An interview with director Rahsaan Noor about ‘Bengali Beauty’
Rahsaan Noor is an actor and filmmaker who is known for his contributions to the Bengali New Age Movement. He is helping to bring Bengali cinema to a global audience, and this year is bringing his new film Bengali Beauty to streaming platforms.
The movie is set in 1975 and follows the story of a demure medical student (Mumtaheena Toya) who falls in love with a brash Bangladesh DJ (Rahsaan Noor) while listening to his radio show. Bengali Beauty is a love story during a politically turbulent time, but is also a movie about freedom of speech.
Originally released in 2018. Bengali Beauty was initially banned from being released in Bangladesh by the country’s censor board before eventually being overturned. Since then the film has become the all-time highest grossing Bengali film in the worldwide box office with theatrical releases in the U.S., UK, and China. The film will be released on September 4th on Amazon Prime in both the United States and the United Kingdom.
We were lucky enough to have the chance to ask Noor a few questions about Bengali Beauty and his career as a whole. Here’s what he had to say.
Can you tell us a little bit about Bengali Beauty?
Bengali Beauty is a film about freedom of speech told through the lens of a love story. It’s the story about my parents’ generation; young men and women trying to pursue their dreams of career and love all while having to deal with the political instability and nation building realities that haunted Bangladesh during the 1970s.
What inspired you to make Bengali Beauty?
I was once offered a film that was set during the 1974 famine in Bangladesh; and was told during that time, “We all know what happened during the ‘71 war, but don’t know what happened after that.” And as I looked into that, I found the statement to be true. The historical documentation from that time has been all but just destroyed – newspapers, film archives – all gone.
As I dug deeper into the history, I found the political tension surrounding the assassination of the Father of the Nation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, incredibly interesting. And how that not only shattered the dreams of a newly independent nation, but also of so many ordinary citizens that got caught in the figurative crossfire.
Is there anything you want people to know before watching Bengali Beauty, or to think about while watching?
In the words of the great Bruce Lee, “Don’t think! Feeeeeel.”
But it would be good for people who are not familiar with Bangladesh to know just how divisive the political sentiments from that time still are today. We knew that we were entering politically sensitive terrain when we began the film, and we were just hoping that people would see our efforts as pure and unbiased.
The film can be considered an unofficial document of Bangladesh in the early 1970s. For example, World Music was a real show and the radio studio we shot in looks exactly the same way as it did in the 1970s – but you wouldn’t know it since the recordings from that time are long gone.
Were there any challenges you faced during Bengali Beauty’s production?
Making a film for anybody is a nearly impossible feat. And by those standards, with all due respect to all filmmakers around the world, Bengali Beauty is the flagbearer of chaos for film productions.
It’s a miracle that we finished the film. Days before the shoot, our financier backed out. The film was banned by the Censor Board. Then “boycotted” by the industry. And then there’s the countless day to day drama that I can’t tell you about.
To you, what makes Bengali Beauty an important film?
For the reasons stated above. It’s a story that has never been told before. It’s a story that can be held up as a document of human history.
And more importantly, I hope that the film inspires other filmmakers to stick to their guns in telling their own stories. If an idiot like me can, then anybody can.
Tell us about your career before you found filmmaking.
I was slogging away at excel spreadsheets for 9 hours a day for 10 months. Please don’t make me relive those memories.
Tell us about your history as a filmmaker. How did you start your journey?
As a fundraising initiative for charity, I made this really amateurish feature film called Kings of Devon that somehow managed to get theatrically released in four cities in America. And somehow managed to sell out the shows too.
I guess you could say that it is somewhat of a cult film amongst those who have seen it. Those who have the DVD keep rewatching it, and those who don’t have the DVD keep asking me for it. But, now that I am taking my filmmaking career seriously, I don’t let anyone watch it. Not just yet.
Can you talk us through what your creative process looks like?
There is no method to my madness!
I really just look to reading, listening to music, and conversing with and observing people for my creative inspiration.
Who are your current filmmaking influences?
I’d be flattered if anyone who saw my work would say that they could tell I was inspired by filmmakers like Yash Chopra or Akira Kurosawa. And by actor-filmmakers like Clint Eastwood, Jackie Chan, and Aamir Khan.
What part of filmmaking do you geek out about the most?
I really spend a lot of time watching these YouTube creators like Every Frame a Painting, Lessons from the Screenplay, and The Cinema Cartography. The detail with which they understand the filmmaking greats from around the world is awe-inspiring.
I pour over them and then see how I can incorporate the details they point out into my craft.
You’re very hands-on with your projects. How hard is it wearing all the hats?
Once you have decided to be the producer of a film, you have reached the ceiling – actually, burst through the ceiling – of pressures and responsibilities on a film. The pressure is such that even if you take on additional responsibilities, those feel like nothing at all.
What’s your filmmaking mission? Name the most important thing you want viewers to experience when watching your movies.
My mission is to inspire greatness in others. I hope viewers experience joy watching my movies and are inspired to seek out new adventures and ideas in their lives.
What’s your five-year plan?
Continue to grow – both literally and figuratively. To continue to get better at my craft and make at least one film a year. I’d also like to help other aspiring filmmakers tell their stories too.
Given how well Bengali Beauty has done, I know I can make at least two more.
What’s your favorite film of all time, and what did you learn from it?
I feel like every time I watch a new movie, it becomes my favorite movie. Last year, I watched Ford vs. Ferrari and Joker; those films stayed with me for days if not weeks. They were stories mounted on larger than life canvases, but at the heart it was the human experience. That’s what cinema is all about.
If you could have someone create a soundtrack for your life who would you want to have create it?
Rusho Mahtab, the music director behind all my films so far. You can say that he already has created the soundtrack for my life.
What tips do you have for new filmmakers?
Here are my 10 rules for filmmaking: 1. Tell your story. 2. Don’t be boring. 3. Learn from the greats. 4. Learn from your hits and your flops. 5. Execute what you learn. 6. Be ambitious. 7. Believe in your team. 8. Work on your craft. 9. Understand the moment. 10. It’s about the audience, not you. 11. Don’t be afraid to break the rules.
Are you able to tell us about any upcoming project(s)? What are they?
I’m working with some really talented people from Mumbai on a Hindi language film called Coco & Nut. We’re getting ready to roll camera in Washington D.C. this October.
Have you worked with mentors in the past? How would you recommend people go about finding them?
I wish I knew. I’ve been looking for a mentor my whole professional life, without much success.
What indie filmmakers should be on our radar?
I don’t know if he qualifies as indie, but he is definitely someone who deserves more international recognition and one of my favorites: Vishal Bharadwaj.
And finally, an easy one, cats or dogs?
Dogs. Especially my Aunt’s dogs Yoshi and Coco.
You can find Rashaan Noor’s Facebook page here, and the Bengali Beauty Facebook page here.