The making of Haldaa and the slow dying of a river

The making of Haldaa and the slow dying of a river

Syed Manzoorul Islam (SMI): The focus of our discussion today will be on why you chose the river Halda as your subject matter. I know it’s a unique river that is a natural spawning ground of a particular kind of carp; it’s also a beautiful river which is being polluted by wastes of all description. You have doubled as a scriptwriter of the film, and have certainly created a powerful story—a story that shows how a businessman bought off a poor girl with money, despite having a wife, and how he tortures her from the beginning of the marriage. The girl eventually conceives, but the story ends before the baby is born, thus introducing the theme of motherhood. Fishes also have a cycle of motherhood, which is now under threat. A river is also considered a mother in our culture. You have shown how these different types of motherhood have two things in common: fulfilment and deprivation. Deprivation is denial for which men are mostly responsible. On the one hand, the river is being exploited, misused and polluted by people. Again, people themselves stand united to save the river. All in all, you have been able to craft a myth of the river which is both elemental and reassuring—it has the power to inspire people to take action. Near the end, the girl escapes on the river, rowing a boat. The ending leaves the audience with quite a few questions, and I am sure you know about them.

Tauquir Ahmed (TA): When I first heard about the Halda river, it immediately attracted me, because the river is unique in many ways—it is one of only two rivers (the Sangu being the other) that originate in and flow entirely through the country to empty into the Bay of Bengal. The river is a breeding ground for carp, which is a rare phenomenon. It is the only such river in South Asia, and there is probably one in Vietnam. This river is not only naturally appealing, it also has significant mineral deposits and topographical properties. The environmental elements – the rain, the sound of thunder, and the appearance of the full moon – all contribute to the breeding cycle of the fish. No wonder the river is such a rich breeding ground for the fish. The river made me believe that the world is so beautiful precisely because of the fine balance in which everything in nature exists. The contradiction lies in how humans destroy this balance, but also revere nature’s beauty and strive to keep it unspoiled. In the absence of humans, nature might not have been appreciated like it is now. The story of a river alone is not beautiful unless public life on the banks of the river—people and their lifestyles—mingle together in harmony with that of the river. I have tried to bring up the duality of our lives: beauty and ugliness, grace and depravity. Haldaa is a story that will continue to unfold in many other cultures where rivers are endangered, and people take up action to save them.

SMI: I’m sure you know about the responses the viewers of the movie have made on YouTube about your use of the different aspects and forms of our culture in the film such as Jari Gaan¹, Pala Gaan¹, Kobir Lorai², Boli Khela³, Nouka Baich and so on. Many of these traditions are now disappearing.
TA: I wanted to explore the culture of the people on both sides of the Halda, as well as their survival, and how, for hundreds of years they have sustained their lives without giving up on the river. I wanted to bring many stories of Halda under one umbrella—such as fish breeding, the phenomenon of motherhood and the juxtaposition of the river with femininity. To me, the source of life seems to be very much connected to water; it certainly revolves around water and around motherhood. Therefore, I can see the river and the concept of femininity as one and the same and civilisation itself also heavily dependent on both. When we came to Halda to bring life to the story, a script written by Azad Bulbul was given to me. I felt that it needed to be changed, enlarged and refined further to turn it into a film, and for the story to have more appeal to the audience. For example, it is a combination of the words and audio-visual details, as well as the fluidity of the story that animate an image. An image is more communicative than any depiction that remains confined to a surface meaning or a fact, no matter how important it is. Haldaa has been evocative because of the power of its imagery, which is derived from our cultural practices and the power of nature.

