Leesa Gazi’s ‘Baarir Naam Shahana’ sheds light on a woman’s courage
British-Bangladeshi writer, director, actor and playwright, Leesa Gazi has dedicated her career to presenting powerful stories told from a woman's perspective via theatre and film. Her documentary film, "Rising Silence", memorialising accounts of Birangona women of the 1971 Liberation War, won several accolades across the world, including Best Feature Documentary at Moondance International Film Festival (USA), Asian Media Award for Best Investigation 2019 (UK), Best Feature Documentary at the PSVI Film Competition by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, UK. Since 2017, Gazi started working with Global Survivors Network, SEMA, established by Nobel Laureate Dr Denis Mukegwege's Foundation. The first-ever International public address by two Birangona women of Bangladesh, Anoara Begum and Jabeda Khatun, was made possible by Gazi's efforts. Begum and Khatun joined fellow survivors in an international call at the Hague in 2018 for global reparations schemes to address the consequences of rape as a weapon of war. Gazi is currently working on the Collective Memory Group at SEMA. Recently, she spoke to The Daily Star about her upcoming film, "Baarir Naam Shahana - A House Named Shahana", and more.
"Baarir Naam Shahana", produced by your company, Komola Collective, is your first fiction film. How did you begin working on it?
I wrote the story in 2011, and we began working on the film in October 2019. I narrated the story to my close friend and collaborator, Aanon Siddiqua, who plays the lead character in the film. We ended up writing the screenplay together. She is a singer and dancer and has also acted in a short film. She is currently doing her PHD on the complexities in developing an effective and sustainable legal framework that protects the creative and commercial interests of Bangladeshi Musicians. I am excited for the audience to see her performance in "Baarir Naam Shahana". Noted actor and writer Bipasha Hayat, a close friend of mine, gave us additional ideas that involve parts of this film to be shot in the UK. Seventy-five per cent of the movie has been shot in Bangladesh, and we will do the rest in the UK.
Currently, we are looking for co-producers. The film is about a woman's right to choose to live her life on her own terms, and we would like to work with those companies or individuals who believe in this view. Our shoots were delayed on multiple occasions due to the Covid-19 pandemic. We only started filming in May of this year. The cast and crew were determined to do their best, despite the setbacks. We hope to start our UK shoots by the end of this year or the beginning of next year.
Could you elaborate on the story of "Baarir Naam Shahana"?
The movie is about a divorced woman named Dipa in 90's Bangladesh, who wants to have control of her own life, defying social stigma and building her own path to achieve her purpose. The film is about her journey through her pain, courage, desire, and fighting spirit to live her life the way she chooses. It has no special effects or gimmicks. The heart of "Baarir Naam Shahana" lies in its story. It will not be a sad, miserable film. Instead, it will be a triumphant one.
You have worked with both newcomers and prominent artistes on this film. How was the experience?
Alongside Aanon Siddiqua, the cast includes Amirul Haque Chowdhury, Jayanto Chattopadhyay, Naila Azad Nupur, Lutfor Rahman George, Iresh Zaker, Kazi Ruma, Kamrunnahar Munni, Wriddhi, Apon, and many local performers from Kushtia. I have a dream team including Xoaher Musavvir (Director of Photography), Mohammad Rafi Sumon (Associate Producer), Nahid Masud (Sound), Tania Rahman (Costume Designer), Alex Unai (Tech Head and On-location Editor), Sohini Alam and Oliver Weeks (Music Directors). They have all been remarkable to work with at such stressful and challenging times.
Tell us about your personal journey with filming "Baarir Naam Shahana". How and why were you inspired to tell this story?
More often than not, we have seen women's stories being told through the lenses of men. But is it possible for a man to comprehend the experience of being a woman truly? Being a divorcée myself in '90s Bangladesh, I experienced enormous social stigma and observed how divorced women were made outcasts in their homes and society in general. However, Dipa does not accept what is decided for her by others and fights to live her life as she aspires. I have seen women like Dipa too. Every female character in this film is familiar and relatable. We know or recognise them from our surroundings. They emerge from our homes, families, and neighbourhoods.
You have collaborated with celebrated author Tahmima Anam for a play. What can you tell us about it?
Our company, Komola Collective, commissioned Tahmima Anam to write a play entitled "Shahrazad". It is based on the eponymous character from Middle Eastern folk tales, "One Thousand and One Nights". Shahrazad is a woman who is married to a king, and on the wedding night, she tells a story to him but does not finish it, leaves it at a cliffhanger, as she is supposed to be killed at the end of the night. The king wants to hear the end of the story, but Shahrazad says he will have to wait until the next night to listen to the rest of it. Trapped behind high walls and closed doors, a woman must find tricks and tactics to divert her husband's growing anger each day to survive. The play is based on this theme, looking at the 'Shahrazads' of today. Tahmima Anam wrote an outstanding play with a modern approach dealing with this idea that worked superbly. Domestic violence peaked during the Covid-19 pandemic across the world, and as storytellers, we felt that we needed to address this issue urgently. For this project, we have spoken to survivors of domestic violence (DV) and their children and worked with different DV organisations. We look forward to bringing the play to the stage in 2022.