Drawing on his own experiences as an outsider, someone who comes from that "Other" place, filmmaker Mostofa Sarwar Farooki has been making movies that live on the edge. In between his cinematic projects, he's also been making popular television and has grown to be both popular and well respected in his native Bangladesh. And in all film communities around the world.
As someone who has loved his work and admired his vision, I was looking forward to speaking with him about his latest film No Land's Man, starring the popular Indian actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui. The film deals with the "Otherness" in a very personal way, as well as with the idea of someone being too much, or too little -- as seen from both sides. In the case of Naveen Cheema, Farooki's hero of sorts, it is being at once both "too Muslim" and "not Muslim" enough. Naveen-slash-Sameer, as some from his previous life know him, moves to America under false pretenses, or maybe not. As he tries to hide his true identity, we the audience begin to realize that things aren't what they seem at first and maybe it's not all going to end well because of his deceit. During his time as a waiter in NYC, Naveen meets a beautiful Australian girl and falls in love. And there begins what could be this tragic hero's undoing...
Throughout the film, Farooki fills the screen with his sense of humour, his visual cunning and, never to be forgotten, the majestic sounds of A.R. Rahman's soundtrack -- noteworthy that Rahman also came on board as a producer, as did Siddiqui for this film. It is immediately obvious that this is one important story to the filmmakers and all those involved in the film.
Because at the end of the day, cinema is the only way to help rebuild the bridges that politicians, religious leaders and policy makers have torn down.
I caught up with Farooki from Cairo where the film enjoyed a Special Screening at the festival. We talked on Zoom, and at the end of our chat, in his usual generous spirit, he said "I think this is the most profound interview I've had about this film." Yes, it sure felt that way, "profound". A word that can easily also be used about his film, which tackles such huge issues in such an intimate and unassuming way.
Here you are with a film that appears at first to be a lighthearted tale of a man and a woman, which then turns into an odyssey of sorts. Even the soundtrack lulls the viewer into a false sense of security to then pull the rug from under our feet. How did you think up this film?
To be frank, the more I'm getting older the more I'm looking at the smaller things of life — the smaller details in life. And those details do not only contain happy moments, but also embarrassing moments, they contain our efforts as to how we try to hide our embarrassment, how we try to create a safe world for us. And this is what is interesting, and the more I try to look into those little details, the more layered and nuanced my screenplays are becoming. I don't know whether it makes sense. I mean, the more I’m trying to look at the simpler things out of life, the more layered and nuanced — and if I may say so — complex the screenplays become.
When I first thought of this idea at the time, the idea was smaller. The very basic idea came from my own life. And then art for me is not only about telling what I feel, art is also about juxtaposing my experience and my feelings in the backdrop of what is happening around me. So it's not only about me, it is finally about us, even if I tell a very personal story.
At the end of the day that story becomes a collective story.
So as far as the film, the story of Naveen is a very personal story that follows him. But at the end of the day, when you finish the film, it will probably trigger you to think that okay, maybe this is telling the story of us because we all suffer from this feeling of displacement. No matter how privileged we are, no matter what world we belong to.
The idea first came from my own experience. My father comes from a district in Bangladesh called Noakhali, which is heavily ridiculed and trolled. I mean nowadays it is getting a little normalized, but in my early childhood if anyone knew I came from Noakhali, they will start treating me like the character in Joker. I’d be a laughingstock, so what I had to do is I always had to be careful to hide my identity. One of the first things was I had to pick the Dhaka accent, so that I'd look and sound like someone from Dhaka. It’s like if you talk to someone from Yorkshire, you'll understand that she or he is from Yorkshire, right? Yes, and the same happened with me.
But the problem happened with my parents. They always spoke in that Noakhali accent, so I always had to find excuses not to take my schoolmates to my home. That's heartbreaking. That's really heartbreaking. When you have to develop so many lies, just so you don't have to take your schoolmates to your home. Because if they had gone to my home, and my father had spoken to them, they would have understood.