Words are also important, because people instantly relate to words that they hear every day. When we perceived the story of Halda unfolding, we realised that words needed to be understood. But if we used the local Chittagong dialect, those outside of the district might not understand it. As a result, we simplified the dialect a little. But this made many Chittagong audiences upset. Some viewers considered the experiment with language unwarranted. Our defence was, if we used the local dialect in its pure form, most audiences would not understand the story in its entirety. In the end, we used a form of the dialect that was easier to understand, so we kept the local flavour, but compensated for the loss of language by using subtitles so that everyone could understand the story.
Another interesting fact is that, when the film was released abroad, it won a Grand Prix in Italy, we took it to festivals in Toronto and Kazan, it was shown on TV and movie theatres—everyone seemed to have followed the story without a problem. Haldaa also won many awards in South Asian countries, including a SAARC Best Picture Award. Now, when the story of a particular river of a particular region, using a wholly unfamiliar dialect strikes a responsive chord with audiences in another part of the world, I believe it assumes a universal character, which many films do every year. It is like a folk tale becoming truly universal by creating a broader resonance everywhere.
SMI: Yes, your film is specifically local as it deals with an issue that Halda watchers are agitating for years, but it also alerts audiences everywhere about rivers disappearing, and with them, a part of culture also.
TA: For me, an important issue has been climate change. Due to climate change, the Halda has undergone many changes, some of which have harmed its ecosystem and its flow. Man-made obstructions have also affected its natural course. There have been attempts to even straighten its bends in a few places. Now, the many bends of Halda are crucial for maintaining her depth and for its fish to breed. Additionally, a practice known as ‘sand mining’ has also irreparably harmed the river, as have the movement of engine boats, the catching of large fish to entertain guests and dumping wastes into the river. Influential people of the region have made a habit of recklessly consuming Halda’s fish.
On the other hand, I feel inspired by those who genuinely understand—or try to understand—the predicament of the river. One great attribute of realistic films is that, if they survive, they can create an impact about an issue that resonates with the people for a long time. Commercial films come and go without leaving a lasting impact. I believe Haldaa will be understood in terms of the messages it wants to convey.

SMI: You said that the appeal of the film is very broad, otherwise not everyone would have watched it. I have noticed how enthusiastically audiences here—and in countries where Haldaa has been shown—have accepted the film. A part of the enthusiasm comes from people being able to relate to the theme of rivers under the threat of drying up and disappearing. One of the popular songs of the noted singer Pathik Nabi began with these words: “I had a river once, but nobody knew about it”. A neglected river evaporates into thin air over the course of time, doesn’t it?

TA: Many people tell me that in my other films, too, rivers and water bodies figure prominently; that the river is a recurrent theme in my work. I think it is very natural because the land of our birth is a riverine country and even if we wish to travel a few miles in a rural area, we have to cross a river or two. Many bridges have been built to ease travel, but many small rivers, unfortunately, have been filled up. We associate rivers with our childhood. Rivers are intimately related to our mode of transportation, water supply, irrigation and so on. My personal belief is that rivers naturally pull us Bengalis towards them. Those of us who have seen the city of Dhaka four to five decades ago, remember how beautiful it was back then. It was much greener and was full of lakes and ponds. The same can be said about the country as a whole. All along the rivers, boats with colourful sails were a common sight. Engine powered trawlers were rare and plied mostly in mighty rivers and near the estuaries. My village home is in a village in Sirajganj. We used to cross the river Jamuna on a sailing boat, and cooked our food and ate our meals on the boat. The fabled Chalan Beel of Rajshahi (a beel is a large wetland) merged with another large beel right beside our home. In rainy seasons, the beel used to be filled up with water to the brim, and then we used to have picnics on a boat. I grew up in the city, but I got this experience when I used to go to my village. Every time I went there, it seemed to me as if the river is directly connected with our lives. While I was making Haldaa, I felt my childhood connection with all the rivers and wetlands reviving.
Now, if you look at the film Haldaa, you will see how power politics, in which women also get entangled, works in the villages. Three female characters—the businessman’s mother, his first wife and the younger wife—create a triangular site of politics. I think women themselves also play a dominant role in the suppression of women who are less powerful and privileged than them. For example, the businessman’s mother is very dominating as a mother-in-law, but sometimes her own suffering comes out through her confessions. Because of all the suffering, the women of our society often become nameless, referred to simply as the mother of a male child. In their attempts to conform to a patriarchal society, they lose their identities.

