Sunday, December 27, 2015

Uttarer Sur (The Northern Symphony), directed by Shahnewaz Kakoli

Uttarer Sur (The Northern Symphony)
Bangladesh (Bengali), 2012
113 min, drama, social commentary
Directed by Shahnewaz Kakoli

Chan Miya is a traditional folk musician who plays the dotara, a stringed instrument, and performs songs from the "Bhawaiya" tradition of Northern Bangladesh. He lives in a rural village with his wife Ambia and their daughter Ayesha, who is learning to perform as well. While the amount of money he earns from playing his music in train stations and markets is quickly diminishing, he has pride in his art and is hesitant to take up the more lucrative manual labor that is available in the village. Chan Miya dotes on his daughter and finds it difficult to refuse any of her requests - even when she wants to buy pet pigeons with the little bit of money they have for food.

Ambia, an orphan with skin that is considered far too dark, comes from an abusive background. The lack of food and her societal role as the artist's wife is taking a toll on her, and she is angry with her husband and daughter when they spend their tiny income on frivolities. She wishes she could go to work herself, but it would be a shame for the family if people know that Chan Miya is unable to provide for them through his art.

While this movie has some major flaws, I have chosen to review it because it depicts the difficulties faced by traditional musicians in a rapidly changing part of rural Bangladesh.

Traditional Art forms and the pressure of Modernity

Three scenes in this movie depict the plight of traditional musicians in present-day Bangladesh. The first is a flashback to Chan Miya's grandfather, who was not only a respected dotara player and singer in the area, but also well-fed. He is a bit plump and assuredly healthy, whereas Chan Miya is close to starving. His grandfather was respected because his talents were one of the villagers' major sources of entertainment. Chan Miya, on the other hand, mostly relies on handouts from railway passengers; the other villagers make fun of his reluctance and physical inability to do hard labor.  

The second is a performance by two men who dance to a recording of a popular Bollywood song, dressed in hip-hop-style clothing with money pinned to their shirts. This act gathers a large amount of money from the villagers. During the performance, Chan Miya stands at the edge of the circle, stunned that people are more interested (and willing to pay!) for this garbage rather than his own art. It seems that this scene is where he fully understands the true state of his art in present-day Bangladesh.

The third scene is when Chan Miya and Ayesha perform for a group of four white foreigners, who are traveling through the country recording samples of folk music in different styles. These foreigners actually appreciate the art of the performance and are willing to give the artists money, unlike the villagers who see them every day. In reality, 1000 taka is not much money for these foreigners (it's about 13 USD). But for Chan Miya, it is a huge amount and greatly appreciated. Interacting with these foreigners makes him wish that he and Ayesha were born in a different place, where they could make a living with their art.  

The psychological effects of hunger

Ambia's character is driven by hunger and the fear of starvation. As the housewife who supposedly does not produce anything for the household's economy, it is her responsibility to feed her husband and daughter first, and then herself. This means that she has a greater awareness of how little food they have, and her own hunger pains begin long before those of her husband. When she was a child, she was often abused by being denied food, and she is terrified of returning to that state. 

Many of her actions are a result of hunger. When she hears that the school is giving food to anyone who sends a child to class, she insists that Ayesha attend. When Ayesha plays hooky and goes with her father instead, Ambia punishes her because then they won't get the wheat. When Chan Miya reveals that he paid money for Ayesha's new pigeons (even though he lies about the amount to make it seem less), Ambia becomes furious. She is angry and abusive to her family, as a direct result of not having enough to eat. 

A lot of this food instability could be solved if Ambia would join the other women in the village in performing day labor. But she feels that she cannot do that, because she is the wife of an artist, who is supposed to have more prestige in the village. This stubborn, culturally-based refusal severely limits the options of this family to create a better life. 


As I stated earlier, this movie has a number of significant flaws. I wouldn't necessarily say that it is a good movie, per se. 

While the camera angles are quite good and the acting is (usually) decent, the sound quality is terrible. Instead of filming the dialogue at the same time as the video, the sound for the whole movie was done in post-production and dubbed. This would be ok, if it were done correctly - but it wasn't. All of the dialogue is at the same volume, no matter what background noise should be there or the distance of the speaker. Quite often, especially during the songs, the dubbing and the video are not synced properly.

The subtitles, at least in the DVD version that I watched, are atrociously bad. Someone with no knowledge of Bengali would be lost somewhere between the missing sections and too-literal translations. For example, in Bengali the term "Ma" (mother) is often used as an endearment for children, so Ayesha is often called "Ma" by both of her parents. In the subtitles, this becomes incredibly confusing since it is literally translated as "Mom" when the adults are obviously talking to their daughter. This is a common problem in Bangladeshi films, but this particular example is one of the worst I have seen. 

Sometimes the plot doesn't hold together very well. For example, Chan Miya apparently has a friend who works as a day laborer, but this friend just appears and disappears when convenient to the story. After Chan Miya performs for a group of foreigners and gets a large amount of money, nothing more is said about his friend's offer of work. It would have been good to see the fallout of Chan Miya not showing up for his first day of hard labor because he found something better to do. 

Another example is the holy woman who rescues Ambia from her uncle's house and then arranges the marriage with Chan Miya, who shows up just for that scene and is never mentioned again. 

I am conflicted about whether to recommend this movie. It does have some interesting things to say, but the execution of those ideas was not very good. Do let me know what you think if you decide to watch it.

Uttarer Sur is available on youtube below, with subtitles. 

Further Reading: 

"Folk Songs of Bangladesh" by Ferdousi Rahman (The Daily Star) 
"Sibabrata Karmakar: Songs of the soil" by Shamak Bag (Live Mint) 

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