Writer Shahduzzaman and director Noor Imran Mithu came to University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh on Thursday morning to discuss how two short stories, 'Moulik' and 'Cyprus,' were turned into one screenplay in 'Komola Rocket.' Not only did the film entice judges at home, and abroad (in France, Egypt, Nepal, Sri Lanka, India, and so on), it also received the glory of becoming the first Bangladeshi film to be purchased by Netflix. It ran at Star Cineplex for three weeks, at Jamuna Blockbuster for four weeks, and even graced the screens of the ever-so-picky Shyamoli Cinema Hall a year later
Before ‘Komola Rocket’
Mithu had starred in Mostofa Sarwar Farooki’s “Pipra Bidya” (2013), and directed two dramas for Channel i by 2016. Impress Telefilm was so impressed with his work that they offered him Taka 30lacs to make a feature film. Mithu, by then, had already left Dhaka, after having no luck in filmmaking for some time. He knew he wanted to adapt a story from one of his favourite writers. He was well versed with Shahaduzzaman’s work, and approached the writer to adapt some of his stories.
The author, who penned over 30 books, had often been approached by filmmakers. A film enthusiast himself, he never agreed to collaborate with starry-eyed youngsters. What intrigued him about Mithu was his ability to read the author’s line of thought, and his vast knowledge of film history.
Love to hate Hollywood
The duo wanted to stay away from the “Western” storytelling structure that requires a beginning, middle, and end. Instead, they wanted to take the audience on a journey with no end, and no clearly defined narrative. Introducing us to local characters, who can only be found in Bangladesh, was one of the main objectives of the story.
Inspired by canvassers
The writer, and director strongly felt that our folk stories don’t usually have a linear structure. Shahaduzzaman said that local street vendors who canvas their dodgy products, like oils, and other self-professed medicines, inspired his storytelling style. Their narratives are structured much like the “Arabian Nights,” where they leave one story at a cliffhanger, and jump to another. He compared this structure to a set of Matryoshka, the Russian nesting dolls.
The ‘Moulik’ theme
The theme of “Komola Rocket” was the superfluous nature of class division. One of the stories the film was adapted from was called “Moulik” to denote the fact that underneath the social constructs, our fundamental needs are the same.
“Komola Rocket” is the story of an eventful steamer ride, which shows Mosharraf Karim in the role of a canvasser, and Tauquir Ahmed as a garments factory owner, who is trying to disappear after burning down his factory to claim the insurance money. Another passenger, Monsur, boards the steamer with the body of his wife, who died in that fire. The first class passengers don’t mix with the other classes until the launch is stuck in shallow water for two nights, and shortage of food supply brings Tauquir’s character down to Monsur’s cabin.
The first glitch that hit me while watching this film is that a garments factory owner should be able to afford air tickets to leave the country before the premeditated fire. Instead, he is planning to escape on a slow steamer headed for Mongla. If there were reasons why he wasn’t able to execute a better exit plan, it should have been addressed in the film.
Another aspect that didn’t make sense was, how silent he was about the deaths of the workers. The PR mess that led him to flee was mostly because of the unwarranted deaths. In his many phone conversations with the factory manager, he never confronts the manager about why the factory gates were locked, spiking the death toll.
The end (spoiler alert)
The film ends abruptly when the body of the factory worker rots, and everyone on the steamer is nauseated. In the last scene, we see Tauquir’s character sharing lunch with Monsur. As he gets to know Monsur, and the body’s identity, he vomits on the deck. The story doesn’t end, but the film ends there.
The writer said that he, and the director argued a lot about this ending. Shahaduzzaman didn’t want the audience to obtain any form of catharsis; so, he kept the story unfinished. Mithu, on the other hand, wanted the factory owner arrested in the end, which would turn it into a “feel good” movie.
Constraints of shooting on a steamer
One might get mad at the TV drama-like cinematography of “Komola Rocket.” But once you learn about the limitations of shooting under a budget on a steamer, much of it may be forgiven.
Mithu didn’t have seven boats to circle the steamer, which would be needed to get wider shots. He also didn’t have the budget to book a steamer. For the 10 days that it took to shoot this film, the director only booked 6 cabins, and 10-15 actors. The extras were the real staff, and passengers of the steamer that operated on a fixed schedule. The steamer also never stopped to help Mithu get the perfect shot.
Bad acting made worse by dubbing
There were many technical flaws in the film like random camera angles (like using low angles when the story demanded top shots), fake plastic props (like the toy snake around Tauquir’s neck that was supposed to look real), etc., which are very common for low budget films in an industry where there aren’t many professionals. But nothing stood out more than the lack of conviction in acting from the entire cast. The unnatural sound design, and dubbing made the acting feel even worse.
Attention to authenticity of characters
Both the writer, and the director have a long history of commuting by streamers. They drew inspiration from their travels for the characters in the film. Mosharraf Karim’s character, who has access to all social classes, feeds on people’s superstitions. He preaches outrageous things like if you spit while pooping, you will have weak teeth. There was a travelling circus inside the steamer that performed death defying acts with knives and fire. There were prostitutes, and one night stands in the story, because steamers were the cheapest, and safest way to vent sexual frustrations.
Festivals and Awards
“Komola Rocket” is the quintessential darling for film festival critics. After winning Best Debut Film at the 4th Jaffna International Cinema Festival (Sri Lanka), Jury Prize at the Festival du Film d'Asie du Sud (France), and the Hiralal Sen Padak at the Amar Bhashar Cholochitra (Bangladesh), the orange ship conquered Nepal, and Egypt by winning the Jury Awards at Nepal International Film Festival, and Sharm El Sheikh Film Festival. The film also made back more than twice its investment, and the director is already working on his next film.