I recently had the opportunity to see the latest feature film by Amitabh Reza Chowdhury Rickshaw Girl at the Sonoma Film Institute Film Festival in Northern California, where I lived for over 20 years.
The film is so many things. It is an honest but tender representation of Bangladesh. It’s a universal story of struggling against winds and tides to achieve one’s dream. It is an affirmation of family power and resilience. And it is a loving (and long overdue) tribute to the art, culture and significance of the rickshaw and the art of the rickshaw in Bangladeshi life.
Director Chowdhury makes the film superbly with color and light and creates moments of such intimacy and bravery that one can see his love for Dhaka in every frame. So much so that while watching, I felt an overwhelming sense of euphoria, as if I was physically in Dhaka throughout the film.
I was not alone in my admiration. Rickshaw Girl received enthusiastic applause upon screening, and the film won more than 12 international film festival awards, including “Top Film” at Germany’s prestigious Schlingel International Film Festival and “Prix du public” at Mill Valley Film Festival, where he had his world premiere at the festival.
Rickshaw Girl follows proud teenage Naima (played brilliantly by Novera Rahman), a precocious budding artist with no outlet for her creativity in her village and barely enough money for chalk. She is a girl who dreams in color but who lives in a world of grays and browns.
When Naima’s father falls ill, she travels to Dhaka to work. A stint as a maid for a wealthy Gulshan couple leaves her alone and destitute. She flees again and takes to the streets of Dhaka. With no work to find, she cleverly disguises herself as a boy and pulls a rickshaw through the streets of Dhaka to earn money for the prescription her father desperately needs.
Everything is fine at first, very good, but when her gender is revealed, she is pushed out into the street. It’s there that she meets Marium (played boldly and brilliantly by Gulshan Champa), a powerful and relentless woman – yes a woman – who owns a rickshaw garage. No spoilers here, but let’s just say you’ve never seen an ending like this in a Bangladeshi movie before.
The cast is superb and also includes Allan Shubhro as a bus driver and Naima’s only link to her family back home, Momena Chowdhury as Novera’s mother (Momena is Novera’s real mother!), Naresh Bhuiyan as as a father who never loses faith in his unconventional daughter, and Siam Ahmed in a surprising and spirited appearance.
Bangladesh has produced directors who have attracted international attention. Satyajit Ray and Tareque Masud obviously come to mind. But internationally, Bangladesh has a reputation for producing melodramatic dishes.
With rickshaw girl, Amitabh Reza Chowdhury will help refocus international attention on Bangladeshi cinema and help the country regain its cinematic stature. Call it the new wave of Bangladeshi cinema, backed, not just by Amitabh, but by a host of up-and-coming directors, including Rubaiyat Hossain (Made in Bangladesh) and Abdullah Mohammad Saad(Rehana Maryam Nour).
After the screening, I stayed to listen to the Q&A with the film’s American producer, Eric J. Adams of Sleeperwave Films, who also lives in Northern California. I felt a deep happiness to hear all the wonderful things Adams said about Bangladeshi artists and his positive experience in Bangladesh. I took advantage of the moment to arrange a meeting with Eric to discuss the film in more detail.
“First of all,” Adams shared, “the film wouldn’t have been possible without my Bangladeshi producing partners, Ziauddin Adil ([CEO Top of Mind digital marketing agency]Syed Gousul Alam Shaon [Managing Partner of Gray Advertising Agency] and Faridur Reza Sagar [Managing Director of Impress Telefilm and Channel i]. Adil helped manage our business affairs and Shaon served as a creative producer. It’s been a five year journey and there’s no way we would have reached the finish line without them.
But it was Amitabh and his team at Half Stop Down Productions and beyond that really brought the film to life, according to Adams.
“Amitabh is the rarest of directors – and I’ve worked with a lot of directors in the US. Even though the results seem effortless on screen, he works so hard to create his cinematic vision before filming begins. Plus, he’s a great leader who knows how to communicate his ideas and rally the cast and crew around him.Amitabh and his crew shot through monsoons, Ramadan, personal tragedies, but the film always passed first and Amitabh’s vision was never compromised.
Adams and his wife Kathleen (who is the film’s co-producer) first came to Bangladesh several years ago to visit his brother, who at the time was working as a senior lawyer at the US Embassy.
“We had traveled extensively through South Asia, but immediately fell in love with Bangladesh, rickshaws and the art of rickshaws. We understood how important this mode of transport and this form of art are quintessentially Bangladeshi,” Adams said.
During his first visit, Adams, who is both a feature film writer and a producer, met with top directors and was offered the opportunity to teach a seminar on screenwriting.
“Five hundred writers signed up even though the venue only had room for 50. It was clear to me that there was an untapped creative reserve in Bangladesh waiting to explode. isn’t it great to come back and make a movie here?’
The Adams returned to the United States and, by coincidence or fate, met Mitali Perkins, the Bangladeshi-American author of the young adult novel “Rickshaw Girl,” on which the film is based.
“After that, there was no doubt – we were going back to Dhaka to make a movie,” Eric said. Adams and Amitabh spent two years developing the story, casting, and finally filming and editing. The Adams were the only non-Bangladeshi team members, and Rickshaw Girl is the first-ever American-Bangladeshi co-production.
Rickshaw Girl was completed just before the pandemic put an end to international film distribution. “We had planned to be at the Cannes International Film Festival, canceled. Berlin, canceled. Toronto, canceled. But we did not sit idly by. We used the time to re-edit the film and add elements that really make it special,” Adams said.
The film was shot in English rather than Bengali. “It was the hardest decision of all,” Adams said. “But we want Rickshaw Girl be accessible to a global audience. We want people to have a window on Bangladesh. We want the international film community to notice the great new wave cinema coming out of the country. An English production helps us achieve all of these goals.
The strategy seems to be working; the film will have its US theatrical premiere in New York on May 5and, followed by a theatrical tour of 52 cities across the United States and Canada. Global release plans are underway along with a theatrical release across Bangladesh.
The film is not just a feel-good story. It shows both the courage and the promise of life in Bangladesh as the country strives to develop economically. In many ways, its main character, Naima, personifies Bangladesh itself – resilient, courageous, enterprising and daring.
Personally, I remember my parents taking me by rickshaw to school, to family visits and to doctor’s appointments. I remember the sound of the bells, the jostling of the merry-go-round, the forced intimacy of the cramped car. It seemed like an imposition at the time, but now I view rickshaws with great nostalgia, especially as we witness the demise of the art and culture of the rickshaw in big cities. Rickshaw Girlif nothing more, celebrates this brilliant Bangladeshi art form and allows us all to be proud of what we have often taken for granted.
But the film is so much more than that and it all adds up to an engrossing and satisfying viewing experience. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to screen this groundbreaking film, and heartily recommend it to everyone.