Rehana Maryam Noor: An Ethically Complex Study on a Culture Inherently Sexist and Corrupted   

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The air was chilled and lingering with scents of German delicacies and perfumed wine. The old streets of Heidelberg were shining bright with lights of a thousand colours, people swarmed the streets — and for a moment, I truly believed there wasn’t a single person who wasn’t out in the streets that night. We had just finished watching Pather Panchali (1955) in Karlstorkino, it was my friend’s first time watching a Ray film, and I was delighted to introduce him to her. We had half an hour window before catching our next film in Gloria. Ever since I learned about the International Film Festival in Mannheim-Heidelberg, I have been eagerly scrolling through their catalogue, browsing for films to fit in my tight schedule for the one week of vacation in Germany. The festival was scheduled to end two days upon my arrival, leaving me with a handful of choices — thankfully the ones I wanted, Pather Panchali (1955) and Rehana Maryam Noor (2021).

Satyajit Ray is one of my most favourite directors of all time. I was somewhat ashamed to admit that I still had not gotten around watching his most critically acclaimed work; therefore, when the opportunity arose, I could not deny it. Rehana Maryam Noor, on the other hand, sparked interest in me for entirely different reasons. I was well aware of its globally acclaimed reception and that it was the first-ever Bangladeshi film to enter the renowned Cannes film festival. Previously, I had watched Live from Dhaka (2016) by the same director, Abdullah Mohammad Saad, and I was excited to watch his work again, this time in a theatre from Heidelberg. The trailer seemed promising and intense, which drove my curiosity more.

We bought tickets on arrival instead of buying them online as we had before — and I am delighted for that because now I get to keep this bright magenta piece of paper as a souvenir to remember this experience forever. Gloria was an old theatre built in 1912; it had witnessed the enthralling history of the city, including a war. The infrastructure carried the stains of time and worn-out glory proudly. Inside the theatre, it was lavishly decorated with red velvet seats and heavy drapes. Before the film began, a short old woman in her 60s walked to the front and stood before the screen with a pink manuscript in her hand. As she started reading it in German, my friend leaned towards me and whispered, translating bits and pieces of what she said. “This is the first-ever Bangladeshi film to be ever shown in this festival”, she murmurs. The rest I understood by picking on words and phrases, thanks to a year of learning basic German in high school. She read out the synopsis, introduced the director, and referred to his previous works. Right after, the audience was greeted with a video message from Saad himself thanking us for being there before the lights dim out and the screen fades to black.

Rehana Maryam Noor is a thought-provoking and bold psychological drama with an intense three-dimensional protagonist. The film commits to its lead and keeps her sceptical mindset, witnessing a case of sexual assault on one of her students by a professor, the focal point of its storytelling. After learning the incident, the audience watches Rehana (Azmeri Haque Badhon) struggling to process the situation, leading her to make a handful of questionable — even irrational decisions. Her actions are unwise, taken hastily in anger and frustration, for which she faces the consequences later at work and her daughter’s school. All these factors and elements create an ethically complex setting, trapping the audience in a moral dilemma where they are forced to question “what actually would be the right thing to do?”

It is vital for the viewers to take into consideration that the film should not be criticized through a western lens, as the plot is constructed to share the story of Bangladesh and the average working-class women of the country. The film illustrates a brutally honest picture of a society and culture which is inherently polluted. As mentioned earlier, I am familiar with Saad’s work, and his debut feature shares a lot of similar themes as Rehana Maryam Noor. Live from Dhaka unfolds Dhaka’s cold and gut-wrenching layers as the male protagonist tries to escape the city. Saad knows how to capture Bangladesh on camera with all its flaws and beauty, doubtless he knows how to tell the story of its people. However, Rehana Maryam Noor shares the narrative of a country’s particular population, which gets overlooked and constantly silenced by those in power.

