Despatch from Dhaka | International

A film that stirred up a hornet’s nest

No Dorai, which shows a woman surfer’s struggles, has triggered a legal battle in Bangladesh

A film that portrays surfing as a symbolic way of women’s empowerment in Bangladesh has stirred up mixed reactions for its unusual theme. No Dorai that translates as “Not Afraid” delves into an obscure community in the small beach town of Cox’s Bazar — a community that does not let women venture out to sea and tends to force them to comply with its strict social norms. The setting is a microcosm of how men subjugate women by sheer brute force. Ayesha, the central character played by Sunerah Binte Kamal, faces violence in her own family — first from her brother, a man with a bruised ego, and then from her husband, who is three times her age.

Within the same impoverished community exists a group of young people with “crazy passion” for surfing. “I think they’re ready to sacrifice their lives for surfing. And that was our inspiration,” Taneem Rahman, who directed the film, said in an interview. Their indomitable passion inspired the film’s producer Mahboob Rahman to go for the project to tell a story about the girl in a society where surfing is akin to a taboo.

Taneem Rahman insists that it is not a commercial film; it’s a film that has a mass appeal. The film deals with women’s rights as a quiet, subtle theme, but Mr. Rahman refuses to view it as part of a campaign or a movement in Bangladesh, a country that faces allegations of disregarding human rights.

But the film fell out with a group of people. Supreme Court lawyer Huzzatul Islam served a legal notice on the filmmakers and filed a petition with the High Court, demanding that authorities revoke the censor certificate of the film in Bangladesh, where it is unusual for women to swim in public. The court, in a ruling on December 10, ordered the government to explain in four weeks why the censor board’s approval should not be deemed ‘illegal’. Mr. Rahman said the producer and his legal team would fight the court battle.

The filmmakers chose relatively unknown actors for the project, which was both risky and rewarding at the same time. They wanted to pull the characters in the story from obscurity through storytelling and ignite conversations about the community they are bound to live in and their daily struggle to go beyond, not about the actors.

Central symbol

As the story unfolds, the audience sees the presence of Ayesha dominating the plots as the central symbol. A beach-town teenager is trapped in the strict social code imposed mostly by men and followed silently by women. Her life is briefly upended by a failed marriage but she is determined to follow her passion. The sea, spectacularly captured by cinematographers, appears to stand for her life itself: it is sometimes calm with its vast blue expanse of water and sometimes deadly with its raging waves.

“I think we’ve made the core message clear through the film. About 90% of people didn’t know surfing existed there. But it’s not documentation of surfing,” Mr. Rahman said. Social restrictions and the perpetual human struggle to overcome them are at the heart of the story.

In broader terms, the film revolves around two kinds of people in the community: one group consisting of both men and women silently adhering to a set of social barriers handed down from generation to generation and the other group seeking to break them. The characterisation of Ayesha’s father, a nameless man, is heartwarming. The man is often reprimanded by his wife for sleeping away most of the day. He does not express his love for his daughter, but quietly leaves open the door to the room she is locked up in. He fails to protect Ayesha from relentless torture but cries uncontrollably in his bed after seeing his daughter being brutalised by his son, Liyakat, for walking out on her husband.

Ayesha’s best friend Sohel, played by Sariful Razz, is a blend of four real surfers in Cox’s Bazar. The two characters play out as a big contrast to each other. Surfing brings newfound fame to Sohel, who represents men’s world, but it brings miseries to Ayesha. Like other youngsters, Ayesha and Sohel are trained by Amir, a self-made and resolute surfer played by Sayed Babu. Amir is the key driver of surfing enthusiasm that gets attention from international documentary filmmakers and raises the prospects of money generating jealousy, squabbles and power tussles on the seashores.

Ayesha is a shadow of Nasima Akter, who was featured in California-based Heather Kessinger’s documentary as Bangladesh’s first woman surfer. The film is a ray of hope for many in Bangladesh.

(Arun Devnath is a journalist based in Dhaka)

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Printable version | Feb 17, 2020 2:40:44 PM |

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