When fact is fiction

Posted in fantasy, movies, music, thriller by jrahman on July 15, 2017

I live in a country that Lyndon Johnson once called the ‘ass end of the world’ — whichever direction you travel, there is no short flight from this southern land.  One good thing about the long haul flight, however, is the chance to watch stuff that you otherwise might not have, provided you’re flying a decent carrier, of course.  My usual guilty pleasures are sitcoms — I think I watched more HIMYM and Big Bang Theory episodes airborne than on my couch.

I made an exception recently.  The Emirates have a reasonable collection of Bangla (or given they are from the Indian Bengal, should I say Bengali?) movies.  I was curious, and wasn’t left disappointed.  It appears that a number of noir films have come out of Kolkata recently.  How exciting, right?

Antarleen was the first one I watched.  A murder mystery set in a hill resort — how Agatha Christie, you say.  Well, this one is also about vengeance, drawing on the Bhagavad Gita, and covering mental health and sexual abuse — two issues one rarely encounters in Bangla creative arts.  Oh, there is no prime aged men hero figure in this movie — the sleuth, the sidekick, and the avenger are (and not respectively, I want you to watch the movie) a young woman, a grandmother, and a pot-bellied widower.

This movie reminded me of Talaashan Aamir Khan starrer from a few years ago.  In that movie, Khan played a cop bereaving his dead son, who went on to solve the murder of a prostitute involving a movie star, guided by the, wait-for-it, the ghost of the murder victim.  Coming out of the movie, my then wife said — wouldn’t this have been a cooler movie if instead of a ghost, they had shown Aamir Khan to be depressed about his son, with the mystery acting as a catharsis or salvation (okay, she didn’t use the words catharsis or salvation, it was nearly five years ago, and I am paraphrasing, you get the drift).  Well, no ghost in Antarleen, making it cooler!

Antarleen was set entirely in the world of bhadralok — affluent, educated people who vacation at the hill resorts, or send their kids to posh boarding schools.  The next two movies I watched, Arindam Sil features about a police detective, were also set in the bhadralok world.  But not only did they enter into even murkier side of human nature — child abuse, drugs, and illicit sex — Ebar Shabor, the first movie, spilled over into some darker alleys of Kolkata.  The master sleuth here is a prime-aged man, but this is no 6 ft 2 FeludaSaswata Chaterjee actually played Topshe once upon a time, and now looks like a Bengali cop.

And this song made me want to wake up in that city.

Music was also excellent in Baishe Srabon.  I imagine many a young (at heart) lover playing this again and again after a fight!

But make no mistake — this ain’t a romance!  A serial killer who strikes on the death anniversaries of famous poets — Jibanananda Das, Sukumar Roy, Sukanta Bhattacharya, and of course, Tagore himself, as the title attests: how much more Bengali can you get?  And yet, this ain’t your typical rasagolla Bengali, paying homage to the 1960s hungry generation, drawing attention to police brutality and extrajudicial killing, and challenging the viewer to wonder whether shesh mesh tor keu nei.  To say anything more would be to spoil it, let me just say that I had to look up half the swear words the absolutely mesmerising Prosenjit Chatterjee uses — only Bengali I know who is more foul mouthed is an editor of an English daily in Dhaka.

These movies made me think about what might be covered in a noir tale set in recent Bangladesh.  Classic dark thrillers cover depravity and corruption — both interpersonal, what happens behind closed door, and sociopolitical that happens in broad daylight, and well, also behind closed doors, I guess: witness Chinatown.  Of course, Dhaka doesn’t have a Chinatown, though it is arguably second to none when it comes to depravity and corruption.

So, if one were to come up with some mysteries set in Dhaka, what might they be?

Maybe it would be about an old revolutionary intellectual who mysteriously disappeared one very early morning from his house in northern Dhaka, only to show up in a city several hours journey away.  Was he being abducted by state or non-state actors because of politics, or was it more personal?

Or maybe one would write about a couple of journalists who were murdered because they nearly unearthed something big.  What’s something big?  Oh I don’t know.  Suppose there was a story that lifted the nation’s morale, like say a girl was rescued by the authorities from rubble after 17 days without food or water, except it all turned out to be a hoax.  Of course, the killers would taint the slain journalists as deprave and corrupt.

Nah, too implausible, too gimicky, you say.

I think one might be better served by sticking to conventional stuff, like, say the murder of a diplomat from a Gulf monarchy.  Was he just an unfortunate victim of mugging?  Or maybe it was part of the not-so-cold war between the Saudis and the Iranians?  Or maybe our diplomat was involved in something sinister like smuggling of young kids to be camel jockeys (if not things much, much worse)?

I would advise our would be writer to stay clear of jihadi terror though.  That stuff is well trodden, and as my kids would say b-o-r-i-n-g.

Instead of terrorism, I would recommend gold.  Suppose India was facing a balance of payment crisis, and there were tax on non-pecuniary gold, raising demand for the precious metal, and Bangladesh became a lucrative conduit.  Okay, the economics of all this fascinating if you’re a geek.  For everyone else, just stay with me — smuggling, chase, dhishum dhishum, RD Burman tunes…. okay, this maybe more 1970s funk than noir, but it’s cool nonetheless.  You know what else would be cool?  A murder mystery, a love triangle set in the 1970s Bangladesh, with the decade’s coups serving as a back drop.

Speaking of the 1970s, one of the best Masud Rana novels had an antagonist in the form of a university teacher who is blackmailed / honey-trapped by the Indian intelligence.  Anyone able to watch CNN would of course know about kompromat, so perhaps that kind of stuff really happens.  What else might foreign spies do in Bangladesh?  The political officers at various western missions — are they really spies?

I may be venturing into dangerous territory here, so I better stop.  If any real spy is reading this, rest assured, everything here is fantasy, fiction, functions of febrile imagination.  But then again, has it ever been truer than today that fact is fiction, and TV reality?


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