Having lost his family, the journey of a Muslim man digging a hundred graves to enter heaven, the story of The Grave, the first Bangladeshi film to be made in English. For playwright, translator, and academic Abdus Selim, translating the original Bangla screenplay—titled Gor—by Gazi Rakayet was part of the vision of seeing Bangladeshi films find international recognition.
In a conversation with The Daily Star, Professor Selim discusses his experience of writing the English screenplay and all that goes into translating and writing for the stage.
How did you become involved with this project?
Gor was originally a play. It all started almost four years back—I was teaching at North South University at the time. Gazi Rakayet had directed the first play to be performed at North South University. One of my earlier translations had also been directed for the TV by Rakayet, so we knew each other quite well. So when he suggested that we make a film in English, I was initially reluctant but somehow he convinced me.
Last year or maybe the year before, he told me he's ready.
When it is spoken all over the world in many varieties, we, the foreign language speakers of English, develop our own structures, our own vocabulary and our own phrases and idioms influenced by our culture. The Spanish, the Scandinavians, the Africans, they each have their own pronunciations of English. Native English speakers should accept that there are many Englishes in the world today.
If Bangladesh has a specific variety of English, why should it not be projected to the world? This idea convinced me to work on The Grave.
Were you involved in any other capacity besides writing the screenplay?
Yes. I asked Gazi Rakayet to finish his work and show me the raw "rush". He had shot the scenes originally in English, but once he called me in, I explained to him that, ultimately, he would have to dub in some scenes. So we worked on the pronunciations, the intonations, giving the actors some training, etc.
Working on this film made me change my mind about some things. It made me think, why can't we use our local pronunciations and intonations? India and many other non-English speaking countries are producing films and TV series which we watch on streaming platforms. So why not us?
Apart from the fact that this is the first English or bilingual film made in Bangladesh, what makes the story special?
The film reflects our culture and religion. The premise is based on a man who has lost everything, his loving family, his daughter, because of a tsunami, which is linked with life in this country. The loss makes him return to his ancestral land. And he thinks that the only way to get salvation is to dig one hundred graves, so he can go straight to heaven and meet his family. This really intrigued me—it can be wrong, but it touches upon a belief system. The last scene in which he digs his own grave—the hundredth grave—really impressed me.
The other thing is, as a member of the Bangladesh Oscar committee—every year we nominate films made in Bangladesh knowing that it won't amount to anything. Our filmmaking has not yet acquired the quality that can bring us an Oscar. However, upon making this film, we realised we can nominate it for the category of English films made in a non-native country.
I believe this English version of Gor can work as an example and an initiator for many filmmakers in Bangladesh, even though the sad reality is that they don't work commercially. Hopefully they can bring us critical acclaim.
As a linguist, what were some of the things that influenced your process of translating this script?
The main question was, what kind of English will we use to express our folk and rural culture? Simple expressions like panta kheye rouna dilam, or the socioeconomic implications of the death of a village family's cow—how do you explain them to an international audience?
Secondly, when writing subtitles, I have to condense dialogues to fit the duration of a scene. But with The Grave, instead, I had to focus on making the dialogues communicable to the audience and speakable for the actors.
When you're writing a script for the stage or the camera, you're working with text, but the end result is meant to be visual. How do you navigate these differences?
The first play I ever translated was Galileo. When I watched the final performance after nine months of rehearsal, I realised that there is a big difference between what we read in the classroom and what we watch on the stage. A play has a double existence—it belongs to the writer and to the interpretation of the director. That convinced me to translate more plays.
There is of course a difference between writing for the camera and the stage, but I prefer the latter because it is more challenging. Even after months of rehearsing, whatever you do on the stage is the first and final product.
What other projects are you working on right now?
Five or six plays have been submitted to directors. Upon reading one of them, titled Love Letters, Aly Zakir had told me, "This is the play with which I will return to the stage." Ramendu Majumder and Ferdousi Majumder will act in it now. I translated another play for Neema Rahman, as well as another Broadway version of The Plague. They're all in the works, but given the pandemic I'm not sure when they will be staged.
Sarah Anjum Bari is editor of Daily Star Books. Reach her at email@example.com or @wordsinteal on Instagram.