Mainul Hassan of New Age recently had a conversation with filmmaker and researcher Tanvir Mokammel, who spoke about his childhood, journey to filmmaking, experiences and more. Following are excerpts of the conversation.
New Age: Tell us about your upbringing. Your father was a magistrate and your mother was a college teacher. Were they culturally inclined? Where did spend most of your time when growing up? How many siblings you have?
Tanvir Mokammel: My father AFM Mokammel was a magistrate during the British Raj. My mother Begum Sayida Mokammel was a college teacher. They grew up mostly in Kolkata in Park Circus area. My mother was a direct student of Begum Rokeya. In fact, Begum Rokeya was a close friend of my maternal grandmother and she used to visit my grandmother’s residence in Park Circus. Given the social backwardness of the Bengalee Muslims of that time, I guess, both my parents were unusually modern and cultured persons, much ahead of their time. As for me, I was born and brought up in our family home ‘Mokammel Manzil’ in Khulna town. We were eight brothers and sisters.
New Age: Did you use to watch movies during your childhood?
Tanvir Mokammel: My father was an avid viewer of the Hollywood movies and my mother was fond of Bengali films. I mean, those Uttam-Suchitra kind of social dramas were my mother’s cup of tea. As a child, I used to accompany them. For me the Bengali films, which I used to watch with my mother would seem rather slow and artificial. I would rather enjoy the English language movies, which my father used to take me to.
New Age: Tell us about your school life. Did you use to participate in cultural activities in school like stage drama, writing stories and others? From where did you finish your college study?
Tanvir Mokammel: During my schooldays I was more involved in sports, especially cricket. I played in the first division cricket league even when I was in school. I was also very much engaged in scouting. During my schooldays, the only cultural activity I remember is my involvement in publishing a wall magazine. I happened to be its editor!
I studied in Dhaka College and then did my BA (Hon) and master’s from the Department of English of Dhaka University.
New Age: You were a journalist as well. Why did you decide to work as a journalist?
Tanvir Mokammel: During my youth I was a left-wing activist. I worked as a journalist in ‘Ekota’, the weekly newspaper of the communist party. For me the work was more party activism then playing the role of a journalist per se. But I used to enjoy the work a lot.
New Age: When did you decide to be a filmmaker? Did anybody from your family inspire you to get involved with the film industry? How did you get involved with the world of cinema?
Tanvir Mokammel: During my university days I was involved in film society movement. Together with some friends, we formed a film club at Dhaka University named Dhaka University Cine Circle. We used to watch quality movies, organise seminars, workshops and would write on cinema. At one stage, I thought instead of just screening films for others it would be more interesting to make a film by myself. So, I made my first film, a short one, titled ‘Hooliya’ or wanted based on a political poem by Nirmalendu Goon.
No, nobody from my family inspired me to join the film world. But, they didn’t oppose my move either. My mother initially gave me some money, ten thousand taka, at the beginning to make the film ‘Hooliya’. That was the seed money with which I set out to shoot the film.
New Age: You made both documentary films and feature films. Which genre makes you feel more comfortable?
Tanvir Mokammel: I feel comfortable in both the genres. I have a penchant for research and to objectively reach the core of a given subject matter. Perhaps that was the reason why I have been told by people that some of my fiction films have a documentary look, as ‘Lalon’ or ‘Jibondhuli’. And I have sometimes heard comments that some of my documentary films give a feel to audience as if they were watching a feature film. I take this as a compliment.
I generally try to make a documentary film after a fiction. You know why. Though people say that my fiction films are realistic ones but I know that I have written a script, developed a storyline, props and dresses have been collected, some actors are acting in the roles of the characters, so some elements of artificiality remain in any case. And by making one fiction after another you may get lost into an airy unreal arty world. But then when I make a documentary film again I have to come back to the harsh realities of our everyday existence in contemporary Bangladesh — the poverty, the slums, the police and the corrupt officials, the traffic jam and the mundane reality of our everyday Bangladesh. You become rooted again. And I believe it is very important for an artist to remain rooted in his time and space, to his soil. Otherwise, his or her creation won’t contain much realism.
New Age: Let us talk about the significant year that was 1971. Where were you that time? Tell us from your memory. You have directed many films inspired by the liberation war.
Tanvir Mokammel: In 1971, I had just then passed my school final year. I was a teenager dividing my time between Dhaka and Khulna. Had I been a year or two older I would have surely joined the muktibahini. But, I was grown up enough to feel the terrible things happening around. Think about the age. Being just a teenager, an age when the sensibilities of a person remain most sharp and poignant, I witnessed all those genocidal killings, mass murders, torture on women, atrocities on the Hindu minorities, sadistic brutalities by the marauding Pakistan army and their local collaborators — the Razakars-Al Badars, the inhuman sufferings of the refugees, and at the same time, the courage, resilience and the sacrifices of the freedom fighters. All these perhaps had made such a strong impression on me that even today, whenever I prepare myself to make a film or write a script, some event of 1971 creeps into my mind, sometime consciously, often unconsciously. Even my last film ‘Quiet Flows the River Rupsa’ had a lot to do with the liberation war. I have a feeling that in future also, it will crop up again and again in my oeuvre, like a leitmotif.
New Age: Do you have any interesting memory regarding any film that you want to share?
