The International Film Festival of Kerala kicks off on March 18 with a drama that is likely to be a conversation-starter for the duration of the week-long event and beyond. Bangladeshi director Abdullah Mohammad Saad’s Rehana takes a hard look at sexual harassment, victim shaming and the loneliness of women who challenge entrenched power structures.

Saad, who has previously directed Life From Dhaka (2016), based Rehana on what he said was a single image: that of a “stubborn woman”.

In the remonstration to Rehana that she “talk like a normal person”, the film implicates an entire culture in which women are expected to behave with modesty and keep their heads lowered in subservience. Through her words and actions, Rehana shatters the silence around the oppression of women in Bangladesh as well as the world over.

Rehana, originally titled Rehana Maryam Noor, was premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2021. The meticulously crafted movie features a volcanic central performance by Azmeri Haque Badhon as the titular heroine.

Rehana, a professor at a medical college in Dhaka, learns that a student has been sexually harassed by one of the doctors. Rehana takes it upon herself to expose the culprit. Complications ensue, not least because of the reluctance of the victim Annie (Afia Tabassum Borno).

Azmeri Haque Badhon in Rehana. Courtesy Films Boutique.

Saad’s screenplay jangles with nervous energy and the buttoned-up rage of a woman who has compromised for far too long. Through the film, Saad hopes to “raise the questions” that he finds “interesting, meaningful, and complex”, he told in an email interview.

Rehana’s precocious daughter Emu (Afia Jahin Jamia), whom the single mother has to babysit in the middle of her battle, is a reminder of how women disproportionately shoulder the burden of balancing professional commitments with domestic responsibilities.

“The fact that I grew up with three brilliant elder sisters and saw them closely my whole life had an enormous impact on creating Rehana,” Saad said. “I think I can only write from my personal experiences and observations, so the story grew quite intuitively.”

Azmeri Haque Badhon and Afia Jahin Jaima in Rehana. Courtesy Films Boutique.

Saad’s filmmaking style is inseparable from his plotting. Rehana unfolds almost entirely in the low-lit corridors and rooms of the hospital. The film is bursting with claustrophobic close-ups and blistering exchanges between Rehana and Annie and Rehana and the guilty doctor Arefin (Kazi Sami Hassan).

“I had been searching for a way to express Rehana’s excruciating pain of being trapped without giving too much information,” Saad explained. “The more I thought about it, I felt that a chamber drama would probably be the best way to do it.”

Badhon’s highly emotive visage is often the dominant element in cinematographer’s Tuhin Tamijul’s compositions. “To me, the true landscape of my story is the face of my central character,” Saad said. “I find the human face deeply mysterious and interesting. I guess that’s the reason why I prefer to capture my protagonist’s behaviour and the nuances from a close range.”

Azmeri Haque Badhon in Rehana. Courtesy Films Boutique.

The stylistic elements include abrupt editing cuts and moments in which the only sound is of Rehana breathing deeply. “I try not to be sentimental, and the harsh jump cuts help me create a rhythm that eventually conveyed Rehana’s inner turmoil,” Saad said. “I take sound design very seriously. Every time I block a scene, I think of how I can utilise sound, for example, Rehana’s breathing, to add more layers.”

Although Saad is unable to travel to the Kerala film festival, Azmeri Haque Badhon will be in attendance. Saad acknowledged the contributions of his lead actress, without whom he simply could not have made the movie, he said.

As she races through the hospital, becomes the target of a students’ strike and begins to question Annie’s motives, Rehana appears to be a woman on the verge of implosion. “She stopped everything else just for Rehana Maryam Noor even when I wasn’t sure that I would be able to make the film,” Saad said about Badhon’s wrenching performance. “She rigorously prepared herself physically and emotionally for nine months. It was electric to witness her performance on the set.”

Rehana (2021).