The film’s principal themes can be drawn out to be sexual assault, trauma, isolation, and sexism. These themes are present throughout the entire running time and elevate the plot. The film doesn’t fail to make a social commentary on bourgeois-class struggle exclusive feminism, which does not cater to working-class women. Glass ceiling feminism is an important secondary theme in this screenplay. This transparent barrier that divides the women in Bangladeshi society based on societal class and profession holds power to shift the application of feminism in daily life. Even in so-called progressed stages, the glass ceiling makes sure working-class women can never exceed their full potential. Despite how progressive it sounds, Rehana, who teaches in a medical college, is crippled when trying to help Annie, a fellow medical student, after being sexually assaulted by her superior. Both of these women would fit the box of “modern Bengali women” trying to fend for themselves, but in reality it’s just an illusion created by the patriarchal society. Education and working fields under an innately exploitative corrupted system are not liberating. The feminism in practice only benefits women born with the privilege of capital and social status, and Rehana Maryam Noor is a brutal reminder of that.

When discussing the film, one cannot ignore the cinematic devices which glued the vision together. The pacing is relatively slow and tense, a signature of Saad. The audience can sense a good dose of Kafkaesque surrealism in it, as they are provided with a deeply intimate insight on Rehana’s dull and gloomy life but an unknown horror loom over it every day, which is just chilling to watch. The atmosphere created is dusky, grim, and sickly. It is significant to note the film’s use of a duo-tonic colour palette that helped achieve this brilliant impression. The bluish-grey colour grading sets the fundamental tone for the entire movie, mostly limited inside the medical college. Blue is famously known as the colour of melancholy and agony, and in this case, it successfully communicates the message to the viewers. There are also grey tints, which represent the morally ambiguous— a direct reflection of Rehana’s state of mind. Watching a Bengali film with this much precision to hues was simply refreshing and restored my faith in contemporary Bangladeshi cinema.

The score and overall use of sound here were remarkable and memorable. White noises in the background were beautifully incorporated within the film, making the city a character itself, guiding the audience to understand the circumstantial impact on the plot. The production focused on amplifying these regular tedious noises from her life and used them to drive the scenes instead of using musical numbers. There are moments when the characters are on the verge of dangerous confrontations; between the long pauses, the only accessible sound of the ticking clock sounds like a time bomb ready to blast anytime. Nevertheless, there is one specific scene where we see Annie (Afia Tabassum Borno) dancing by herself to a Bangla pop song. That scene is like a breath of fresh air after having your head underwater for a long time. We, the viewers, see Annie as a young girl for the first time in the film. For those brief moments, she is free and lively before the scene abruptly cuts to her conversation with Rehana forcing us to acknowledge the harsh cruelty of reality once again. The film resembles the Iranian new wave and Dogma 95 because of its realistic, allegorical, and raw style of making.

Abdullah Mohammad Saad has shown a promising directorial approach. He is confident and not uncomfortable, challenging and alienating the audience in his works. While maintaining a structurally chaotic frame, his attention to detail is truly worth praising. The cinematography in the film is crucial; it plays with silhouettes and lighting to create magnificent contrast on screen. The shaky, unstable camera acquires a new level of realism, almost a parallel to Rehana’s chaotic surroundings.

It is hard to criticize Rehana as a character because she’s a morally grey protagonist who ultimately is a pawn to a bigger game. She is not much of a heroine or even likeable, to say the least. Like thousands of Bangladeshi women, she is a desperate character who thinks abiding by the rules is always just and believes it is the best ethical decision to ensure a better future for her country. It’s tragically ironic watching this poor woman struggling to come up with the fairest solution to a problem that is unsolvable under the system. In a world ruled by the oppressors, the oppressed can never gain justice.

The sexual politics of the male gaze is a prominent aspect in Rehana Maryam Noor. Earlier, I mentioned how the film shares characteristics with the Iranian new wave. One of the characteristics of this movement was the lack of the male gaze. The male gaze has been classified into three different perspectives regarding representation in narrative cinema. The men behind the camera, the male characters in the film and the male consumers watching the movie. It will be considered free of the male gaze if the film does not sexualize or objectify its female characters in order to cater to all three perspectives. I frankly believe Rehana Maryam Noor lacks the male gaze; the film explores serious topics which confront the patriarchy without glamorizing or dolling up its female characters.

