A lost community of Armenians in Dhaka

Dhaka, a 400-years-old behemoth of a city. Imagine for a moment that you are in 17th century Mughal Dhaka. You are standing in the middle of a bazaar in the Grand Area. People are shouting, talking to one other, switching between languages in their usual loud tone. Persian merchants, on their way to the port of Calcutta, are stopping by to trade fine Muslin for the Shah’s gold. Do you smell the fresh spices? Amid the ruckus of crowd and noise, a mellow and soothing sound of sitar is coming from somewhere. You can hear the prayer chants and bells of a temple somewhere far away. Only to be overtaken with the sound of Azaan as the dusk begins to fall.

It was sometime in these buzzing, lazy days of the 17th-18th century when Dhaka saw the arrival of a prominent community of Armenians in this part of the world. Almost 400 years later, only a small locality name, Armanitola and one magnificently breathtaking church built by them, bear the testimony of their existence. This is the story of the forgotten Armenians of Dhaka.

The arrival of the Armenians in Dhaka

Courtesy: The Armenian Church of Bangladesh Website

We cannot find an exact record of exactly when the Armenians had arrived in Dhaka. But it is widely believed that they arrived some time in the late 17th or early 18th century.

Following the invasion of Armenia by the Persian Safavid rulers in the 17th century, a significant number of Armenians came to Bengal to establish a community and engage in trade and commerce. Armenians, who were fluent in Persian and veteran businessmen, had no trouble finding their niche in the Persian speaking Mughal court. They quickly established themselves as prominent traders in Bengal.

The rise to prominence

The Armenians settled largely in an Armenian colony in the preset day Aramanitola. In an extremely short span of time, the Armenians became unmatched in the trade of textile, opium and leather, beating their European counterparts in the game.

Thanks to them, Dhaka started to become even richer as one of the most important trade hubs in the east.

The Armenians, thanks to their specific skill sets of trade and commerce, quickly established themselves as the elite class in the city. Integrating themselves with the locals, many of them became local zamindars and landlords. They built picturesque mansions, houses and bungalows that adorned the city of Dhaka. The now ruined Ruplal House was such an establishment which was originally built by an Armenian landlord, Aratoon. It later went on to become one of the most prominent landmarks of colonial Dhaka alongside Ahsan Manzil. Parts of Shahbagh and the land where Bangabhaba stands also used to belong to Armenian zaminders.

Read more: 6 places in Dhaka that remind us of our glorious past

Contributions to the development of Dhaka

Dhaka City across Buriganga River – a painting by Frederick William Alexander de Fabeck in 1861

The Armenian community played a significant role in the development of Dhaka. Although the use of horse-carriages is mostly associated with Nawabs of Dhaka, it was the Armenians who fist introduced these horse-carriages which became a popular mode of transportation in the city later on. The Armenians were also the first to introduce departmental stores in Dhaka. Nicholas Pogose, a prominent wealthy Armenian of that time, had established the Pogose school. It was one of the first three English schools in Dhaka. He was also the founding member of Dhaka Municipality in 1864.

The Armenian Church

A lost community of Armenians in Dhaka 2

In 1781, the Armenian community built a church adjacent to a community burial ground. This is the Armenian church that we know today. The sole testament to a once thriving and flourishing diaspora in the heart of Dhaka.

Just like their arrival, there are no records of their sudden disappearance either. The community slowly extracted themselves after the partition in 1947. The burial ground inside the Armenian church contains bodies of Armenian settlers and their subsequent generations who are just as much Dhakaites as the rest of us today. They came here, settled here, grew families and businesses here. They flourished this city. Here’s to hoping this city does not forget them.

This article is part one of a five-part series based on Dhaka’s history and culture. We humbly apologise for any factual mistakes and errors that might have been made during researching and writing. We would appreciate your contribution in making this article and the series richer with any facts, information, corrections and tips that might have missed our eyes. Send us emails at [email protected] with your suggestions and notes. Thank you!

Day trips from Dhaka: 5 places you can visit for a quick fix

It feels nice to get away from the city once in a while. It feels nice to go somewhere, away from all the hustle, dust, crowd and everything else. 

