With Imax plan-ning to supersize the Netflix streaming service, the merger of our viewing habits is in sight. Last September, there was this David and Goliath agreement between these two opposing movie services that would allow blockbuster cinemas to be made available on small screens, while fringe films under the rubric of Netflix Originals in large cineplexes. This will change the way we watch movies. In the last few years, we have mainly grown used to two different ways of seeing things: as part of the digital gold rush, objects are either blown out of proportion or reduced to fit personal screens. The size of the TV screens in our living rooms or our personal gadgets are constantly evolving to meet the growing demands of visual pleasure. While the growth in streaming services and interactive gadgets may give us the impression that the size and type of devices do not actually matter for watching movies, a recent study states otherwise. It argues that small screens do lead to reduced immersion.
I, for one, who periodically resorts to phone-screen to binge watch, withdrawing myself from mundane worries, was forced to reflect on issues of immersion while watching a movie as a group at my workplace. Last week, the docudrama on our prime minister, Hasina: A Daughter's Tale, was screened at ULAB. Thanks to the production company, Applebox, ULAB students had the privilege of watching the film on an unfamiliar professional theatre mode sitting in their familiar auditorium setting. The comments from the makers in the follow-up session were an added bonus. I had watched the film earlier on a small screen. Returning to the movie a year later with an audience who are in their teens and twenties and with the director and the producer in attendance made me reflect on how politicians are projected and perceived in general. A lot has been said on the merit of the film since its first release in 2018. I don't want to go into the details of the film or the accolades it has deservedly earned. My particular interest lies in the reaction of our young audience, and I feel that there is a lot for our politicians to learn from the film—just like they would do by reading The Unfinished Memoirs and Prison Diaries of the father of the nation.
There were spontaneous applauses from the young audience during two particular scenes: one in which Bangabandhu insisted on having his pipe and tobacco while being arrested, and the other in which the prime minister was seen playing badminton. In the first instance, it was the boldness of the great leader that moved the audience (not sure if it was due to their nicotine urge), while in the second instance, it was the prime minister's active love for sports that attracted the young minds. There was a moment of eerie pin-drop silence in the auditorium when the black rotary dial telephone rang incessantly in Germany in 1975. The voice-over of Sheikh Hasina found an empathetic audience: "I have never heard anything harsher in my life." It was not the ringtone, but the message of the call, that proved to be harsher. The news of the assassination of her entire family reverberated through the ringtone. When I watched the movie by myself on a small screen, I did let my eyes moisten up. In a public place, I was more conscious of the display of my emotion.
The success of the film can be measured by the way the audience engaged with the story or the characters through their collective sighs or laughter. This is a generation that is known to be apolitical. Given the fact that these students at a private university did not come to the hall chanting party slogans, the signs of engagement at a human level show that often official narratives on political figures fail to relate to their audience. This documentary is a glorious exception. It was filmed over a span of five years. It gives us a rare access to the human side of our prime minister. We are not the frustrated bystanders waiting for the motorcade to pass; we are the ones who have been allowed an understanding of why this security matters for a person who has lost everything. We find the PM in her kitchen, in her library, in her garden, or in her ancestral village in Tungipara. The tale, as the title suggests, is of the daughter of an iconic man who was larger than life. The director and the producer made it clear: they did not want a film that would simply document the daily life of Sheikh Hasina. They did not want the camera to be a fly on the wall, witnessing the daily activities of the central character from a distance.
There was no script—the producer Radawan Mujib quipped, "Sheikh Hasina is the script." One can only wonder how many hours of film footage had to be sifted to give the film its current shape. The glue that is used to lace the shots together is music. Take the case of Shyama Sangeet, for instance. The heart-rending "amar shaadh na mitilo, aasha na purilo, shokoli furaye jai ma…" tells of unrequited, unfulfilled hopes and desires against a backdrop where end is near. The song can be translated to chime with the longing of a loving daughter who hardly had time to spend with her father who was mostly in jail or away for political causes. The song echoes the pang of a sister who saw the end of her entire family. The song helps the central character emerge as a mother, grandmother or aunt as well as a sister who learns to protect her remaining family with motherly affection. It is the human side of the story that appealed to our young audience.
The film begins abruptly in a kitchen where the PM is seen cooking, while attending one of her grandchildren. My critical lens was alert when I watched it sitting in my own personal space: ah, gender stereotyping. But the collective endorsement of the audience brushed aside my gender sensitivity, and found no fault in seeing her as a caregiver. "Hasina" appeared to be a relatable, accessible human being—a member of a middle-class family.
The plot, sans script, if I may suborn, emerges as a tale of two sisters. I borrow the idea from the novel that Bangabandhu's second daughter Sheikh Rehana mentions in the film. After the assassination of their father, while living a life of exile, a young Rehana was brimming with thoughts of retributions. She recalled the character of Madame Defarge from Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities who secretly encoded the names of the Revolution's enemies into her knitting. It was the elder sister who kept her calm. Bangabandhu, who united us all, could never believe that his own people would harm him. Yet in private, he once warned his elder daughter about the treacherous nature of "Mostaq Uncle." The elder sister ensured that proper legal procedures were followed in enacting justice once she came to power.
The best part of the film is that it offers a balanced perspective. It avoids the official rhetoric that is often used to mythify our political leaders. Often we ignore the intelligence of our young generation. They are smart enough to see through things. The movie receives collective endorsement because it is honest in its portrayal. It is human in its orientation. Screens should not be used to size up or size down reality. Screens become effective when they offer the touch and feel of skins. The purpose of any film or story is immersion and engagement. Hasina: A Daughter's Tale is successful in doing just that!
Shamsad Mortuza is a Professor of English, University of Dhaka (now on leave). Currently, he is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of ULAB.