As consumers, it is impossible to view these women on screen as objects of lust. Rehana is shown wearing modest and simple clothing which is practical and realistic. None of the female characters are wearing colourful makeup or seductive outfits in clashing environments. Instead, they are shown as regular women at work and college. When it comes to male characters in the film, there are only two significant: Arefin (Kazi Sami Hassan) and Rehana’s brother (Yasir Al Haq). Arefin is the antagonist, the culprit who sexually assaulted his own student.

On the other hand, Rehana’s brother doesn’t really have much screen time. We only see him with Emu (Rehana’s daughter) and often talk to his sister regarding the family. Inherently the characters are not sexualizing their counterparts, except for Arefin, which is what the plot revolves around. That’s where the role of the men behind the camera becomes most crucial. Ultimately, it is up to them to decide how they want to portray the story. They can choose the angle and narrative, make sure how the viewers perceive Arefin. Here, Saad and his crew decided to show Arefin as his villain. The viewers are discouraged from rooting for him because he is the criminal who caused this. This play of narrative lacks the male gaze.

Rehana is not designed to be a role model or an advocate of feminism. She is flawed, ill-tempered, and frustrated. The decisions we see her making and the actions we see her taking aren’t correct or helpful to her situation. Despite trying her best to do the right thing, she’s lost and clueless. I think the character is exceptionally well-written; nevertheless, not perfect. I acknowledge she is not supposed to be perfect, but her writing still lacks many vital elements. Historically, men have failed to write good female characters. Only a handful of writers have been able to write realistic and complex female characters for cinema. Let’s look at Pedro Almodóvar. He is popular for the well-written female characters in his films who show depth, clarity and are not ashamed to express themselves. The same applies to Satyajit Ray. His heroines are smart and bold who don’t require their male counterpart’s arc to rely on. It’s not very easy to write female characters as a man who grows up in a society that practices systemic sexism daily. This reflects on their writing. Sometimes, a strong female character is just an illusion of society’s expectation of a strong female character.

Saad’s creation of Rehana exceeds many gender-based limitations, but something still lingers underneath the surface. Rehana is a “fierce woman”, but her fierceness and boldness come off shallow and one-dimensional. Rehana’s tough exterior doesn’t translate to a rebel but an irritable and grumpy woman who’s lost. As a viewer, I found it hard to sympathize with her after how she treated Annie and Emu. A lot of the time, the flaws in her character could be interpreted as just poor writing. The narrative is vague and murky.

The character building of Annie and Ayesha also felt relatively flat. Their dialogues sounded lazy compared to Rehana, who doubtlessly got the most attention in the writers’ room. When a film is conversation-driven, it’s essential to make sure the conversations are engaging; otherwise, the audience will lose interest and get bored. Great examples would be My Dinner with Andre (1981) and Rope (1948). It is impossible to look away for a single second when watching My Dinner with Andre because the dialogues are carefully crafted and serve as the film’s heart. In Rope, the entire movie takes place in one single apartment, but the characters’ conversations are skillfully constructed to keep the audience invested the whole time. Therefore, when the writers try to get away with filler conversations and lines before a big scene, it damages their own film. Even though the first two acts were exciting and engaging, the last act in Rehana Maryam Noor loses itself in meaningless conversations without substance.

Despite the imperfect script, the actors deliver stunning performances. Badhon stood out with her intimidating and raw portrayal of Rehana. The compelling exchange between her and Saberi Alam (playing the medical college principal) makes for a terrific scene.

When it comes to men writing about women, the themes of their projects should also be highlighted. It seems to be trendy to make films about sexual assault nowadays. However, most of these films are written and directed by men. It is disturbingly ironic that men are the voices for these perspectives as it openly contradicts the message in their movies. In addition, it puts us back to square one, where men are filtering and exploiting women’s stories. I understand Saad’s passion for this project. Anyone who watched this film can see how much he put into this and how much it means to him. Nonetheless, the screenplay still got just a bit lost in translation.