What we lack is not the enthusiasm or the drive to travel, but time and money. And places near Dhaka which can be covered in a day are a blessing when it comes to getting away for a short time with a limited budget. 

Here are 5 places you never knew you wanted to visit for a day tour:

Read more: 5 countries you can travel to without a visa if you’re Bangladeshi

Chandpur:

Day tour from Dhaka: 5 places that you can visit for a quick fix

About a hundred kilometres away from Dhaka, Chandpur is a quiet and calm city situated on the banks of Padma and Meghna. Interestingly, Chandpur is the point where the rivers Padma and Meghna meet and the spectacular view of the two rivers makes Chandpur a coveted yet somewhat undiscovered tourist destination.

Find a hands-on guide to a day tour to Chandpur here

Sreemangal:

Day tour from Dhaka: 5 places that you can visit for a quick fix

They say it’s never a bad time to visit Sreemangal. Sreemangal, called the Tea Capital of Bangladesh, is adorned with hill after hill of lush green tea gardens, rubber trees and of course, is home to the famous and mysterious Lawachara  National Forest.

The best time to visit Sreemangal is either in the rainy season, when the rain makes the tea gardens greener and the smell of raw tea leaves you a little high, or in winter, when the dense fog keeps the forests and the tea gardens covered in mystery and you can enjoy one of the coldest climates in the country.

Find a hands-on guide to a day tour to Sreemangal here. 

Cumilla:

Day tour from Dhaka: 5 places that you can visit for a quick fix

Cumilla is a famous and historical town with a bagful of surprises. With a rich history spanning from ancient Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms to the British Era, World War 2 and home to the famous Rosh-malai, Cumilla is one of the most underrated tourist destinations in Bangladesh.

Find a hands-on guide to a day tour to Cumilla here

Dohar:

Day tour from Dhaka: 5 places that you can visit for a quick fix

It’s called the mini Cox’s Bazar. And for good reasons too. The endless horizon of water and splashing small waves at your feet on the muddy banks does remind one of Cox’s Bazar.

Yes, talking about Moinot Ghat or Dohar as many prefer to call it. About one and a half hours journey away from Dhaka, Dohar is the perfect place to spend a day away from the busy urban life. The best time to visit Dohar would be now, as the continuous rain has filled the river Padma to the brink and the overcast sky and the calm Padma waters together make an unforgettable view to feast your eyes on.

Find a hands-on guide to a day tour to Dohar here

Read more: 5 perfect places in Bangladesh for camping adventures

Munshiganj:

Day tour from Dhaka: 5 places that you can visit for a quick fix

Munshiganj, also known as Bikrampur is located about 33 kms away from Dhaka city. An ideal location for a day’s visit, Munshiganj is a little bit underrated as a travel destination and the lack of selfie savvy tourists is perhaps one of the best things about travelling to Munshiganj.

Find a hands-on guide to a day tour to Munshiganj here

Honorary mention: Uttara

Day tour from Dhaka: 5 places that you can visit for a quick fix

Artwork by: Fahim Anzoom Rumman

Uttara is a nice little place to leave the city for a day, away from the hectic weekdays. Ideally, this little, somewhat primitive small city-state should not take more than 30 minutes to visit. But thanks to the adventurous route that leads to this place, it almost takes an entire day to visit Uttara and come back to the city, safe and sound.

Read more: 5 unique experiences in Dhaka that most tourists never see

So, if you’re tired of all the cliched places people visit these days like Sreemangal and Cox’s Bazaar (or you want to turn your image of a lazy duck who sits at home all day playing PUBG into that of a spontaneous traveller), buckle up. You’re in for the adventure of a lifetime.

Find a hands-on guide to a day tour to Uttara here. 

5 unique experiences in Dhaka that most tourists never see

Dhaka has a long way to go before it becomes a conventional tourist destination. Nonetheless, tourism is common in the 400-year-old city. There is a fixed rounded up list of places that people always go to whenever they visit Dhaka.  But Dhaka has more to offer than Lalbagh fort, Jatiya Sangsad and the National Museum. There are a ton of places to visit and things to do outside of what the brochure or your tour guides tell you about.

