A movie set and filmed in Bangladesh by a British Bangladeshi, can it really work? Filmmaker Munsur Ali tells Kiran Sainbhee about his decade long plans to make a motion picture and how they have finally taken shape.
Munsur Ali was an inspiration even before he added the title Director, Writer and Producer of Shongram to his filmmaking CV. The East London filmpreneur set up his own production company shortly after graduating from university, where he studied film, and set about becoming one of the first Asian video specialists to produce cinematic quality wedding videos.
He then took the brave step of doing something completely different – launching his own film awards. But these weren’t any old accolades; now in their 6th year The Limelight Film Awards are the biggest event in the UK to recognise and celebrate independent filmmaking. Showcasing shorts, documentaries, comedies and a host of other genres, Munsur has paved the way for other creatives to get ahead in their careers. Now it’s his turn to shine.
Munsur has written, produced and directed his first feature film. Shongram (Struggle) is set amidst the 1971 Bangladeshi struggle for independence. The story focuses on the war from the perspective of a young Muslim man, Karim, whose world is torn apart when his peaceful village suddenly becomes a war zone and he is separated from his love, Asha, a beautiful Hindu girl.
He must fight for his freedom in a destructive whirlwind of mass murder, abductions, rape, and arson before he can finally search for Asha. In a tragic tale of destruction laced with the controversial romance of a young couple, Munsur captures the essence of the events of 1971 in Bangladesh in a way the world has never seen before…
What made you conceive the idea of making a film about the events leading up to the birth of Bangladesh?
I had been thinking about making historical films for many years but I think the idea of making a film based around the 1971 Bangladesh liberation struggle really took shape about three years ago - although I had been planning on doing something around this topic for about 10 years.
Why did you choose to tell this story through the medium of a fictional drama rather than a factual documentary?
Films need to be entertaining, commercially viable, and in my opinion, carry a message. This is why the film is a romantic drama set during 1971, highlighting the issues faced by a population. The fact that it is fictional allowed me to meander the narrative imaginatively whilst also respecting the factual elements which the story is based on. A documentary would not allow this freedom and would also be far more challenging to get in to movie theatres, commercially speaking.
How did you develop the fictional part of the story?
I needed ingredients that people can relate to universally, hence the romantic element of the film, the discrimination, and the challenges people face in certain societies. I also needed to produce a narrative which would play out the struggle of the characters whilst allowing the good guys and the bad guys to be easily identified. The factual parts of the story helped to anchor the fictional part.
Could you tell us a little bit about the main characters, Karim and Asha?
Karim is a happy-go-lucky ‘childish’ character to begin with but as the story develops, he takes on new challenges, experiences and decisions, forcing him to grow up very quickly. Asha is a beautiful, yet feisty girl who hides her emotions. The pair grew up together sharing a special bond but as they hit their teens, their relationship develops into one where they tease and taunt each other to express their feelings.
What inspired you to add in the controversial element of their Muslim/Hindu love affair?
I wanted to show that love has no barriers. The romantic relationship between Asha and Karim allowed me to explore the issues that many couples with differing backgrounds can face.
How did you go about casting the roles for these characters? What do you feel Aman Reza [who plays Karim] and Dilruba Yasmeen Ruhee [who plays Asha] brought to their individual roles?
I had a team in Bangladesh that arranged the pre-selection, but I was very picky about the cast members. When you cast, you look to see who fits the role you have been imagining for so long. You also have to see the on-screen chemistry between the actors. I actually made Aman and Ruhee read out a romantic scene and a tragic scene from the script. They both did brilliantly and looked good as an on screen couple. Aman has an innocence about him which fits perfectly with the character Karim. Ruhee is very hard working and as a model/actress, she knows how to work the camera. She also absorbs the thought and feel of the character Asha. She expressed it so well that I actually called her Asha a few times!
You spent three years planning and working on the film. What was your research process like?
I’ve actually been learning about this topic from a young age, having heard a lot of stories about the struggles of 1971. I viewed archive footage and read testimonials from both Bangladeshi and Pakistani points of view. I also spoke to eye witnesses, including an Englishman who was in Dhaka on the night everything kicked off, 25th of March 1971. Forty-two years on, it’s difficult to formulate a picture of what happened that is 100% correct, and as a filmmaker I understand that. I avoided disputed issues such as how many were killed during the genocide, but I accepted that there was genocide. It was important for me to find my own opinion and give that a narrative structure.
Did you learn anything about yourself while making the film?
I learnt that hate I bugs - actually fear is probably the correct word! While shooting at night they were everywhere. On a more serious note, working on this film gave me a far better understanding of my cultural heritage, allowing me to answer some personal questions about my identity, my self-perception and the struggle my parents and their generation went through.
The film starts and ends with an elderly Karim lying on his deathbed telling his story to a London reporter. Why did you decide on this narrative structure?
I wanted to link the past with the present and also Eastern experiences with Western ones. In this situation, East and West were directly linked as 1971 was inevitable after the partition of India in 1947 under British rule. ‘Old Karim’ is that key link as he shares his experience to an English reporter in London, allowing me to interact with Eastern and Western audiences alike.
Why did you choose to make Karim’s character a British-Bangladeshi who had come over to the UK from Bangladesh rather than someone who had always lived in Bangladesh?
This explains the ‘cause and effect’ of the 1971 struggle - why English is now my first language, while my parents’ was Bangla; a concept that many people can relate to. I was also able to portray a different point of view of the British Empire and how it still affects people today. I often wonder if the ‘nobody’ on the street was interviewed, an elderly person perhaps, what fascinating experiences they would be able to share and what new things we can learn from them; and this thinking helped to further develop ‘Old Karim’.
As a British-Bangladeshi yourself, the film must be very close to your heart. What were your feelings when filming the raw, emotional scenes depicting the violence encountered by the people of Bangladesh in 1971?
I was too focused on filming and other arrangements to feel emotion while filming. Getting the shoot done safely and within time and budget was a greater concern while filming. I experienced my emotions, questions and challenges during the research and pre-production. There were a lot of things that I learnt about the struggles of 1971 that were so difficult for me to absorb that I did not share them in the film as they were often too sensitive or political.
What was it like filming in Bangladesh?
I have previously filmed abroad in numerous locations such as Mauritius, Mecca, Paris, and Egypt; but filming in Bangladesh was a first, so it was exciting yet scary. Bangladesh is beautiful, with really hospitable people; however the problems such as regular power cuts, no eBay, and ridiculous import charges did not help while filming. We had power cuts while filming so we had to take breaks, which meant losing time and money. Oh yes, and there were lots of bugs in the villages at night, the flashlights were like magnets and we had thousands of them! In terms of the conditions, they were perfect with the exception of one day, but one in six weeks of shooting is not bad at all.
Who do you think this film will appeal to the most?
I think the global Bangladeshi audience will appreciate it but this film will also appeal to those who appreciate a good romantic film with genuine struggles. It’s a film with a fresh point of view, and with the discussed challenges and issues in the film, it has a wide appeal. It’s also the first film by a British-Bangladeshi of this calibre on 1971.
What stage is the film at now?
The majority of the film is now shot and is being edited but we will be shooting the UK phase very soon for which we will require extras to appear in the film. If anyone is interested in being a part of this or want to get a sneak preview of the film they can visit our website www.shongram.com.
Shongram will be screened at The London Indian Film Festival 2014.