When Arifin Shuvoo met Shyam Benegal, he reminded the veteran Indian filmmaker that he only fights bad guys and romances heroines. Yet, Benegal cast the 41-year-old Bangladeshi star as Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in the Indo-Bangladesh production Mujib: The Making of a Nation.
“When my pictures were sent to Benegal sir, I was buffed up as I had been working on my action film Mission Extreme,” Shuvoo told Scroll. “I had never played a revolutionary, a politician, or an old person in my life. To bag Mujibur Rahman’s role, I had to go through five auditions, two in India and three in Bangladesh.”
Shuvoo joined the production in late 2019. Jointly produced by the governments of India and Bangladesh, the biopic follows Rahman’s evolution into the architect of Bangladesh’s liberation war against Pakistan in 1971. Hailed as Bangabandhu (Friend of the Bengalis) and Father of the Nation, Rahman was assassinated in 1975 by a section of the Bangladeshi Army.
Rahman was 55. His daughter, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, was closely involved in the biopic’s development, Shuvoo said.
Known for his successful romantic dramas and action films, Shuvoo underwent a complete makeover for Mujib. Benegal’s longtime collaborator Shama Zaidi has co-written the film with Atul Tiwari.
The cast includes India’s Rajit Kapur (as Pakistani president Zulfikar Ali Bhutto) and acclaimed Bangladeshi actor Chanchal Chowdhury as Rahman’s father. Following a Bangladeshi release on October 13, Mujib: The Making of a Nation will be out in India on October 27. Excerpts from an interview.
How did this project come to you?
Shama Zaidi ma’am watched my Indian Bengali film Aha Re at a Mumbai film festival. She recommended me to casting director Shyam Rawat, who contacted me through Aha Re’s director Ranjan Ghosh. At the time, Benegal was doing a recce for the film in Calcutta.
Initially, many were unconvinced by my casting. Until this film, with a couple of exceptions, I have never had any scope of exploring a flesh-and-blood character. Here, if you’re a mainstream hero, writer-directors don’t imagine you as a character.
I was inspired by Prosenjit Chatterjee’s story of working in a day shift on mainstream filmmaker Swapan Saha’s set and being on Rituparno Ghosh’s set in the night shift. As you grow older, you want to go beyond punching ten guys at a time.
How did you prepare for the role?
Three ways: reading, watching, and workshops.
I read Bangabandhu’s incomplete autobiography, written around 1967 when he was imprisoned. I read his Karagarer Rojnamcha [Daily Life in Prison] and Amar Dekha Noya China [New China Through My Eyes]. This is about his visit to China in 1952.
I received about a terabyte of visual footage featuring Mujibur Rahman from the government archive. We have footage of his 10 January and 7 March speeches. But for his oratory in the Karachi assembly, or his indoor life, we had to rely on research.
There was no scope to improvise. Every line was approved by our Honourable Prime Minister.
I spoke to veteran freedom fighters, and, of course, the Honourable Prime Minister offered a lot of information. It is said that we fought mostly with .303 rifles and maybe some machine guns, but they were nothing compared to Pakistan’s firepower. What the freedom fighters had was a lot of spirit.
Plus, my father, SM Shamsul Haque, was a freedom fighter. Whenever there was load shedding in Mymensingh, where I grew up, my father would tell me stories of the liberation war. That was already a foundation.
Bangabandhu himself was a swaggy guy, with charismatic energy. I saw pictures of him in the detention bungalow or Dhanmondi 32, which was his residence. He would be in a simple lungi and chappals, with messy hair. No air of a politician or leader, like we see now. Casual and intense at the same time.
He was unlike Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Yahya Khan, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Suhrawardy, who were wealthy, highly educated and had international exposure prior to their political careers. Mujibur Rahman came from Tungipara, a village.
He lived 55 years, of which 11 were spent on and off in prison. Sometimes, he would have a bag ready. He would step out of one prison, take his bag, cross the road, and be en route to another prison. He spent so much time in solitary confinement.
I have been to those cells. Once you are inside, you will immediately think, I don’t want to be there. They simply couldn’t break him.
Did playing such a man change you?
It has been three years since shooting ended, and I still apply his thoughts to my daily life. He said, you will have to fight your enemies with everything you have. When I face problems. I immediately think of solutions, not dwell on what I don’t have but work with what I have.
Mujibur’s life can be boiled down to one word: sacrifice. I took one rupee as my salary for the film because, of course, I don’t work for free. But I thought, here was Mujibur, who sacrificed without asking for anything. Can I give my everything without getting anything?
What was it like working with Shyam Benegal, who was 84 when production began?
You wouldn’t believe it, but sometimes he would get angry and roar on the set.
He doesn’t divide a scene into bit-sized portions. He shoots each scene in a single take. Then he reshoots the scene from another angle. It’s like theatre. If you make a mistake, you will have to redo the scene.
What is your relationship with Indian cinema?
I love Anurag Kashyap, Rajkumar Hirani and Raj & DK’s films. From West Bengal, I love Shiboprosad and Nandita, Kaushik Ganguly and Arindam Sil.
Chanchal Chowdhury is a big hit in Kolkata. Jaya Ahsan is popular here too. Azmeri Haque Bodhon earned accolades for ‘Rehana Maryam Noor’ and was recently seen in the Hindi movie ‘Khufiya’. Nuhash Humayun’s horror films have received international acclaim. Will we see more of you in Indian or international productions?
It’s happening all over the world. Spanish and Korean actors are working in Hollywood. Squid Games and Money Heist were hits in Bangladesh. The audience wants more variety, an exchange of talent.
Bangladesh always had the talent. In the last 10 years, creators have been thinking big, pushing the limits. The audience also wants to see something beyond slow-mo shots, shimmer and glitter.
Whatever I do, I do it for the audience. I will go where the audience is. If I have to do something that requires seven to 10 episodes, I will do a series.
I was a model, radio jockey, assistant director, event manager and television actor before joining movies. I don’t mind doing anything as long as it’s in the performing arts.