Madeleine Feeny reviews the Bangladeshi film about the loneliness of whistleblowing

Earlier this year, Rehana – the second feature from director Abdullah Mohammad Saad – made history by becoming the first Bangladeshi film to screen in the official selection at Cannes.

The film’s star, Azmeri Haque Badhon, popularly known as Badhon, made her name in 2006 as a runner-up on Lux Channel I Superstar, a Bangladeshi reality TV show in the vein of America’s Next Top Model. She has gone on to act in TV shows and one mass-market film. In an interview with Kalpana Nair, the programmer who selected Rehana for the Debate strand at this year’s BFI London Film Festival, Badhon described how playing the title role in the film, a #MeToo drama set in a medical college, was a transformative experience: “In our country, it is impossible to find female protagonists. In our country, even if a female protagonist is shown, she is seen from the perspective of men.”

What’s especially unusual about this female lead character within Bangladeshi cinema is how complex and unyielding she often is. An intense character study of a woman pushed to her limits, Rehana highlights the great personal cost of fighting to expose a truth others would rather ignore. Fearless, unyielding, Rehana holds everyone else to her high moral standards, regardless of consequences. Badhon said: “I liked her precisely for being grey because normal human beings are always grey. Ultimately they are never completely black or white.”

The film opens as it continues: with a succession of brief scenes, shot in close-up in the teaching hospital where Rehana works as an assistant professor. A blue filter tints the whole film, evoking the artificial half-light of hospitals, where day bleeds into night. The sun’s trajectory has little relevance, as Rehana always seems to be at work, fielding calls on her mobile as she marshals her family to perform childcare duties from afar. As she juggles the roles of teacher, mother and daughter, her home life intrudes on work and vice versa.

Gradually, from one-sided phone conversations and scattered clues, we piece together her story; she’s a widow living with her retired parents, working to support the family while her parents look after her daughter, Emu (played by a scene-stealing Afia Jahin Jaima). Rehana is often impatient and critical, especially of her unemployed brother, Rony – “I wish I didn’t have a totally useless brother like you,” she tells him at one point. Her simmering rage is palpable in her peremptory rebukes, her suspicion of others and the authoritarian tone she takes with students. She’s a rubber band stretched to the maximum, ready to snap.

Saad uses sound carefully, to striking effect; amidst silence, or an ambient hum, a slammed door resembles a gunshot

While invigilating an exam, Rehana finds a ruler covered in notes and expels a student, Mimi. Later she witnesses another, Annie – an uncertain, compromised character played with subtlety by Afia Tabassum Borno – emerging distressed from the office of Rehana’s boss, Dr Arefin (smoothly acted by Kazi Sami Hassan). Rehana cares for her tenderly in the aftermath of a sexual assault that Annie refuses to acknowledge.

Dr Arefin reprimands Rehana for expelling Mimi, arguing that everybody deserves a second chance in a comment that encapsulates the gulf between Rehana’s attitude and everyone else’s in this film. In a series of short, tense scenes, Rehana’s behaviour becomes increasingly hostile towards her boss before she eventually confronts him, breaking her word to Annie, who begged her silence. Challenging the system could be said to come at such a price that no other woman but Rehana is prepared to take the risk.

The film is full of silences and unanswered questions – Rehana never responds when she doesn’t want to. Saad uses sound carefully, to striking effect; amidst silence, or an ambient hum, a slammed door resembles a gunshot. Rehana suppresses her rage, then suddenly screams; she splashes her face repeatedly, a frantic action that betrays the turmoil behind her sealed expression. Later, in a beautiful sequence, we watch Annie dancing alone to soaring vocals on her headphones. The film is full of powerful understatements. Saad never over-explains.

Rehana’s determination to bring Arefin to justice intensifies with every obstacle she meets. When her daughter is accused of biting a classmate and told to apologise, Rehana has two wars to fight, one for Annie, one for Emu – but are both, in fact, for herself? This subplot mirrors the assault allegation and becomes another issue on which the embattled Rehana refuses to give ground.

When she learns about Annie’s assault, Arafin’s wife, Ayesha (Farzana Bithi), would rather turn a blind eye than disrupt the status quo – a mindset that’s unimaginable to Rehana. “Not all women think like you,” Ayesha tells Rehana.

Dr Arefin is indulgent with his students, but his charm evaporates under pressure, revealing his cowardice and misogyny. He tries to shift the blame onto Annie and threatens Rehana, telling her: “Only women like you get raped.”

As the situation escalates, a public humiliation forces Rehana to confront her moral and personal isolation. Badhon acts the character’s fall from grace with impressive modulation, shifting between frenzied rage, sorrow and steely reserve.

The cultural context, Badhon’s bravura performance and Saad’s taut, precise style elevate Rehana to be at once thriller, portrait and issue-led drama

Rehana offers a window into the gender dynamics of middle-class Bangladesh. Rehana is her household’s breadwinner, but when a family debate centres on whether Rony’s hypothetical wife would need a job, a man asks: “Aren’t cooking and childbearing enough?” His wife responds: “As long as men don’t start conceiving babies, nothing will ever change. You know why no one says anything? Because the moment the wife speaks up, it creates trouble in the family”. A culture of silence, we understand, underpins the gender roles in this society; a woman’s career may depend on her husband’s attitude.

With its claustrophobic mood and inexorable momentum, Rehana is as unrelenting as its protagonist, who is so much the focus that the supporting characters feel underdeveloped. Yet it vividly highlights the bravery required to speak out within a patriarchal system, and it raises the question of how we treat women who aren’t concerned with being liked, but with doing what’s right. Its premise feels depressingly familiar in a post-#MeToo era, but the cultural context, Badhon’s bravura performance and Saad’s taut, precise style elevate Rehana to be at once thriller, portrait and issue-led drama. This thought-provoking look at the loneliness of whistleblowing represents a landmark achievement in Bangladeshi cinema.

Images courtesy of LFF.
Image description:
1. A close up of Rehana with her face and hair wet. She stares at the floor and appears upset. The scene is infused with a blue hue.
2. A similar portrait of Rehana, this time of her staring at her reflection in a window. She appears focused.