Shimu–Made in Bangladesh: A story of women’s struggles

By Elora Halim Chowdhury

 

Rubaiyat Hossain’s Shimu—Made in Bangladesh,[1]Shimu—Made in Bangladesh was jointly produced by France, Denmark, Portugal, and Bangladesh. The main financing came from international grants from CNC, Eurimages, Sørfond+, and the Danish Film … Continue reading which had made its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019, finally had its premiere in Dhaka on March 9, 2022, at the SKS Tower Star Cineplex in Mohakhali. The film—which showcases the plight and triumphs of Bangladesh’s female labor force, as well as its complex and cross-class narratives of navigating globalization and patriarchy—was a buzzing, star-studded affair. Marking International Women’s Day, this long-awaited launch was preceded by widespread, thoughtful outreach by Hossain and her multinational cast and crew, many of whom were congregated in the lobby outside the plush theater, greeting the invited guests as they arrived. They included actors, writers, activists, academics, students, funders, and supporters. Importantly, there were also labor rights leaders, organizers, and garment factory workers, some of whom were involved with the film as advisors, trainers, writers, and actors.

The film screening and the pulse of the evening very much spoke to the labor-activist underpinning of this collaborative and critical film. As the theater filled to capacity, the overflow audience was seated in a second hall. Hossain took the stage, accompanied by Daliya Akhtar, the factory-worker-turned-union-leader whose real-life story inspired the film. Akhtar had worked alongside Hossain to advise and train the cast and crew and even traveled with them to the film’s various launches in Europe. Also on stage were actors Rikita Nandini Shimu, who portrayed the protagonist Shimu, and Parvin Paru, who portrayed Maya, another female worker, both actors having given powerful performances in the film. The panel served to demonstrate not only the everyday realities and struggles of women but also how those challenges and transformations were reflected in the very process of filmmaking. Hossain’s diligence, vision, and nurturing leadership shone through as each individual spoke of her commitment and mentorship. Rikita Nandini Shimu praised Hossain for her unwavering guidance and care; she shared how her own quiet demeanor was quite different from Shimu’s feisty personality, but the role enabled her to grow. She traveled solo to London for the film’s screening in the UK, and that in itself for her was a transformative experience. In a promotional interview, Paru talked about the harsh criticism she received when she, the mother of a nine-month-old baby, returned home from working on set at 3:00 AM to find the gate to her housing complex locked. She mentioned that the women’s struggles portrayed in the film bore universal themes that were relatable beyond its story and impacted each member of the group in positive ways. Samina Luthfa, who played the human rights trainer Farzana, was also in the audience that night; she applauded Hossain for creating a safe set, where the diverse cast and crew felt secure enough to cultivate their talents. She noted how, weeks before shooting even began, Hossain would take cast members regularly to visit the real-life living and working areas of laborers. In addition to learning lines and blocking scenes, preparation for their roles included eating the same diet that the workers did, wearing similar clothing and shoes, walking their daily routes, and inhabiting their essencethe weathered complexion, the hair styles, the speech, and the mannerisms. In various interviews, some actors spoke about the complexities of traversing class and gender boundaries in these preparatory exercises, especially in walking the streets of Dhaka city, which unlike the workers these actors were portraying, they had never done before on their own. Aside from the female majority cast, the crew consisted of women in the jobs of director of photography, production designer, and sound and design techniciansan unusual feat in Bangladeshi cinema. Moreover, Hossain dedicated the film to Bangladesh’s women workers and their unsung heroism, establishing this film solidly as a woman-centric project.

At the heart of Made in Bangladesh is an exploration of the conditions created by the growing demand in Western countries for cheapened labor, which has altered the economy and fundamentally transformed women’s relationships with Bangladeshi cities through greatly expanded job opportunities. This in turn has led to women’s financial gain, which transformed their priorities and personal aspirations; and these changes were furthered along by satellite TV images of sexually confident women and Bollywood-inspired femininities, which expanded an understanding of South Asian women’s sexuality from sexual violence only to an examination of sexual desire. As a result of these changes, Hossain’s characters navigate their lives in vast, crowded, and anonymous urban places. They are at times alienated from social mores and reject regressive definitions of femininity, instead engaging in bold flirtations, premarital sex, and sex work.

Against this background, Hossain’s women walk to and from factories, at the break of dawn to late at night, asserting a kind of freedom and bodily autonomy. With regard to the representations of women at the crossroads of gender, class, and neoliberal development in the context of urban Bangladesh, Made in Bangladesh highlights the city and explores how gender and sexuality are central to the formation of a public modernity. It spotlights the daily negotiations womennamely the garment workers of Bangladeshmake in relation to domestic, factory, and public arenas, focusing on the new kinds of encounters and subjectivities enabled by these hostile yet agentic encounters. Indeed, the city here is a dynamic site for fostering new social identities that have in turn challenged and redefined the meaning of gendered citizenship. Breaking from mainstream cinema in terms of form, content, and complexity, Hossain’s work is significant in the way she de-romanticizes in this new cinematic context, the women’s journey from the village to the city, from worker to activist, yet not as a seamless transition to empowered subjects. She counters a victim discourse in favor of a woman’s lived experience that challenges the heteropatriarchal reduction of women to only their reproductive and sexed bodies. Hossain’s filmography boldly centers a feminist dissidence that reflects the organizing principles, language, and contemporary movement-organizing of an urban context. Recent feminist campaigns have demanded attention to women’s freedom as opposed to patriarchal protection, and such narratives speak to the complexities reflected in the female characters’ sexual expressivity in this film. Taken together, Made in Bangladesh is a cinematic visualization of the complex journey women undertake in their search for work, freedom, and autonomy, a turn that Alka Kurian sees as constituting a new direction in dissident feminist cinema in South Asia.[2]“Films, Web Series, and the Feminist Fourth Wave: Alankrita Shrivastava’s Bombay Begums and Dolly Kitty Aur Voh Chamakte Sitare,” Synergies Inde publiée et éditée par le GERFLINT, (2022).