That was like an atomic bomb I kept within me. And it got busted when I was working on a television show in Bangladesh and this guy from my neighborhood was an assistant on the shoot. So during the break he said something and spilled my secret. But I felt like all of a sudden, something happened. You're different person. I felt like oh my god, what happened? Just imagine you have gone to a gala screening, and all of a sudden discovered that you don't have any clothes on.
I mean, I was so ashamed. That was the day when this atom bomb got busted.
Before you go on, let me ask you what was more shameful for you? Was it the fact that your father came from Noakhali, or that you had kept it a secret all this time? Because there is that extra layer in your film you know, Sameer/Naveen has this sort of duality about the fact that he has to lie…
When I was really young, in standard three or four, I was really annoyed. I was telling God, “God why were my parents born there?" I complained to God. But when I was more grown up, when I was in college, and when I was working in the television industry, my initial days I wasn’t ashamed of where they are from, but I was ashamed of the abuse that I was afraid would come from the society. I was apprehensive. I didn't feel that I was ashamed of the fact that I had kept a secret. I have lied to so many people. I was not ashamed, but when it finally got spilt I came to terms with the fact that well, I have to accept the fact that I come from Noakhali.
And that day when I “came out” I felt so light, I felt so peaceful in my heart.
When you are forced to live as somebody else it is the most heartbreaking thing. Society or the world can inflict pain on someone's soul. So when I came out, I felt so happy. And then at the same time I started feeling ashamed of all these years, when I had to keep it secret. I cried. Because see, all in our life, what do we want? We want to live as who we are, and we want to feel respected, and honoured and loved as who we are.
Your film also speaks to the fact that you know, we are outsiders, most of our lives. No matter who we are. Your film has many layers. I know that all those layers are there because a lot of your films are very autobiographical, or they have autobiographical themes and ideas. But now I wanted to ask you, because this is the first time that I've noticed the soundtrack of your film. So how did that collaboration come about, A.R. Rahman is also a producer on the film and how did you collaboratively come up with this very eclectic soundtrack — because there's Irish music, there are ballads, and even some eerie thriller sounds.
I'm really so happy that you’ve noticed the finer details of the music! So, first, let me tell you something very interesting about Rahman and our working together. I don't speak musically, meaning I don't know music, right. So how could we connect if we couldn't communicate? I don't know the musical terms. But I know what kind of feeling that particular music is supposed to generate. So what we did is instead of talking about it in musical language, we spoke in philosophical language and we spoke in a child-like language. A language of feelings. First, I gave him the film, and he lived with the film for some time. And he took time to see the colour and texture of the emotions that I wanted to evoke through particular shots. So once he had seen it, he started talking to me. We talked for three, four hours at a time. And in those conversations, we talked about philosophy. We talked about emotions, we talked about what kind of emotion I wanted to evoke. So it was more like when he understood my soul, when he saw my soul clearly, then he knew what kind of music he needed to create. That's why you have noticed that he created a sound that doesn't sound like anything which A.R. Rahman has done before. And that is the mastery of a magician. He is a poet. He is a magician.
So in some ways, it's as if A.R. Rahman did the soundtrack of your life. This is Farooki’s life music!
I think so.
I heard you say he's a magician, and there's, of course, physical magic in the film. So do you personally believe in magic?
I completely believe in magic, even how this film came to be is about magic.
So how did you feel to watch the film with the Cairo audience?
Oh, that was amazing. It's pretty great. The film premiered in Busan, but I was not there and heard from my producer that the whole audience were like the members of an orchestra. Like they were playing to the tunes of the screen. They were laughing when they needed to laugh. They were quiet when they needed to be quiet. They gasped when they're asked to gasp. They were in tears when they needed to be in tears. It's like an orchestra, right. So I had the reaction from Busan. But here in Cairo is where I was present physically. And I saw the reaction, starting from a film teacher who teaches in university here in film school, to the general young audiences — the way they showed their reaction, the way they flew with the story of the film, that really made me feel happy. And feel glad about the hard work we did.
What do you want your ideal audience member to walk away with from the film?
If they ask for once the following question to themselves, then I think all our hard work has paid off. And that question is "What have we done to this world?" That is the question I want them to ask themselves.