I think this is the fourth Bangladeshi film to appear on my film festival lists over the past couple of years and like the previous three this is both entertaining and informative. Writer-director Rezwan Shahriar Sumit has come through the film festival route (Berlinale 2008) and then the Tisch School of the Arts, NYU. This is his début feature.
Rudro (Titas Zia) is an artist in his early thirties from Dhaka who first meet at the quayside trying to get his large wooden crate shipped to the delta region of the south where he has arranged to stay in a remote fishing village to develop a project. The idea of using the village as a base came from his late father, a coastguard engineer who travelled through the delta. The village turns out to be very small, a dozen or so families, all linked to fishing for ilish, the prized national fish of Bangladesh. Fishing is dangerous in open boats and especially so during the South-West monsoon which is the time when the shoals of fish are more abundant close to the shore.
Rudro’s landlord, Bashar (Ashok Bepari) has a young son and an older daughter Tunni who are quick to discover what is in Rudro’s crate and soon the boys in the village are taking part in art projects, especially trying their hand at modelling figures. This will prove problematic. The small community is in thrall to ‘the Chairman’, a seasoned fisherman who has travelled and installed himself as both local head man and imam. He helps to spread the idea that Rudro’s figures are ‘idols’ and that because of this, the community may be punished and the fish may not be found. The ‘contest’ between Rudro and the Chairman (Fazlur Rahman Babu) becomes the main driver of the narrative.
In the Q&A that followed the film, the director told us that the power of the Chairman and his use of Islam to condemn Rudro’s sculptures could be found in small communities like some of those in the delta – but not in Bangladesh generally. The Chairman tries to convince the fisher-folk that Rudro is the reason why the fish can’t be found and catches are small. It’s the age-old story of modernity vs. tradition. Rudro himself does nothing to prompt these attacks but he doesn’t realise the importance of Tunni’s advice that he shouldn’t try to talk to the young girls or the women in the community generally. She, on the other hand is very curious about him and I realised later that her relationship with Rudro, her father’s house guest, reminded me of two of the three stories by Rabindranath Tagore that Satyajit Ray adapted for his film Teen Kanya (Three Girls, 1961). Ray’s film is set in the same delta region in which two men from the city, who arrive for different specific purposes, become the object of attention from two different young girls.
Tunni (Tasnova Tamanna) is a bright young woman who is clearly intrigued by life in the city. In fact Sumit is careful in his presentation of all of the villagers and even the Chairman, though he is devious in how he tries to turn the community against Rudro, still retains enough human qualities to avoid becoming a typical ‘villain’. The director explained that he made several visits to the delta during the long preparations for the film. He also became aware of the implications of climate change in the region which is on the frontline for the first major impact of any rise in sea levels and for the increasing power of extreme weather.
Technical credits on the film are excellent, especially the cinematography of Chananun Chotrungroj who the director met via NYU. Her Thai background may have helped her capture the luminous shots of landscape and the villagers which can be seen in the trailer below. The performances are generally very good. Only the Chairman and his henchman are professional actors, I think. All the other roles are either non-professionals or relatively inexperienced film actors like those playing Rudro and Tunni. I haven’t found out the precise reason for the title of the film, though I am aware that ilish is a fish that lives in both the sea and river estuaries and that like the salmon it returns to the river to spawn. The balance between freshwater and salt water is central to the continued livelihood of the fishing villages.
I thoroughly enjoyed watching this film and it made me think longingly of visiting the delta – and eating ilsha (hilsa) cooked in a mustard sauce.