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, neo-liberal, modern, post-modern, and finally the Anthropocene – anachronistically overlapping, superseding, overtaking, slipping under, or simply existing side by side or 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. The desperations of a carbon economy suffocating in the over-burdened and under-built infrastructure that houses one of its success stories —the garments industry – is crucial to this story. 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, Moyna, the young maid employed in her house, and Tagore’s fictional character Nandini, from the play Rokto Korobi. As Roya struggles to free the thinking individual and artist in her from the clutches of ascribed roles of a woman, it leads to confrontations and conflict.
At the same time, Roya struggles with Moyna’s affair with the liftman, and her subsequent pregnancy. In her role as an employer and benefactor, Roya feels responsible for Moyna’s emancipation, and finds it difficult to accept her wish to slide into the conventional role of mother and wife. 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.
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.
Nandini from Tagore’s play is also a crucial part of this film. Roya has been playing Nandini on stage for almost twelve years, and is playing Nandini for the last time. After the show, Roya talks about 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.
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 or argument, though presented as a modern, educated, enterprising individual. Roya’s father is suggestively a debauch who has abandoned his wife for another woman – falling back on the classic 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, an expat arts connoisseur and 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 theatre 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. 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. This one-dimensional portrayal of men does injustice to any kind of deconstruction 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. 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.