Saturday, June 22, 2024

Novera Rahman Elevates Rickshaw Girl’s Naima Beautifully

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Rickshaw Girl from director Amitabh Reza Chowdhury adapts the children’s novel of the same name by Mitali Perkins. With a screenplay by Naseef Faruque Amin and Sharbari Z. Ahmed, it’s set in a small village of Bangladesh and then in its capital, Dhaka. The movie follows teenaged Naima, who must set out to make money when her father falls ill.

And so begins a tale that has become very popular in media. Teenaged girl goes to city! Must dress as a boy to fulfill her dreams! Actually if she just follows her dreams, it’ll be okay.

Unfortunately, Rickshaw Girl for me doesn’t quite stick the landing.

The movie stars Novera Rahman as Naima, a talented alpona painter. A South Asian folk art style, alpona consists of colored motifs, patterns, and symbols painted on floors and walls with paints from rice flour on religious occasions, weddings, and other celebratory events.

Of course she can’t make enough money and Mamun, the “uncle” of the village, takes money from everyone who lives there or takes their belongings away. In this case, Naima’s father’s rickshaw.

Nevermind that the small village is not named until the middle of the movie (Pakshi), the director’s choice of random English lines littered through the movie takes the joy out of watching Naima try to make things work. For a girl “who can’t pass 5th grade” and all these poor villagers to speak English randomly makes no sense.

Especially because the Bangla is subtitled so why not just keep the film in Bangla and if someone speaks English it would be someone who does so regularly?

Elsewhere Naima’s mother is let go from her job due to accusations of theft, her sister says she’ll work in a garmant factory which Naima immediately argues against, and Mamun’s nephew talks up Dhaka to Naima as if it will solve her problems.

In Dhaka, Naima first gets a job as a maid with the required small room in the corner of the flat (what apartments are called in Bangladesh) who almost entirely speak in English the time that we see them.

An hour into the movie Naima is finally provided a rickshaw to drive, assuming she can pay the mohajon’s (wholesaler) daily rate for using it.

This is after the quintessential girl cuts off hair and dresses as boy scene, which, for how important long hair is to many Bangladeshi girls and women, is a very short scene!

Interspersed with scenes of her painting alpona and driving a rickshaw, the movie continues with Naima facing a cop on the street that she’s now allowed to pull her rickshaw ending with him popping the tire and taking her seat. (Also a common issue in Bangladesh.)

Later she (her rickshaw) end up in a music video filming with real-life Bangladeshi actor Siam Ahmed, who gives her some money and compliments her art. This leads to Bulbul, who had originally helped her to get a job pulling rickshaws, beating her up and thus revealing that she’s a woman.

Ultimately Marium, a woman who runs the slum Naima finds in her search for food, allows Naima to stay for the night, most of which she stays up painting on pieces of cardboard. Of course we all know how this will end, Marium hires her to paint and she ends up making enough money to pay for her father’s treatment.

Except, well. He passed away the day before. Of course he does.

(Which doesn’t even happen in the book!)

The movie ends with an animated portion of Naima imagining herself pulling a rickshaw with her father and painted scenery which zooms out to a painting that she herself painted and is showing at a museum or art show. The end.

Rickshaw Girl for a Bangladeshi Viewer

As a Bangladeshi, I’m always excited to see media by Bangladeshis starring Bangladeshis and watch my fair share of Bangladeshi content so I know that there’s plenty of wonderful shows and movies available. So, I’m frankly disappointed by the film’s treatment of language in contrast to the care for highlighting rickshaw pullers and their concerns, and the rickshaws themselves!

So many beautiful scenes occur in the movie, with closeups on markets and rickshaws with their decor including alpona. On the flipside, the pacing is also slow, with Naima not pulling a rickshaw until over halfway through the film!

Considering the sheer number of rickshaw wallahs in Dhaka alone (2.2 million as of 2018), the adaptation may have been better served to start with Naima as a rickshaw puller very early on.

At least Rickshaw Girl highlights other issues, like when Mamun takes Naima’s father’s rickshaw away and there’s a momentary scene where the pullers care for an elderly puller who was hit by a bus (accidents are a common occurrence in Bangladesh).

Thankfully, Rahman does a splendid job portraying Naima and successfully holds your attention even when the rest of the film might not live up to her onscreen appeal. Her control of microexpressions and emotions elevates the script.

Overall, Rickshaw Girl has the elements for a good film telling the story of a young woman making do in the city and providing for herself, but instead falters due to the decisions around language, pacing, and focus.

You can watch Rickshaw Girl on Demand now.

Images and screener courtesy of October Coast

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