Purity need not be categorised. We feel comfortable seeing things in categories—black, white, solid, liquid, fiction, documentary, etc.—that is how we usually perceive things. And we feel bewildered when things surpass the boundary that upholds categories. So it is not unlikely that we debate about which category the film Shunte Ki Pao (Are You Listening?) belongs to. Is it a documentary? Or should one call it fiction? Kamar Ahmad Simon's Shunte Ki Pao contrasts the conventional ways of portraying objects—life and its surroundings—packed into categories. Instead, it liberates itself from any defined genre in order to be pure cinema. It is pure cinema narrating collective spirit while also showing an individual's and family's immersion in the mundane flow of life and living. Life as a flow contains dreams, so it does not matter how throbbing one's life is. And any medium of art—music, dance, painting, literature, cinema—attempts to portray the flow of life and living. Art glorifies the spirit that makes the flow aesthetically bearable in order for humans to uphold and actualize their dreams.
As lights shut off in the movie theatre, the world of Shunte Ki Pao appears presenting a south-west Bangladeshi costal village called Sutarkhali. The sound of ululation makes the night echo the eternal flow of which the life is a part. It is breathing time, time to rest, and weave and share dreams. Rakhi and her four year old son Rahul converse about their immediate past when they had a proper home—with fruit trees and the things that a proper home usually possesses—that is now crashed by a tidal surge. What they have lost does not make the conversation agonising, rather mother and son keep weaving a dream that the past will resurface in the days to come.
Recurrence of morning in Sutarkhali is captured in a spectacular close shot of water flowing. The camera rhythmically moves in different angles showing the embankment on which homeless people found their temporary shelter, and in the vast wetland—the signature of Bangladesh—people moving by boat. Kids play in the midst of deficiency—a cabinet-like home for an entire family, a school with no roof and no benches for students to sit. Rahul and his friends are not lamed by the shortage of what makes life livable. Adults gather at teastalls critically responding to half-hearted development efforts by government, public representatives, and international donors. They question the meaning of “ultra poor”, a popular development jargon producing improper exclusion. Rahul and his friends sprint with their toy car made of bamboo and plastic bottles confirming the vitality of life. Rakhi and her co-teachers teach children how important it is to be obedient to the state while adults justifiably criticize the government for its negligence.
Soumen, Rakhi's jobless husband who usually keeps a low profile, provides the family with the little he can. Unlike a few others he is unwilling to migrate as that won't change the fate; instead, he prefers staying as one of the cords in the orchestra of collective drive to positively reverse the scenario. He is an ordinary man like any other husband who sometimes indulges in soft argument with his wife about causal things. But in need he transforms into one of those laborious braves brightly pronounced in the paintings of Sultan. Despite being homeless and passing days in penury Rakhi is not short of sharing tittle-tattle with her peers. Women share gossip, make humorous comments about other women, and they laugh at these as an ordinary human being will do in keeping up with the flow of life.
Shunte Ki Pao is a cinematic externalisation of ordinary people instilled with collective vigour to struggle against the odds, odds that the swindle politics and other formal institutions misappropriate. Kamar makes an ethnographic observation which he has cinematized with the eye of an architect distinctively visible in the composition of his shots—frames and angles—and also in the way camera moves. Low angle shots distinguish his cinematography. From a low angle we see Rakhi helping Rahul learn to swim— water bumps out almost touching our face, we feel wet and we discover ourselves in the water. Kamar narrates his observation like a sonata carefully abandoning ups and down to avoid imposing a feel or forcefully inflaming a thought. He sometime uses insert-shots for the viewer to come back to their breath required for self-reflexive observation. After the evening meeting where tasks are distributed for the construction of the dam a distinctive shot is inserted. Morning shines on the river bank, a boat passes by from left to right, the camera pans following the boat in a mid shot while a devotional song is heard. We the audiences breathe as the community in Sutarkhali perhaps stretch their energy before they would take off the coating of their ordinariness to bring out the Sultan's man living inside them.
The community joins hands, enthusiasm rises with no boundary, and a dam is constructed to block unwanted water. A long shot views people completing the work while an observer from the right corner of the foreground observes the magnificence of ordinary people. At once we discover ourselves as the observer of a heart weaving human enterprise. The film could end here, but Kamar moves further, justifiably of course, to track the flow that has no end. People return to their homes once lost, now busy in rebuilding, and a storm seems approaching. Nature will run its course, even sometime may behave dreadfully, but people infused with collective strength are capable of making their way out of the odds. For surely, life is greater than the ills it faces.
Shunte Ki Pao celebrates the human power of jumping over the odds blocking the flow of life. It is pure cinema infusing a sense we intensely feel as we come back to our private zone to converse with those that aesthetically touch our mind. Watching cinema is observing the observation of the maker of cinema. Observing the observation of Kamar is a feast that feeds our soul and we feel fulfilled.
The writer teaches film and media at Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB).