Review: Bangla (2018)

Winner of the National Youth Film Awards (NYFA) 2018 and the only Singaporean entry to be selected for the Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia (SSFF & Asia) 2019, Bangla by Idette Chen casts a new, intimate light on the local-foreigner relationship within Singapore. Bangla revolves around Savi (Tahir Ansari), a migrant worker from Bangladeshi, whose injury forces him to moonlight at a hawker-center store owned by lone hawker Aunty (Lesley Ong), in order to continue sending money to his family back home. 

The film’s commendable cinematography and production design help to breathe new perspective onto the quotidian. Through an impressive long shot of the ordinary living quarters of a construction site, the pale blue hue of the morning sky neatly blends into the purplish metal rungs of the building, giving the building an imposing, almost ominous glow. Audiences also peek into the claustrophobic interior of this building, where Savi lives and sleeps on a tiny bed cluttered with belongings. All this serves to accentuate the degree of isolation and desperation that Savi faces when his injury introduces hardship later on. 

This ties in with the keen sense of loneliness that persists for both Savi and Aunty, with both being separated from their families: Savi’s family is in Bangladeshi, while Aunty is revealed to be a widow whose only daughter is pursuing a job opportunity abroad. Just as both characters begin to bond over their respective familial situations, Savi is abruptly deported back to Bangladeshi. 

The film, however, refuses to end on a bitter note. The last few scenes comprise of close shots that alternate between both characters as Savi leaves his quarters. The angled close shots bridge the spatial distance between Savi and Aunty by creating the impression that Aunty is in full-view of seeing Savi leave for good. Yet, rather than just dejection, both characters’ facial expressions seem to hint of gratitude, perhaps for having the chance to have met each other. 

Bangla thus serves as a sentimental ode to familial love and longing, reminding us that these universal concepts transcend communal barriers and that individuals from communities that are seemingly worlds-apart are often more similar than we think. 

We caught up with director and producer of Bangla Idette Chen to trace her experience making this short film in our interview with her.

Do you think slavery exists in Singapore? 

Not as it's traditionally known, but I think slavery exists in the form of mistreatment to the workers where they are denied basic rights and entitlement. 

Apart from the normal film audience, have you screened this to certain social groups? e.g. construction workers, heartland aunties and uncles who might have a more special reaction to the film? 

The film is currently still in submission to film festivals but we hope to be able to screen this to the migrant community and perhaps even in the heartlands, at hawker centres. 

How did you find your lead actor? He seems like a real construction worker and what were the challenges in getting him involved in this film? 

Casting was a challenge we had. We played with the idea of getting a real migrant worker who has a natural talent to act. It could have been a great asset to the film to paint the most authentic picture of migrant workers with their accent and behaviours, however due to practical reasons like language barrier and constraints in schedules, we were unable to do that. 

We found Tahir on an actors database after a long search through cultural clubs and drama groups. He stood out the most with his sturdy physique and deep-set eyes that fitted the foreign look. During the audition, his attempt at a foreign accent was pretty convincing yet not too much at the same time. His performance was of utmost importance to me because he is the very subject of our film. If he were unable to pull off acting as a migrant worker, if he were unbelievable, the film would have been an utter failure. 

The way Tahir spoke was a big element. During the film's preparation and research, I realised the migrant workers I came across did not have a recognizable accent and they spoke differently from one another. With that, I decided to break the English language, and have Tahir create his own foreign accent using broken speech instead of faking a specific accent which could turn out to be unconvincing if not done well. I gave special importance to his accent and ensured that he sounded foreign no matter the choice of words, by slurring, mumbling, or enunciating certain vowels. Tahir also had the help of his father who works with migrant workers to break the lines and teach him the way certain words are pronounced. Many have asked if Tahir was indeed a migrant worker. Tahir has great potential and had put in a lot of hard work to make Savi his own, and I am proud of who Savi is and how he came to life. 

The dialogue seemed very natural, were the actors improvising? 

The dialogues were crafted with a lot of thought. Especially for Savi, because his dialogues were in broken English, my writers and I revisited the dialogue with numerous rounds of script revision to ensure that the lines did not sound unintelligent. Of course, there was also some improvisation from the actors during production, and we worked to ensure the best for everyone. 

The film seemed a highly controlled effort. Were there any interesting takes or scenes that didn't make the final cut? 

We had a scene before Ang offered to hire Savi where she was frying nuggets in a quiet afternoon, when she accidentally dropped the whole tray. Savi then appeared miraculously like a hero to save a damsel in distress. This scene held one of the highest number of takes and we even had a reshoot to perfect it. There was also a scene where Savi's injury had a relapse at the hawker stall and he hid it from Ang. Sadly, both were removed in the final edit for more efficient storytelling.

Review by Bryson Ng

Bryson is a sophomore student from Yale-NUS college majoring in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE). His special interests include film theory and studying the socio-political intersections between film and culture.
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