The last scene of the film was a turning point. It was shocking, cruel, and psychologically tormenting. Initially upon watching it, my first reaction was feeling highly disturbed. I thought the last scene to be unnecessary and lost all respect for Rehana as a mother. However, my opinion has reasonably shifted after dwelling on it for a while. Previously, I judged it through a western lens, comparing it to western standards. Rehana Maryam Noor is inherently Bangladeshi with its regular Bangladeshi lead. It’s a story of  Bangladeshi women, which is not a happy one. Rehana isn’t the only woman in the country to face such an ethical dilemma. Annie isn’t the only girl to meet such a horrifying incident. Most women have been in both of their shoes. This practice is ancient and has been nurtured for decades, forcing women to adapt instead of men to behave.

Rehana and Annie are just faceless silhouettes of millions of women in Bangladesh. They all go through it, their mothers went through it, and deep down, they know their daughters will have to go through it too. With this information in mind, it’s easier to deconstruct the last scene and its relevance. It indicates a generational trauma cycle leading to women’s voices being constantly silenced. After losing her job, losing her students’ support, losing her brother’s support, and being accused as a liar, Rehana bottles up all these different emotions inside her. Upon learning her daughter won’t be allowed to perform if she doesn’t apologize to her classmate is like the final nail in the coffin for Rehana. Her reaction is out of proportion for such a minor issue; however, the audience knows it’s more than that for her. After one and a half hours, she finally releases all her frustration, anger, fear, and rage.

Nobody is there to dissolve Rehana’s outburst except her poor daughter Emu (Afia Jahin Jaima). Throughout the film, we observe the close mother-daughter dynamic, which is full of pure love and affection. Rehana is shown to reserve all her care and kindness for Emu despite her work making motherhood harder. At one point, Emu goes missing, and Rehana runs around the building frantically looking for her daughter, worried sick. When she finally finds her, she is mad and angrily scolds her daughter for going away. Some might interpret her as a rude and strict parent, but people forget the environment Rehana is raising her daughter in. It is the same environment where she cannot help herself out of a situation. Therefore it’s natural for her to be overprotective of her little girl. The reaction is fair as a foolish act like this could have cost them everything.

The last scene between Rehana and Emu is just a sad reminder of how the cycle of generational trauma continues. Emu is forced to learn the cold hard truth that she doesn’t have the privilege to do what she wants as she is born a woman. Rehana learned the same when she was young and had to give up playing table tennis. Before that her mother was forced to learn it, even before that, her grandmother and so on. This cycle is unbreakable. There is no escape. It’s unfair, but it’s reality.

This outburst finally provides a new angle to Rehana. It is acknowledged that she is bad-tempered and not likeable, but why? Why does she act this way? Why did she put this barrier around her? “Not rich but still nice, they are nice because they are rich.” is a quote from the critically acclaimed Bong Joon Ho film Parasite (2019). Rehana isn’t a friendly and bubbly character because she cannot afford to be one. This can be linked to the glass ceiling feminism concept previously mentioned. Working-class women are forced to adapt survival instincts to get on with their lives in a city like Dhaka. Rehana is a widow and a single mother working full-time to provide for her family. Her condition is looked down on by the society she lives in. She knows the city and its cruelty; she knows a woman of her social status cannot go places by being friendly and kind.

In the end, the narrative is too cold and ambivalent to answer all these questions. The film conclusively serves as a platform to inspect the limits of a sexist culture and push people to test their moral dilemmas. The film has grown on me ever since I started writing this piece and carefully examining every detail. Nevertheless, I still find the narrative a bit hazy. I don’t think Saad and his crew made this hoping to achieve commercial success but something which will be impactful and historical — and they have successfully done it.

Rehana Maryam Noor is one for the history books and will be considered an essential Bengali film from now on. This film is worth celebrating because it is a huge milestone for the Bengali new wave and is an excellent achievement for Bangladeshi cinema, which has regressed over the decade. I felt incredibly proud watching this film in an old German theatre as a Bangladeshi. This film was nostalgic and unlocked so many memories I had tucked away, so many familiar scents and noises. It is a step in the right direction and has opened the door to many great opportunities for upcoming Bangladeshi films.

 

 

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