Parsa Sanjana Sajid
In between panoramic and close up shots of Dhaka, the stories of Aynabaji unfold. There’s plot A where the film’s eponymous character flits in and out of prison; plot B, the quintessential love story between Ayna and Hridi, his neighbor; plot C, an investigative angle with a journalist, Saber Hossain, who tries to uncover Ayna’s proxy prison stints; plot D, unraveling of Saber’s personal life. Each with a potential to turn a story, even Ayna and Hridi’s flat romance, butonly if these stories weren’t so imprisoned by the exigencies of the plots. Good stories,even plot driven formulaic presentations such as Aynabaji need room to breathe, and when plot becomes paramount, stories suffer. As director Amitabh Reza Chowdhury’s first foray into feature length film from advertising, Aynabaji is replete with stories that could have been.
Released last year to overwhelmingly positive reviews, the film did well commercially. And for an inaugural effort like Aynabaji commercial success as this deserves acknowledgement. On the other hand, an overabundance of ideas – the central plot of Ayna as an exchange prisoner, his entanglements with Hridi, Saber’s pursuits (of Ayna) and problems (emotional breakdown), not to mention cutaway shots of Dhaka – hobbles and stretches the film in directions it can’t sustain. Much of the two and a half hour filmrolls about surfacing subjects it has no interest in tackling beyond a nod and a wink or has no idea how to, or perhaps both. Resolutions, when they appeared, seemed like an afterthought, but answers were not what we needed from the film. An embrace of characters and stories, however partial after all aren’t all stories partial, would have given it the brio Aynabaji aspired to, but didn’t deliver.
Occasionally filmmakers and show creators reference a place as a character and even without such express intentions, a geographic space can command enough of a prominence to give a visual piece their enduring flavor. But to do so for the sake of can be passé or even unnecessary. Scenes of Dhaka in Aynabaji felt unnecessary, mere placeholders, rather than imbuing the film with a sense of place despite frequent outdoor cues to remind viewers that in fact the film was set in this city. Gristles better left at the chopping block than necessary marbling.
The film’s opening credits establish the significance of city motifs with a lull of a musical number, eishohoramar (this city is mine); it’s a lackluster attempt at relatability with corresponding scenes of Dhaka. A shot of a minaret could probably remind viewers of its reputation as a city of mosques; boats, waterways, rain – romantic, if well worn and clichéd, associations. But the problem isn’t that these are well worn; clichés are clichés because enough people like them and sneering at them smack of a cultural elitism that is rarely commendable. Problem is save for a couple there is never enough people in any of these shots. Mostly they are empty, stripped, and inert. As we follow Saber on a bike, Ayna on a CNG or a bus, Hridi on foot with grocery or at Kamalapur station, or fix our eyes on Ayna and Saber among architectural ruins of old Dhaka, the visuals scream the city is mine for sure, and perhaps twenty others’ I know or tolerate, but nobody else’s. Because they have been vacuumed of traces of life deemed extra to these scenes. But to deem crowds, people, teeming, jostling as extra or extraneous betrays a strange imaginary, to conceive of a place erased of which that gives it life, its people, and in turn affect how these characters and stories are conceived. An ode to a city without consideration to life in a city. And so in the absence of serendipity, chance encounters, contingencies, we get plot devices like when Ayna and Hridi’s getaway is derailed by a kidnapping. Similarly, Ayna’s prison escape is engineered through a case of mistaken identity that feels more leaden than fanciful.
And then, whois Ayna and why is he a proxy prisoner? In reverse of that storytelling maxim don’t tell, but show, exposition reveals why he does what he does. Hridi? A cipher of a character, there is just enough to establish her as a love interest – she loves baking and caring for her father – but not enough to understand who she really is.As for Saber, besides trying to uncover Ayna, he is on the verge of apost-divorce alcoholic breakdown though the alcoholism may or may not have been induced by the divorce, cause or effect unclear. He is also given to throwing things violently at the wall though we are to assume he is one of the good guys, troubled perhaps, but with a golden heart who loves his daughter, is dogged about the pursuit of truth, and saddled with a haranguing ex-wife. Aynabaji is not about Saber, so the film’s offence is not its scant attention to him, but a framing that pushes unimaginative stereotypes – haranguing wife;a midlife male figure without any self awareness or contrition, whose casual, commonplace angry throwing fits combined with alcoholism stand for complex characterization. Instead he zips around almost empty streets of Dhaka in search of the truthwith a sense of entitlement to match.
