by Awrup Sanyal
In Rubaiyat Hossain’s “Under Construction” we see an examination of the theme of ‘under construction’ as it applies to the city of Dhaka, as well as the gendered bodies of men and women:
Dhaka provides a perfect visual backdrop, as well as a narrative feed of its own, being a city perpetually under construction. In various stages of incompletion, the city itself is a palimpsest of its successive avatars – feudal, rural, classical, capitalist, neoliberal, modern, postmodern, and finally the Anthropocene – anachronistically overlapping, superseding, overtaking, slipping under, or simply existing side by side and on top of each other. Caught between being ‘under constructed’ and a ‘work in progress’ it talks to Dhaka’s progress as well as its dystopian reality. What the cinematography brazenly captures is the dynamism of a city ready to twist and bend to accommodate its future. Concurrently, it huffs and puffs under the burned and mangled grotesqueness — as the debris of the collapsed Rana Plaza, captured on a TV screen inside a well-appointed postmodern apartment of its principal protagonist, Roya, brings to fore. The desperations of a carbon economy aspirant asphyxiate in the over-burdened, over-crowded and the under-built infrastructure that houses one of its success stories —the garment industry. The soundtrack like a metronome keeps an audio account of the city under construction. Indeed, Dhaka is a narrative of the plausible and the oxymoron in the film.
Roya – a thespian, a daughter, a wife, and an aspiring feminist artist – is the main character under construction. Her narrative is suffused by the lives of two other women, well, actually three: her mother, the young maid employed in her house, and Tagore’s fictional character, Nandini, from the play “Rokto Korobi” or “Red Oleander”, written in the 1920s. As Roya struggles to free the modern, thinking individual and artist in her from the clutches of ascribed roles of a woman it leads to confrontations and conflict. She takes umbrage at these ideas of who she ought to be.
At the same time Roya struggles with Moyna’s – her domestic help – affair with the lift man, and her eagerness to become a wife and a mother, when it is discovered that she is pregnant. In her role as an employer and benefactor, Roya feels responsible for the Moyna’s emancipation, and finds it difficult to accept her wish to eschew a life of a woman and an individual and slide into the conventional. Roya’s own resistance to those roles becomes an imposition on Moyna. She tries to appropriate, albeit with the ‘right intentions’, Moyna’s agency to make her own decisions. As a spillover from this confrontation we see a classic class divide emerge. The maid tells Roya that no matter how much she tries her life will never come with Roya’s privileges. Roya’s journey through this incident evolves as does her relationship with Moyna, and she finally comes to terms with Moyna’s decisions.
Roya’s mother who has been abandoned by her husband for another woman lives her life either in the nostalgic ‘wifely’ past, or in refuge of religion in the present. Here the director nods to the role that religion ascribes to women. For example, the mother takes Roya’s life choices as an affront – she berates Roya, alluding that “actresses are called whores” – encouraging her to be the good, upstanding dutiful wife that she should be instead. Clearly, in her worldview, the role of the man is paramount, which is evident in the way she treats Roya’s husband, although she isn’t presented as a black and white character. Her sense of independence and individuality surfaces in her choices to live alone, earn for herself, and take care of her own needs even when she is ill.
It is in these “women under construction” that the director teases out the structures of patriarchy, capitalism, religion, and their impact on each of them – bourgeois or proletariat, progressive or traditional.
Let’s turn to the other woman in the film, the fictional Nandini from Tagore’s play. Roya has been playing Nandini on stage for almost twelve years. The film starts with Roya playing Nandini for the last time. When Imtiaz, a non-resident Bangladeshi cultural cognoscente from Paris, comes to Dhaka to audition the play the director turns to Roya for one last encore. Roya has had enough of Nandini, whose character she can’t believe in, yet she acquiesces. After the show in her conversation with Imtiaz, Roya tells him why she wants to reinterpret the play and Nandini’s character: ‘Have you met any real woman like Nandini who does everything for another man?’ As in life, so in art, Roya continues to challenge the conventional notions of womanhood.
In Tagore’s play Nandini is plucked from her life and separated from her lover to be subsumed into the Rajah’s retinue to help him perpetuate and protect his wealth. The Rajah stands in as the oppressor – in contemporary interpretation he could be the face of capitalism – exploiting all resources at his disposal, nature and human, to create a centralized bureaucracy to control his empire. Nandini though is the rebel who wants to humanize the mechanistic bureaucracy that the Rajah has created. She uses “love as vehicle of truth” to subvert. For Roya though “love” for the self is paramount, as opposed to Nandini’s. From Nandini to Roya it describes an arc from “altruism” to “self”.
An interesting aspect of all the women characters in the film is how they impose on each other, judging the choices each make through the prisms of patriarchy, religion, and class. Roya’s mother on her choice to be an actor. Roya on her mother’s submission to religion. Moyna on Roya’s intention to stymie her dreams. And, Roya on Moyna’s choice to marry.
The Under-constructed Men
In a film which deals with women’s emancipation and liberation in relation to patriarchy, the role of men in their lives are paramount, as they are the representatives of the structure that each in their own way are trying to come to terms with. But, somehow, men are not “under construction;” they seem to be quite frozen in their stereotypes.
Roya’s young businessman husband who wants his wife to be the mother of his child – seems unaffected by any change, unaffected by argument, unaffected by individual quest, though presented as a modern, educated, enterprising individual. Roya’s father suggestively a debauch who has abandoned his wife for another woman – falling back on the classical reason for a break up of a marriage, that of another woman’s presence. The maid’s husband who stops providing for the wife and the unborn child – despite being responsibly employed before his marriage he suddenly takes recourse to delinquency, with hints of inter-personal violence; another stereotypical picture of men in poverty and their obvious one-track fallouts. Imtiaz, the progressive and feminist among the men in the film, pays lip service to the emancipation of the woman artist – but like all man-woman interactions portrayed on screen, it will have to be about that fatal attraction; there is no space for the non-gendered interaction, the woman will always be in need of a man for endorsement and perhaps even validation. Roya’s theater group director is a classicist who has very formed ideas about texts and contexts – in itself there isn’t anything wrong in someone being so, but the intellectual opposition to Roya’s avant-garde interpretation of Tagore’s text is manifested as a gender-prejudice, it was the ‘man’ in him who opposed her ideas. Why couldn’t the classicist, the intellectual, the artist in him sustain? One wonders.
The portrayal of men as cardboard cutouts take away from any grades, shades, and the relative battles that “under constructed” men are fighting too, fighting, for example, the ordained roles of a bread earner and provider; the ideas of success, always measured by financial success; the ideas of masculinity; and not least the ideas of women’s roles in their lives. Unless all these hues are presented, patriarchy’s more global issues that affect both women and men will never lead to a critical discussion. Putting up men as bouncing walls, as if in stasis with no inner dialectics, does injustice to any kind of deconstruction of “under construction” of women, which is the central theme of the film.
A word or two, then, about direction, cinematography and acting. The film is tight, flows well with purpose, eschewing ornamentation or unnecessary drama. The narrative moves from one complexity to another to explore the theme. Cinematography’s main success is in capturing a visual backdrop, without overbearing technique, the theme. Shahana Goswami and Mita Rahman stand out in their performances. Rahul Bose spectacularly fails in bringing out any depth whatsoever in a character that is perhaps the only bridge between under constructed men and men under construction.
Awrup Sanyal is a fiction writer and a communication professional.