A Fraught Rural Childhood in Rural Bangladesh



One of the tiniest lived-in details in Bangladeshi writer-director Biplob Sarkar‘s debut feature — which is really a cluster of tiny, lived-in details — is the sheet of adhesive bindis that Kajal (a delightfully natural Ehan Rashid) snaffles from his mother’s dressing table. The bindis, or as they’re known in these parts, teeps, are worn by Banglasdeshi women of all creeds and religions, but along with an orangey-pink lipstick also taken from the dresser, for Kajal they represent more than mere cosmetic adornment. Instead they’re a gateway for Kajal’s inchoate gender expression, the potency of which is belied by the simplicity and smallness of that little red dot between the eyes. “The Stranger” functions in much the same way: a colorful speck of a movie that somehow contains a whole portrait, like a miniature one might find painted on a grain of rice. 

Kajal lives in a ramshackle house surrounded by dense jungle in remote rural Bangladesh, with his hardworking seamstress mother Kohinoor (Sahana Rahman Sumi), who is also, in a theme recurring across the Busan Film Festival selection this year, the caregiver for an elderly relative. In this case it’s her bed-ridden mother-in-law (Ferdausi Majumdar), who lives with Kajal and Kohinoor despite the frequent protracted absences of her son Javed (Raton Kumar Deb) Kajal’s father.

The family is poor and life is not easy, but it is stable and contended enough, with Kajal filling his days with school and homework, tending to his pet parrot and romping through the surrounding forests with a friend. The same childish curiosity his urban peers are likely channelling into their electronic devices, Kajal lavishes on his surroundings: finding sloughed-off sheaths of snakeskin and observing, with a child’s excitedly forensic interest, the progress of two eggs laid by a particular bird in a particular tree. 

At home, Kajal draws pictures into which he channels some of his darker impulses and fantasies, such as the revenge he would like to visit on Jewel (Rafsan Hridoy Hossain) an older boy who repeatedly, wheedlingly propositions Kajal for sex in a way that Kajal innately understands is dangerous and exploitative. And at times, the boy is dreamily drawn to play dress-up in his beloved mother’s clothes and make-up, even though Kohinoor’s scolding reaction when he does so teaches him it’s something to be ashamed of.

Still, there is a sense of peace and equilibrium in the household, which is shattered when Javed makes a sudden reappearance, with rumors that he may have taken a second wife elsewhere trailing in his wake. Kajal is banished from his mother’s bed to sleep in the room alongside his moaning, wheezing grandmother. But what’s worse is that Javed starts to make a late, unwelcome bid at active parenting, much to Kohinoor’s dismay and Kajal’s confusion — which is heightened further by the isolated moments of bonding that occur between this taciturn absentee father and his watchful, sensitive son, in the most unlikely of circumstances.

DP Mazaharul Razu employs a rich yet unembellished visual style that often puts his pensive, observant camera outside a doorway or a barred window, looking in. This unobtrusiveness is also a feature of Sarkar’s screenplay, which is almost self-conscious in its avoidance of dialogue, and in the evocative sound design that allows the teeming soundscape of the forest and surrounding fields to fill in silences that stretch between characters growing ever more remote from each other. In any case, these are quiet people, who live in a frugal manner that has little use for flowery speechifying or storytelling, which means their rare outbursts, when they come, land with greater gravitas. When Kohinoor, finally frustrated by Javed’s stolid unresponsiveness and too-little-too-late parenting style finally barks at him “Why did you come here?” it’s a small gesture of defiance from a woman who has had to learn self-reliance and has surely earned a measure of independence and freedom from male control.

This is not a film of high drama or massive arcs of change. But it is a collection of authentic, evocative episodes that envelop us in the hidden life of this little-seen part of the world, like Kohinoor’s sari envelops Kajal when puts his head against her belly to breathe in the scent of her skin. Kohinoor frowns in concentration while her sewing machine rattles off a hem. Javed makes a butterfly net out of a stick, a loop of reed and some of the thick cobwebs gathered from the house’s eaves. And “The Stranger” exemplifies one of the strange mysteries of cinema: that in some hands, smallness can equate to insignificance, whereas in others, like Sarkar’s, it becomes a virtue that beckons us to lean in until the vista, tiny as it might be, fills our field of vision.


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