Whether you are visiting Dhaka for the first time, or you’re a local who wants to experience this city like never before, here are the 5 things you must do to complete your Dhaka experience.

1. Embark on a spiritual journey in Hussaini Dalan 

Hussaini Dalan Muharram Dhaka
Hussaini Dalan during Maharram

The Hussaini Dalan serves as the main Hussainiya in Dhaka. The shrine is a major gathering place for Shia Muslims, followers of the grandson of Prophet Muhammad. It was originally built during the latter half of the Mughal rule (17th Century) and patronized by prince Shah Shuja, son of Emperor Shah Jahan. The structure has an elegant Mughal and British architectural style. Followers of the Shia community come here to say their prayers; the atmosphere is amazingly calm and serene. You can feed the ducks in the adjacent ponds, listen to the sermon and exchange deep philosophical talks with the clerics.

Pro tip: Visit during the Muharram festivals. You can see and even take the part in the vibrant Muharram parades.

2. Visit the historic Ruplal House

Ruplal House Dhaka
Ruins of Ruplal House

The Ruplal house in Farashganj of old Dhaka is a mansion built in the late 19th century by Armenian Landlord Aratun. Ruplal brothers bought it in 1835 and hired Martin and Company of Calcutta for renovations. Ruplal House and Ahsan Manzil, which is nearby, used to be the ornament of Dhaka back in the day. The area was the residential area for the rich merchant class and top-posted British officers. Ruplal house hosted a lot of cultural activity of the time. Gurus of Indian classical music like Ustad Alauddin Khan, Ustad Wali Ullah Khan and Lakshmi Devi regularly hosted shows. Ruplal house was also politically important during the Renaissance period.

Ruplal house was expensive to build on site. The structure features an Indo-Greek architectural style, massive blocs, porticos, tinted glasses, ballrooms and feast halls. There used to be a clock tower on the top which was damaged by an earthquake. The fall of Ruplal House began after the Ruplal family left during the partition in 1947. Now the Ruplal House is jointly owned by several private and commercial owners.

Visit Ruplal House to find bits and pieces of the old glory days of Bengal. Dhaka boasts a number of establishments which remind us of our glorious past. Ruplal House is just one of the many.

3. Grab lunch in Beauty Boarding

Beauty Boarding hotel Dhaka
Beauty Boarding

Beauty boarding is a famous hotel, or as its commonly known, a boarding house. It also has a restaurant that serves Bengali food in a traditional homely atmosphere. The building was originally a zamindar house. A local rented the house in 1951 and then turned into a boarding house and restaurant. Located near Banglabazar book market, the spot became popular with the local book traders, literature aficionados, poets, and artists.

In terms of its intellectual importance, Beauty boarding can be compared to the Coffee House in Kolkata.

The boarding was a regular spot for poet Shahid Qadri and Nirmalendu Goon who stayed for five years in the boarding. Poets like Shamsul Haque, Rafiq Azad and Shamsur Rahman used to gather for their evening tea.

Pro tip: Beauty boarding doubles as a great background for your photos if you want to keep some mementos of your visit to the land of Bengal.

4. Go book hopping in Nilkhet

Nilkhet book market Dhaka
Nilkhet book market

Nilkhet is the second largest book market in the country and a heaven for book lovers. 2500 shops are crammed together. The shops sell local prints and second-hand copies of original books. Bookworms of Dhaka, especially the students, go to Nilkhet for the best deals on books.

Pro tip: Looking for a rare book? Chances are you’ll find an original first edition copy of it, tucked somewhere in the piles of books that are on display. Make sure you bargain hard to get the best deals.

5. Take a boat ride in Buriganga

Buriganga river ride in Dhaka
Boatride in Buriganga

Buriganga is the major river on which the city of Dhaka stands. On it, is Sadarghat, the largest river port in the country. Hire a boat for an hour from Sadarghat, for only 200 takas per hour. The boatman will take you on a river ride to the other side of Dhaka. On a clear sunny afternoon, see the Dhaka skyline. Ahsan Manzil, the palace of the nawabs of Dhaka, will be visible from the river. Stay to enjoy the sunset. You’ll see hundreds of people commuting and crossing the river on wooden boats.