SMI: I find the character of the businessman’s first wife quite extraordinary. The girl reflects, in a way, the life of an endangered river. She is sent back to the same place she had come from, reminding me about how human intervention sometimes reduces a river into a trickle, much like the state a river is in at its origin. Tell us more about your main female protagonist. I noticed a similarity between this girl and the Halda too.
TA: Our protagonist is fiercely defiant. From the very beginning we see her marching forward with a certain inborn courage. In the end, she stabs her husband with the dagger that adorns a wall of the businessman’s house, which she notices with curiosity when she first enters the house.
Here, a line is very relevant – it is a famous quote from Chekov: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.”
SMI: You were talking about a woman becoming nameless in a male dominated society…
TA: Let me tell you about an issue that the Censor Board raised. When the defiant girl was asked in the film whose child she was carrying, she simply answered, it was hers. The Board felt uncomfortable about the answer, thinking whether the audiences would feel that the child was born out of wedlock. As a male and a father, I have always felt that no father can really match the amount of affection a mother has for her child. In making the girl sidestep the question, I wanted to give all the credit to her, the mother. And I may add here my appreciation that although much delayed, the mother’s name has finally appeared on the identity card of the children in Bangladesh, along with the father’s.
SMI: This is indeed a very strong message: ‘One’s identity is not something that others decide’. By keeping her own child’s identity vague or unclear, the mother, I believe, has sent an unambiguous message about the strength that defines her and will define her child as well.
I have one question, though. There is a lot of violence in the film. For example, the character played by Mosharraf Karim was thrown into a brick kiln and burnt. Why did you highlight the instances of violence? Towards the end, the businessman is stabbed by his young wife and killed. The murder is not shown, but the thin jets of blood spraying into the gramophone he used to put a long playing record on as he drank a glass of whiskey at night, will do the trick for you. What message did you intend to convey to the audience by these gruesome acts?

