most important things for me. Also, it’s not that I don’t work with new directors. In fact, I might like working with them more because, like me, they are open to experimentation. Established directors often make formulaic, safe films. I’ve been in the industry long enough to be able to tell which directors will be able to excite me and persuade me. The script really is key, and exciting scripts are few and far between, which is why I have such little work.

I sincerely believe that if a person wants to shine on an international stage, they will have to tell their own stories. You will never make a great film if you are trying to copy Hollywood or Bollywood. Look at our television industry – it is a joke now. They have forgotten how to treat their audience.

You do a lot of work across the border. Do you think Indian filmmakers are more exciting to work with than Bangladeshi ones?

Bangladeshi scripts are much more exciting but our execution is not up to standard. The child is never born with ten fingers and ten toes intact – you know what I mean? Whereas in India, they have a vision as to what the film will be like and that is what they end up making.

What kind of promotions have you put in place for Debi?

This is a scary part of the process! Artists in Bangladesh don’t understand how important promotion is. They think once the shooting is done, their work is over. When I make films in Kolkata, it says in our contract that we have to participate fully in promotional activities. Imagine slaving all day to make a wonderful meal but serving it in a broken dish. What is the point of that? It’s an orientation issue.
Although, there is a costume house called Bishworang that created a Debi themed costume line. Those dresses are getting a lot of praise. That kind of thing hasn’t happened in Bangladesh before. We have also teamed up with Foodpanda and there are some promotions on our social media pages.

We are so excited for the film now. Has a release date been finalized yet?

We all want to know what the release date will be! This is a government film because we have used government money to make it. Actually, it is not government money, but the people’s money, so I cannot fool around with it. It is a serious responsibility. This is why there is a long process here, where the governing board will first watch the film, approve it and then, send it to the censor board. However, I am completely prepared to release in mid-October, if all goes well.

You mentioned once that Bangladeshi movies are never made to fit any particular genre. What is Debi’s genre and why are genres important?

Debi is a mix between a horror movie and a psychological thriller. I think, as filmmakers, we have a responsibility to alter the appetite of filmgoers. These days, it makes no sense to underestimate the intellect of the audience – everyone has a basic level of education. In the old days, producers and directors made what they liked and audiences rose to their standard. Why have we gone back in time now? I sincerely believe that if a person wants to shine on an international stage, they will have to tell their own stories. You will never make a great film if you are trying to copy Hollywood or Bollywood. Look at our television industry – it is a joke now. They have forgotten how to treat their audience. The stories they portray are not realistic and no one even talks in the ridiculous way their actors speak on screen! See, you don’t have to tell flashy stories for them to be good. The quality comes from the acting, the cinematography, and the direction. So as long as I am in the audiovisual industry, I feel I have a responsibility to maintain a standard and not move from it. I could easily have chosen to make a formulaic film as my first production – with six songs, two fights, colorful scenes and a reunion of lovers at the end but it doesn’t match my philosophy. So why would I do that? It is a waste of my creativity.

What plans for your production house, C te Cinema?

Now that I have this, I am getting scripts from various directors which is fun for me. In the past, I have been the one taking scripts for directors to producers, requesting them to produce their films. Feels strange! But I will only make films that match my outlook.

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Juneyna Kabir

Juneyna is the sub-editor of ICE Today and ICE Business Times. She spends most of her time planning her next meal and plotting female world domination