Riding a boat in Burganga is a chance to spend time in the calm waters, away from the bustling city while getting intimate with the lifestyle of the locals.

The best part of Dhaka is its people. What the city may lack in traditional grandeur and glamour, is made up for by the kind-hearted, lovely and forever curious people of this magical city. Open up to Dhaka, and it will open up to you with its four hundred years’ worth of culture, history, and tradition.

5 perfect places in Bangladesh for camping adventures

As we skim through the calendar to check our schedules, we often struggle to decide how to spend our mini-vacations with holidays surrounding the weekends. Rather than visiting the eateries you come across in FoodBank, we bring you a more fun and exciting way to spend quality time with friends and family during vacation- five places in Bangladesh to go to for adventure/camping activities.

The Base Camp

Located in the outskirts of the city in Rajendrapur Chowrasta, Gazipur- Base Camp offers excellent accommodation and a number of activities. Some of their thrilling on-tree and on-ground activities for visitors include cycling, zip-lining archery, monkey-pass, forest trekking and of course, the ultimate ‘sitting-together-surrounding-the-camp fire’ experience! Base Camp offers accommodation in bungalow rooms, non-AC nature rooms and weatherproof tents as well as varieties of everyday meals- depending on your budget and choice.

Learn more about The Base Camp here.

Satchari National Park

Getting its name because of the seven streams flowing inside the forest, Satchari (meaning Seven streams) National Park of Sylhet provides an unforgettable experience like no other! Visitors indulge in the flora and fauna, surrounding themselves in the lush greenery of the beautiful forest. Being one of the best birding destinations of Bangladesh, this park provides you the opportunity to catch sight of some of the rarest species of birds. There are also tea gardens nearby for visiting; altogether, a trip there would surely mean a wonderful time amidst Mother Nature!

There are also quite a few adventure activities recently started in Satchori.

Nazimgarh Tent Camp

Imagine getting to choose between dining on the river-banks of the green-blue crystal clear Shari river or dining on a hill overlooking the mesmerizing Meghalaya hills. Indeed, Nazimgarh Tent Camp, also located in Sylhet showcases nature in its purest form. Offering weatherproof tent accommodation, Nazimgarh Tent Camp also provides cycling, boat riding, canoeing and kayaking, trekking and zorb balling activities. It also has three separate restaurants- one of which is set beside a beautiful river and the other on a hill with the beautiful mountains of Meghalaya in view.

Learn more about Nazimgarh Tent Camp here.

Munlai

Munlai gives its guests a memorable experience because of its uniqueness; unlike other places in Bangladesh focusing on simply giving you and your family/friends an enjoyable vacation, Munlai camp also involves the Bawm community. With a two-hour drive from Bandarban, the picturesque setting amidst lavish greenery, hills and the river Sangu- you reach in the serene land of the Bawm community who greet you with blissful smiles. Along with comfortable and hygienic homestays with necessary amenities, you also get to experience boating, camping, trekking, kayaking and the country’s longest zip-line. Moreover, enjoying the mouthwatering local Bawm cuisine served in native style using bamboos under the twinkling starry sky is definitely something you do not want to miss!

Learn more about Munali here.

Neocampers

Neocampers can be described as the family-friendly version of Base Camp; powered by Base Camp itself, Neocampers is ideal for family groups and school field-trips. Targeted at school children to indulge them in day-long fun activities and learn skills alongside mainstream education, Neocampers involves many enjoyable activities similar to Base Camp, guided by professional trainers. In addition to physical activities, workshops for carpentry, pottery-making, treasure-hunting, bird watch, campfire and basic BBQ facilities are also arranged here. Located in Savar, Neocampers definitely gives you a fun, challenging and learning environment away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Learn more about Neocampers here.

So, next time you unconsciously scratch the back of your head, struggling to decide where to go for an adventure the following vacation- don’t forget to check these five places out!