TA: Yes, that’s how I wanted to make a stance. When the girl first came to that house, she saw her husband retire into another room at night. Then a song wafted from a gramophone record. She realised that the place where she had come to was an enemy territory. She then went outside, alone, and felt the drops of rain falling on her skin. Immediately in the next scene, it starts raining on the banks of Halda. In this film, we have tried to capture the changes of the seasons. It shows how winter, spring and monsoon all come and go, evoking different moods while they last.
SMI: There are a few scenes where several birds are shown to fly away when there is a loud scream in the background. When Mosharraf Karim leaves, a bird also leaves with him, as if to give him company. Fish have a hostile relationship with birds, but that, too, is a natural phenomenon. It’s all about the food chain. Are the birds there in your film to remind the audience how fragile the ecosystem of the Halda has become?
TA: Yes, but there are others who don’t want to talk about the loss of the ecosystem. They are the beneficiaries of Halda. They didn’t want me to expose the river’s vulnerability. Even some in the administration told me things like: “What’s the necessity of this kind of picture? Why don’t you go for a love story instead?”
SMI: I heard those beneficiaries even tried to stop you from making the film .Why?
TA: Yes. These are the ones who are lifting sand from the river or are benefiting economically by exploiting the resources it offers. They created many obstacles for me but I never lost my resolve.
SMI: After the release of Haldaa, a lot has been written about the need to save the river. Have you seen any impact of that yet?
TA: Some measures have been taken. But only experts can tell whether these are sufficient or not. Some teachers of Chittagong University have formed a committee to protect the Halda. They are also actively engaged in raising awareness, creating support groups and mounting pressure on the authority. In the Pakistan era, which ended when Bangladesh became independent in 1971, the government suddenly decided to build an embankment along the river without realising the topographical and ecological damages it would cause. ‘The river is breaking apart, so let it be paved on both sides”—this kind of thinking often becomes counter-productive.
SMI: This is an example of what is known here as ‘river management’, which goes wrong when dams are arbitrarily constructed to regulate water flow or divert water to irrigation canals.
TA: Well, the matter has come up for discussion. People are realising that there is a river called Halda, which has a significance. Its significance is not only natural but also hugely economic as well. A lion’s share of all the carp fries of Bangladesh comes from this river, which is a multi-million-dollar business and we, the fish-loving Bengalis feel very proud of it.
SMI: Are the people involved in collecting and selling the carp fries with you in trying to protect the Halda? Do they also feel that if we can protect this river, it would yield a much larger volume of fries?
TA: Running the hatcheries that produce the carp fries demands a lot of manual labour. The eggs have to be collected from the river, hatched, and then sold to traders. Those who are currently involved in this trade respect their work because it bonds them with the fish. Many of them also believe in cultural myths that make certain things taboo, such as hurting a mother fish. Ironically, women are not allowed to collect the egg. Women too don’t like to challenge the taboo as they fear being jinxed. But those who are running financial projects there and often dump effluents into the river have no affection for Halda. They won’t even set up an effluent treatment plant although some can afford it. Nowadays you hear a term ‘sand-eaters’. Well, these are the people who extract sand from the river needed in construction work. They too are not with us. In the beginning it was difficult for us to shoot two consecutive scenes in the face of the difficulty these people created. However, a section of the administration helped us. Besides, those who acted in the film are well known figures in the country. That helped cross some hurdles.
We released the film in 2017, about a year after we initiated the project. Our budget was low, so we had to be careful about our expenditure. Fortunately, the hotel where we had to stay at night was affordable and was quite near the river.
SMI: Some scenes of Haldaa have generated a debate among the audience, especially the one that involves a poetic duel. While most praise the way you have thrown light on a cultural practice which is losing out to techno-based visual culture, a few have pointed out that the scene is too long to sustain audiences’ interest. Someone commented that you might have used it as a ‘tragic relief.’ What’s your response to the comments?
TA: The thing is, filmmaking is a craft where the duration of a scene depends on the effect it creates, the pace and rhythm that distinguish its flow and the mood it intends to set. Sometimes a bit of boredom may be unavoidable in creating a desired impact.
SMI: But the longish scene does not affect the pace of the film.
TA: I too think so. If you notice, you will see that we have used Boli Khela as a relevant metaphor. It has the appearance of a montage. When the girl is feeling a conflict within, we cut to the scene where one of the wrestlers is facing a stiff challenge. When the women are in a conflict, we show boats competing fiercely in a race. Again, when a soulful Maizbhandari song is being sung, there is an episode of vulgar dance being performed. There are many such small incidents in the film. All in all, the film has shown that conflicts, violence and degradation are everywhere, and there is no escape from them. We have also shown the duality inherent in the arrival of the machine and the loss of simplicity. This is happening not only along the Halda, but everywhere. The shallow engines not only drive trawlers, they are also used to draw ground water for irrigation, depleting the water level in the entire country. Trawlers and shallow engines also cause noise pollution which is very harmful for Halda. There are methods to mitigate noise pollution. Some of these are may be being applied now. But those who dredge sand don’t really care about any rules. Fish are cut and killed by the blades of the dredger, while the shrill sound disturbs the natural life of the fish. I firmly believe that contemporary issues should always be portrayed in art.
SMI: So in making Haldaa, you felt the need to look closely at the river’s predicament through the lens of culture?
TA: My wish was to portray in the film people’s lives and culture on the banks of the Halda. Many cultural practices are disappearing. Unfortunately, we couldn’t show the film in the area as there are no movie theatres there.
SMI: I think you have crafted many parallel stories in the film, some of which are more prominent than the others. But your focus on the river-borne and river-inspired culture—which is, sadly, on the wane—never dissipates.
TA: The basic story is very simple. When other layers are added on top of it, then it makes us think. The changes that you are talking about—we have witnessed those changes all over the country. Once upon a time, 80 percent of the people in our country were illiterate. But they had folk education, they had a culture. They were interested in Jari gaan, Pala Gan and Jatra. Now, nearly 80 percent of the people are educated but they have also lost their connection with these traditional forms of culture and education.
SMI: The biodiversity of our rivers has also been largely lost, and the Halda is a case in point.
TA: Halda has definitely been damaged. One of the major reasons is the construction of new factories upstream, including tobacco companies. Halda once had hundreds of dolphins, but their number has reduced substantially over the years. We really need to do our best to protect the river and all other rivers of the country.
In Haldaa, I have shown a boy who catches a mother-fish, dying of a snake bite, which I have taken from a real life story. There is a sense of poetic justice here, which is: if you harm nature, you will bring harm to yourself.

Leading Image : Stills from the film Haldaa

Syed Manzoorul Islam (SMI): The focus of our discussion today will be on why you chose the river Halda as your subject matter. I know it’s a unique river that is a natural spawning ground of a particular kind of carp; it’s also a beautiful river which is being polluted by wastes of all description.…

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