Which brings us back to Ayna, a theater schoolteacher by day.
The title number, LaagBhelkiLaag, encapsulates the film’s central tenet well: kaarbhumikaikechole jai / kemukhaarkemukhosh / kekothake je bole (Who’s in what role / which is a face and which a mask / who speaks for what) reminiscent of that popular line, “All the world’s a stage.” But if everything is a performance as the film reminds us repeatedly, the performative remains unattended. ChanchalChowdhury as Ayna is impressive but his versatility is wasted in being reduced to a series of formulaic (re)presentations. He serves prison sentences as proxy for those who can afford to subvert the system (and subversion a preserve of the privileged). In what begins as a means to pay for his mother’s treatment becomes a habit, an addiction even, at timesa blurring of that already blurred line between fantasy and reality – Ayna has mundane conversations about cooking with his (as it turns out) deceased mother.
Where the periodic disjuncture between a life imprisoned and free, his inner turmoil or even an absence of, the dissociations that snap between normalcy and psychosis where the two states can bleed into the other like night into day (diner bhetorraatdhuke jai), could leave imprints legible or otherwise and the possibility of a film a lot more remarkable, we got a display of Ayna/Chanchal’s skills in mannerisms. He gets commissioned, meets with potential clients on whose behalf he would serve sentences, picks up their habits as we see him transform, acting within acting, film within film, all the world’s a stage, but nothing runs deeper than this superficial conceit. If indeed gentleman fakir proja / ekisharaibodle raja (gentleman beggar peasant / a nod is all it takes to change a king), it still takes an ishara, a nod, it’s still power and privilege that bend the law to their will and not vice versa. In that sense preserve of power is neither magical (bhelki) nor arbitrary nor conjured out of thin air. But Aynabaji is neither realistically gritty nor fantastically styled to address any of them meaningfully. Casual references to a grotesquerie of prison rape, homophobia, sexual assaultdo not get any more consideration than being subservient to plots too thin and insipid.
Ayna’s final prison foray is coerced when he is kidnapped and then forced into the assignment. Chanchal Chowdhury as Sharafat Karim Ayna the actor and Nizam Sayeed Chowdhury the politician in both roles. Actor and politician in this final set piece role swap, a final exemplar of justice at the mercy of power. And yet if power is universally corrupting, a universalizing precept still does not apply to all politics. But like everything else, Aynabaji’s understanding of politics remains superficial. And like Hridi, Nizam Sayeed is a cipher, a composite every politician, corrupt and venal who quotes Marx, and references Lenin, Hitler, and Mussolini in the same vein. Politics, any politics, then is villainy, the film seems to be arguing, erasing difference between left and reactionary principles, a particularly blighted vision favored by apolitical centrists.Never mind, the confusion required to equate communism with fascism, very distinct and opposing political philosophies in confrontation with each other.
Perhaps the most egregious contrivance of Aynabaji, its biggest bhelki, also concerns its dominant theme – prisons.If you are privileged you want to avoid prisons and are resourceful enough to outsource that labor because power is predicated on minimizing and effacing labor from your personhood. Even that personhood can be tricked out – outsourced identity to avoid jail time, who doesn’t want that –but from Aynabaji it’s not clear why. Without any of the squalor, violence, sensory deprivation, and a mass of other indignities that occasion a prison stay, the film presents incarceration or incarcerated spaces as rather sanguine unless of course you were on death row (and even death rows are calm, clean, softly lit). As insidious as this premise is, it’s probably not surprising since the filmmaker is the also the credited mastermind behind a prison publicity spot for Kashimpur Central Jail which depicted prisons as serene getaways and where some of the film was shot.
In the first prisoner exchange scene in one of those curiously empty streets of Dhaka, a wall in the background is visible. Painted a light shade between buttercream and banana yellow, the wall conceals but cannot hide the layer beneath. Not erased but painted over, there are hints of red; they were perhaps graffiti, political slogans, or advertisements that plaster walls around the city. We can’t tell the details but their presence bellow underneath and even refashion the top layer. Aynabaji may have skated through carelessly but those reds still simmer.
Parsa Sanjana Sajid teaches at Independent University, Bangladesh. She also edits Fragments Magazine and is a contributor to Depart.