Where the real pride of Dhaka University lies

Cover art by: Helena Lyzu

The Hon’ble Vice-Chancellor of the University of Dhaka is in the limelight for some time now. This is because of his controversial speech in the orientation program of the freshmen students of Dhaka University. With major pronunciation mistakes, he stated that “You cannot find a cup of tea along with a piece of chap, singara, and samusa for only Tk 10 anywhere in the world.”

I believe that there are many other areas in which Dhaka University can be proud of other than this astounding achievement.

The alumni of this 97 years old university have taken the name University of Dhaka to a new height from time to time.

So, here is a list of ten Dhaka University Alumni who have played role in securing the justified pride of Dhaka University.

Humayun Ahmed

Humayun Ahmed. This name is a source of all kinds of emotions to thousands of people. He is still the most popular Bangladeshi writer and it can be easily predicted that he will remain so in the upcoming years. Humayun Ahmed is the author of Nondito Noroke and many other highly praised literary works. He received Bangla Academy Award in 1981 and received six Bangladesh National Film Awards later on. His famous TV series Kotaho Keu Nei was highly popular among the Bangladeshis. The popularity can be measured through the protest that happened in Bangladesh due to the death of the central character. He is certainly a pride of Dhaka University.

Zahir Raihan

The legendary Bangladeshi novelist, filmmaker and writer went missing on 30 January 1972. Jahir Raihan was a warrior with a camera. Even today we see footage from his documentary Stop Genocide every time there is news about the liberation war of Bangladesh. Our film industry has very few classics and some of those belong to this brilliant filmmaker. When asked about Zahir Raihan, Dhaka University Film Society member Mahmudul Hasan replied in one word, “Phenomenon”. This Ekushey Padak winner studied at Dhaka University. 

Munier Choudhury

This Bangladeshi educationist, playwright and literary critic completed his Masters’ from the University of Dhaka in 1947. We all have read or seen the drama Kabar at some point in our lives. This symbolic drama was created by Munier Chowdhury. He received Bangla Academy literary award in 1962.

Dr. Muhammad Yunus

The first ever Bangladeshi Nobel Peace Prize winner also studied at the University of Dhaka. His work against poverty is appreciated worldwide. He has a long list of awards and achievements. If all these things don’t make him the pride of any institution, then I don’t know what will. 

Satyendra Nath Bose

No, this famous physicist didn’t study at the University of Dhaka, but he was appointed as a teacher in the Physics department in 1921. He wrote his paper on quantum radiation from here. This paper is now considered as the base of quantum statistics throughout the world. I guess this is enough for him to enter the list of Pride of DU.

Humayun Azad

Many consider him the second most contributing person to Bangla Literature after Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah. His thesis paper titled as Pronominalizing in Bengali (1983) gained much fame. His literary works are also noteworthy. Although he generated much controversy through his feminist viewed books, his contribution to Bengali cannot be denied. He is also considered as a role model to many for his bravery. He studied and taught in the University of Dhaka and was awarded Bangla Academy Literary Award.

Leela Roy

Ever asked the question, who was the first woman to study at the University of Dhaka? Here is your answer.

She was also elected as the member of the assembly in 1946. Leela Roy is considered as the feminist idol of this sub-continent. She was politically involved in a time when women were considered as only housewives. She placed herself well into this list.

Abdul Matin Chowdhury

This ex-VC of Dhaka University has also placed himself on this list. Even during the Pakistani era, prof. Chowdhury was appointed as the chief scientist of Ministry of Defense. He was also in the committee for Nobel prize in physics. In 1974, prof. Matin became the first Bose professor.

Buddhadeva Bose or Buddhadeb Bosu

This Padma Bhushan awardee studied literature at the University of Dhaka. Many know him for his poetry, but he was a versatile writer who traveled almost every arena of literature. He is considered as the most impactful poets of modern Bangla poetry. He is one of the most reputed writers in Bengali Literature and he is certainly a pride of the University of Dhaka.

Shahabuddin Ahmed

The only painter in this list. He studied at the Dhaka Art College which is now the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Dhaka. He was awarded Chevalier De L’ordre Des Arts Et Des Lettres (Knight in the Order of Fine Arts and Humanities) by the Ministry of Cultural Affair and Communication of France in 2014. His paintings are displayed in many prestigious museums across the whole world. He was also awarded Shadhinata Padak in 2000.