Tanvir Mokammel: I guess for every film quite a few everlasting memories get imprinted in mind. Let me tell you about just one. It was during the shooting of ‘Quiet Flows of the River Chitra’ (Chitra Nodir Pare). The film takes its backdrop of 1947 partition of Bengal. A Hindu lawyer from a mofassil town refused to leave East Pakistan and to migrate to India. I was looking for a suitable house in different places to shoot as this lawyer’s residence and finally found it in Narail town on the bank of the River Chitra. A Muslim family was then living in that house. After a few days shooting I asked some locals who was actually the owner of the house. They said a Hindu lawyer. I asked them what kind of person he was. They said a strange kind. You know, all Hindus had left after the partition, but he stayed put and obstinately refused to leave the country. Later on, he died here. This was exactly the story of my film! A strange shiver went through my body. Searching almost all over the country for the right house I have finally chosen a house inadvertently, in which, a character like my protagonist actually lived! This was a very touching experience for me.
New Age: You write your own films and direct them. Did you ever give direction on a story you did not write?
Tanvir Mokammel: I always write my own films, I mean, the story and the script. I have written the story for “The River Named Modhumati”, “Quiet Flows the River Chitra”, “Lalon”, “The Drummer” (Jibondhuli). Only “A Tree Without Roots” (Lalsalu) the film was made from Syed Waliullah’s well known novel. Besides, my film ‘The Sister’ (Rabeya) was a deconstruction of Sophocles’s play ‘Antigone’, written almost two thousand years back.
New Age: Are you working on any film now? What do you keep in mind while selecting the cast of your film?
Tanvir Mokammel: Yes, I am now working on a film titled as ‘Quiet Flows the River Rupsa’ (Rupsa Nodir Banke). The film is about the life and struggles of a dedicated left-wing leader who was killed by the Razakars in 1971. A kind of a Greek tragic character! We have completed the shooting and the dubbing of the film. The film is expected to be released in March.
For casting, the physiognomy and the right look of the actor are very important for me. If it is a prominent character with dialogues then we also see his or her speech abilities before choosing for cast.
New Age: Apart from filmmaking you are a writer as well. Which identity you enjoy most — filmmaker or a writer?
Tanvir Mokammel: I guess both. As a practicing filmmaker, I have to remain awfully busy. I am always hard-pressed. Yet I try to sneak out some time in between to write a poem, a short story, even a novel. A trilogy of three partition novels of mine will be published next month. For me, dividing my time between a camera and a pen is, to some extent Ñ seasonal. During winter and dry seasons, I am mostly outdoor with my film unit for shooting. But, when monsoon comes and rainy season sets in I have to return home and go back to my working table. I enjoy both of my works as both have some specific creative challenges.
New Age: If you weren’t a filmmaker, what would you be?
Tanvir Mokammel: A full-time writer, I reckon.
New Age: What do you do in your leisure time?
Tanvir Mokammel: To be honest I hardly get any leisure time. Shooting, dubbing, work on musical score, researching or hunting for location for the next film, all these keep me unusually busy. Besides, I run a film institute. Though it is a small institute, yet I have to spend quite a bit of my quality time to run the institute. So my time for leisure is minimal. And whenever I get any time for my own I try to make the best out of it Ñ by listening to music, reading books or to cruise in my boat on the Dhaleswari river.
New Age: Tell us about your personal life. When did you get married? What is your wife’s name and how many children do you have?
Tanvir Mokammel: You are spared! I never married and I am a confirmed bachelor.
New Age: Do you have any suggestion for young filmmakers or to anybody who wants to be a filmmaker?
Tanvir Mokammel: My advice would be to learn the craft first. Filmmaking is a high-tech art. You have to learn the technology first and only then can you create any piece of art by using that technology. It is not easy. There is no shortcut in this vocation. You have to learn the craft the hard way. Either you get enrolled in a professional film institute and learn the craft of filmmaking for five or three years in a full time course, or, become an assistant to a senior filmmaker and work with him for a few years to learn the craft of film-making.
Worry less about awards. An award may temporarily satiate your ego but if you succeed in creating any piece of artwork. Only then will the film sustain the test of time. No award can guaranty your film longevity and it never did.
Besides, instead of running after expensive cameras and gadgets, try to know more about your own country and culture. To know more about the human beings around is paramount. Because art, and cinema included, is nothing but to portrayal of humanity in different conditions. So learn about the human condition first Ñ through books, through researches, though real life experiences.
New Age: How do you define the present condition of Bangladesh film industry?
Tanvir Mokammel: Dismal. The FDC-centred mainstream commercial cinema of Bangladesh has run out of ideas and is lagging thirty years behind the present world cinema, even from the standard of the film industry of this subcontinent, both in theme-wise and craft-wise. All over the country, cinema halls are closing down. I think the old school of commercial filmdom is heading towards its natural demise.
Rather in the alternative film scenario in Bangladesh, especially among some youth, you may find some well-meaning efforts. These efforts perhaps are the only beacon of hope in the otherwise black scenario of contemporary cinema of Bangladesh.
New Age: Tell us about your future plans?
Tanvir Mokammel: My immediate plan is to finish our present project, a full-length fiction ‘Quiet Flows the River Rupsa’ and release the film in March, 2020. As I told you, I try to make a documentary after a fiction film. I have been asked by the authorities to make a short documentary on the life of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. I am now doing the research on the subject. This one will be my next documentary.
New Age: You have achieved many prestigious awards. How do you feel about that?
Tanvir Mokammel: When I was young I would get excited about receiving awards. But, to be honest, these days, I feel least bothered about awards. I have even stopped submitting my films to any competitive festivals. I don’t want to be part of any rat race any more. I know no award will help my films to remain viable. My films will survive only if I can create true art. So, my film unit and myself try earnestly to create some meaningful art on the screen. The rest is unnecessary for me. I am a firm believer of what Lord Krishna had told Arjun during the Kurukhetra battle Ñ do your duty and don’t bother for the results, because, that is not for you to enjoy.
Cover photo by Abdullah Apu
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