Reflections on "The Cage"

in 16th Dhaka International Film Festival

by Sadia Khalid

Of the ten feature films that competed in the Bangladesh Panorama section at the 16th Dhaka International Film Festival, many were in the drama genre with stories that carried communal messages. Surprisingly, most of these films were technically sound and would seem to hold a degree of commercial value in the local film industry – which is a rare combination in Bangladesh.   

Some of the films were about social vice such as “The Rest Is Silence” (Chitkini), which is about the plight of a working class mother having to face a sexual predator who holds much influence in the community while “Where Will The Girl Go Now” (Meyeti Akhon Kothay Jabe) is about a kidnapped girl’s disavowal of her own family. Two films, “Rina Brown” and “Bhuban Majahi” were based on the 1971 Bangladesh war of liberation. “Shohagi’s Ornament” showcased exotic characters and locations in a heartfelt tale of a young boy’s unrequited love. “Halda” was an environmentally themed film about how life revolves around a river, while “Kaler Putul” (Dangling By A String) was the only thriller/mystery film among an array of dramas.

However, one aspect that was glaringly feeble in nearly all of the films were the story structures. Most stories took at least half an hour to reveal the inciting incident while some films were ambiguous about exactly whose story we were watching.

While on the subject of whimsical structures, one film stood out with its novel-like flow – “The Cage” (Khancha) set during the great divide of India and Pakistan in 1947, which signalled the end of two hundred years of British rule. Directed by Akram Khan, “The Cage” is also the official selection from Bangladesh submitted for this year’s Oscars.  Based on Hasan Azizul Haque’s book “Ekoi Namer Golpo”, this 110 minute movie is structured to unfold like a novel and covers a time span of 16 years.  The story begins in 1948, in Jessore, Bangladesh. Ombujakkho Chokroborty (Azad Abul Kalam), a high caste Hindu Brahmin and his family desperately search for a suitable barter to exchange their home in the Muslim-majority East Bengal and move to the Hindu-majority West Bengal. After the divide, Hindu-Muslim riots made it very difficult for them to remain. A lot of prospects for house exchanges arise and fall through. Years go by and his wife, Sharajini (Jaya Ahsan), becomes restless. Their children get bullied and skip school in the hopes of starting anew after they move to India. But 16 years after independence from the British, Ombujakkho finally gives up on moving when it is obvious that it has become far too late.

The opening scene sets the mood and tone for the film. Ombujakkho goes to the post office and waits, anticipating a letter from a potential house exchange client. We soon meet Sharajini doing household chores. Their large estate bears proof of their affluent past. Their sons, Shurjo and Arun, and daughter Pushpa all get bullied by locals, as they have fallen from grace and must flee now to save face. However, these children don’t appear to be overly worried about the delay in moving to India, and we do not get to see how they are ultimately affected by remaining.

The only character who had a visible narrative arc was Ombujakkho. The film followed his journey from a well-adjusted doctor to an incoherent music-enthusiast. Sharajini – even though she curses more with the passage of time – is not really given a clear narrative arc that would justify her drastic measures in the climactic final scene.

Anyone who has been to the countryside in Bangladesh can appreciate the lifelike ambience used throughout the film. The ceaseless sound of crickets chirping, dogs barking and geckos wailing not only creates an atmosphere, it successfully transports the audience directly into the middle of rural Bengal. One admirable thing about the sound design here was that these sounds were incorporated into the story. The barking of dogs was referred to as a bad omen while gecko wailing was referred to as the house god paying a visit.

The director’s attention to details in the set design was impeccable. The brass utensils, antique wooden furniture, excess of traditional gold jewellery all invoke a sense of nostalgia. In the scene where Sharajini reminisces about a time 25 years ago when the entire family, kitted out in suit and hat, gathered at the courtyard to have a family photo taken by a decidedly Anglophile photographer, the audience is treated to a rewarding reminisce with her.    

Classic background scores with sitar was only one of the many unmistakable influences of Satyajit Ray in director Akram Khan’s work. “Khancha” with all its merit and flaws, is only his second feature film. Like all the directors in the Bangladesh Panorama section this year, his cinematic journey has just commenced and with such rising directors, we can certainly hope Bangladesh will soon overcome its long disconnect between quality and commercial films.

Edited by James Evans