Hon’ble Mention

It was too tough to sort out 10 Alumni of the University of Dhaka, who can be a pride to the university. I won’t be able to sleep at night if I don’t put one more name here. So, the Hon’ble mention goes to:

Tareque Masud

This honorable filmmaker got his fame for his amazingly portrayed films. He was awarded the FIPRESCI Prize for his film Matir Moyna (The Clay Bird). This film was the first film of Bangladesh to compete in the Academy Awards. He completed his masters’ degree in History from the University of Dhaka.

Even though I am not a student at the University of Dhaka, the speech of the Hon’ble VC hurt me. I am pretty sure that it would’ve hurt them as well.  The University of Dhaka has many things to be proud of and the food is not one of those. Give respect where respect is due. Thank you.

Think you are part of the hobbyless generation? Think again.

“What are your hobbies?” is a commonly asked question. It was an essay prompt in Class 2, now asked in job interviews, applications and some awkward first dates. Yet, it feels harder to answer each time. That comes as no surprise as we read this on the 6th hour (today) of staring at our phone screens. We have all been told off with the refrain, “Ekhonkar bachchara toh phone chara choltei pareh na”.

Do memes count?

memes

Our current state of leisure and learning may have a lot to do with the routine of an average 16-year-old in Dhaka who spends half the day at school, and the rest of the half bouncing around from coachings to tutors to coachings has two hours before bed for homework. With little space (or time) to actually relax, our interactions are limited to the same screens, through video games or WhatsApp. Unless you play sports through school, you probably don’t get to run around and be active.  So it’s really no wonder that those wee hours at 3 am are spent awake, but tired and dozing off in front of Brooklyn Nine-Nine or BoJack Horseman.

In fact, isn’t it about time “laughing at memes” counts as a hobby? If a hobby is whatever you do in your free time then that definition should undoubtedly change with changing effects of technology on social lives. Sharing quality memes and watching Vine compilations should definitely count as a legitimate hobby.

Now that we’ve classified memes as a hobby…

What does that say about us as a generation? Most of our hobbies seem to rotate around either communication through or passive consumption of technology. All our other hobbies are just socializing with peers. What did people do before the age of smartphones, Netflix and the scroll of death? Are we ever bored? Are we always bored?

Socializing, not social media

social media

What did our parents do every day? Unsurprisingly, the majority of the answers was “go out and socialize”.

Firstly, it was easier to go out and play with friends every day after school before cities were crammed with buildings. There were open spaces where kids played cricket or football with their neighbors. This was a major component of growing up. This reality may seem too alien to a teenager or child now. Cultural events were more prevalent. The common people and not just a niche group enjoyed events like film shows to local plays. These events united people through entertainment, no one had access to films in every household the way we do now.

So what do we do?

Books. Films. Learning anything, anytime.

learning

In fact, our generation has a much wider range of hobbies to choose from or develop than any other generation before us.

Love filmmaking? Watch a bunch of film analysis videos for free on YouTube, then use your phone to create a short film for little to no cost. Interested in photography? Your phone camera and Instagram are probably your best friends. Fascinated by how apps work? Take up coding for free through hundreds of online courses available on the internet. Anything you could remotely be interested in can probably, if not definitely, be learned on the internet and executed by your phone.

Find out and go to the many events happening in the city. Use Jete Chao, Facebook Local, and Facebook event pages, there are MUNs, Open Mic Nights to Art Biennales (where no one really understands anything).

Put on your adventure hat on and rediscover (or discover for the first time) your own city. Getaway to nearby spots and get some fresh air.

Of course, partake in the cafe culture (don’t know how you could avoid it even if you tried). Go to any cafe after 12 pm and join the many teenagers and young people sipping 400 taka Cappuccinos. Moreover, with the increasing number of restaurants in Dhaka, there are more food chains such as Takeout and Yum Cha District. The cuisine, decor, and marketing are mostly directed and catered to the tastes of young people.

There has also been a recent growth of gaming arcades providing karaoke and bowling (such as at JFP), and movie theatres such as Star Cineplex that run predominantly on Hollywood movies targeted towards the youth.

The same way our parent’s generation had the bookworms and comic lovers, so do we. We all know those kids who spend their days reading books or sketching cartoon strips. There has always been and there always will be folks who take an interest in writing or music regularly.

Use technology as an enabler of your new hobby

With drastic technological changes, population growth and urbanization, it is no surprise that our day-to-day hobbies are so different from our parents’ when they were our age. Although this is frequently posed as both a failure and a threat to the future of our generation, it doesn’t have to be either of those. It’s not our fault that we have no open fields to play Kabaddi in the afternoons, or that we’d rather lay in bed watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine after an exhausting day of coachings. Neither is it harmful to us that technology now takes up so much of our time. If you personally have an interest in anything, whatever generation you belong to, you’ll find ways to devote your time to it. Whether that is creatively stimulating or innovative enough depends on your own preferences entirely.

Breaking Bad at Dhaka Lit Fest 2018: a conversation we should have had a long time ago

“If we choose to tell stories about women there will be gallants of storytelling,” says the very well- known Bollywood actress, writer and activist Manisha Koirala, at Dhaka Lit Fest 2018. Invited as a panellist to talk about her book “Healed”, she shares a stage with Nandita Das, another talented actor, director and social activist under the panel “Breaking Bad”, moderated by Sadaf Saaz, the director of DLF. These three inspiring women join in a conversation to talk about women’s role in the film industry, stereotypes in society, gender roles, beauty standards, LGBTQ issues and much more.

The session begins with both women talking about how they started their respective careers in their industry and defied convention with their work. Manisha speaks of how she always wanted to go beyond stereotypes and considered herself lucky because “good filmmakers with good subjects” somehow managed to come to her and was fortunate enough “to recognize those opportunities.”  She goes on to talk about the joy that acting gave her and the satisfaction it brought with it.

In a conversation about how they started, Sadaf Saaz asks Nandita Das about her film Fire and how it was  ”one of the only mainstream Bollywood movies to feature homosexuality.” She says it became a “landmark censor decision” at the time, not having a single scene cut from the movie. While that was a remarkable feat, it was eventually criticized for supporting homosexuality in a deeply conservative society. People were encouraged to not watch the film, and later it was banned because it apparently went against commonly perceived sub-continental culture. Nandita believes that was important in making a nation realise an important lesson about the restriction on freedom of expression. “The film was significant for me because the kind of conversation it triggered” and had a “small role to play” when India passed the bill on legalizing homosexuality.

The session progresses to the role of women in the filmmaking industry. Both panellists agreed on how, even now, we have not been able to move away from the “boxed stereotypical roles” for women in movies. Women are hardly ever given strong characters or leading roles.  They believe that directors need to challenge themselves in making more diverse female characters. Manisha comments “Women are the most interesting characters…I get attracted to stories where women are portrayed slightly differently.” The conversation slightly shifts after Nandita mentions the struggles of being a woman director in a male-dominated industry. She asserts how she would always have to face questions about being a woman director, answering questions on what it’s like. “When we are working we are not constantly thinking that we are women.” She says she felt that being a woman was a “primary identity” before anything else. However, she thinks that just as there is a “male gaze” in movies, there is also a “female gaze”, and the identity of a woman cannot be ignored. It is crucial to acknowledge that identity to inspire more female directors to come forward.

The talk diverts to the “male gaze” and Manisha explains why she included this subject in her book. Women are always trying to cope with beauty standards that society places on them. The objectification of women in movies are still present and women are “constantly being judged by the standards of others.”  The lack of female directors makes it harder for a woman’s perspective to come through properly.

Later, asked about her campaign “Dark and Beautiful”, Nandita says “Being a dark person and living in South Asia, you are constantly made aware of it.” No matter where one goes they are constantly undermined because of their skin colour and people will not stop pointing it out. Fair skin is still synonymous with being beautiful and “matrimonial ads haven’t quite changed yet”. The campaign was significant in taking a stand against society’s obsession with fair skin and using women’s looks.