From these components comes Shimu Akhtar, the central figure whose character is based on union organizer Daliya Akhtar. Set in 2013, in the aftermath of a factory fire that kills Moyna, a woman worker, the story exists within the backdrop of actual garment factory fires that have killed hundreds of workers in Dhaka in recent years. Shimu, 23, is a migrant to the city, having escaped from her family in the village who tried to marry her off at an early age to a much older man. As the story begins, Shimu lives in a Dhaka slum with her unemployed husband, Sohel (Mostafa Monwar). After working at various jobs, she takes a position at the Modern Apparels factory. Although she is the household’s breadwinner, Shimu wrestles with gendered expectations in the private and public domains as she becomes increasingly involved in organizing for a labor union. Sohel bristles at his wife’s increasing autonomy and tries to hold her back from becoming the union president. A gendered politics of shaming and submission unfolds, even as the two share some tender moments. There are layers of competing social pressures: At one point the manager of Modern Apparels summons Sohel to the factory, demanding that he “control his woman and make her drop the union. Otherwise we will strip her naked in public.” At another point, Shimu and Sohel’s landlady reprimand her for going against her husband’s wishes and aspiring to be a union leader. She tells Shimu, “Nothing is more important than home. If Sohel throws you out, where are you going to go?” Although Shimu shoulders the burden of providing for her family, she is nevertheless disciplined into a secondary and submissive role, in both the private and the public sphere.

A turning point in the film occurs as Daliya, Shimu’s friend from the factory, shows up at Shimu and Sohel’s house seeking refuge after being fired for having a relationship with her manager, Reza. Sohel asks Daliya to leave, shaming her for her transgressions with Reza. Daliya in turn reminds Sohel that he is dependent on Shimu, the breadwinner. Sohel clearly struggles with assuming the dominant role and, upon hearing rumors from neighbors, he accuses Shimu of having illicit conversations on the  cell phone given to her by Nasima, an NGO activist. Shimu’sand, more generally, women’sdaily negotiations are brought into sharp relief in a somewhat disturbing scene: Sohel tells Shimu to quit her job and, when she refuses, subdues her as the light goes off in the room. In the darkened room, we hear Shimu’s faint voice asking Sohel to let her go.

As the camera continues to follow Shimu’s journey, the scene immediately following the above unfolds the contestation around female modesty, faith, and agency.  Sohel has agreed to have Shimu continue working in the factory but urges her “to be modest” before leaving for the factory. Sohel watches from the bed as Shimu dons a hijab, signifying a public compliance to gendered norms of modesty even though on screen previously we witness her private piety in observing daily namaz. Sohel’s parting comment to her that morning is, “Try to come home early.” In a later scene, Shimu has assumed a leadership role in union organizing, and Sohel drags her home, throws her on the bed, and locks her in. When she is able, Shimu storms out without the hijab, her long, beautiful black hair bouncing free, and heads toward the Labor Ministry to get the union application registered. The visual narration of an unfettered Bengali Muslim woman’s sexualitythe long and unrestrained hair, the discarding of the hijab, the confident striding on the streets is a curious nod to an iconic urban female activist image, class dynamics of which is apparent in Shimu’s attirethe functional shalwar kameez over the classic middle class women’s sari.

At the same time, Shimu’s empowering journey is not a trite shaking off of masculine patriarchy as viewers in addition confront the layers and intersections of power infusing patriarchy but also the global corporate capitalist apparatus. While Sohel restrains Shimu in the house and is uncomfortable with her increasing power and visibility in the factory, compounded by no doubt his own underemployed status, there are also loving moments between the couple as they talk about their hopes and dreams, seated quietly by a lake with the city’s skyline against the vast, open blue sky and green fields. Visually and aurally, this scene interrupts the loud bustle of the city, its omnipresent sounds of traffic, grinding metal, children, vendors, and radios temporarily muted. Likewise, another scene shows Shimu and Sohel dancing with friends joyfully and with abandon at the wedding of their landlady’s young daughter, Pori. The neighborhood is alive with guests feasting and wearing festive clothing, jewelry, and makeup. The sensual dancing of the women in their flashy dresses is a shock of color in the film’s otherwise gray, subdued palette.

In another scene and in a seamless way, a feminine private space of the home becomes a site of politics: the tea party is transformed  into a labor organizing gathering. The film is punctuated with women’s strong and sensual presenceon the street, on the shop floor, and in the home. Shimu, Reshma, Daliya, Maya, and Taniya are shown sprawling across Shimu’s bed in her room, eating snacks, drinking tea, and chatting about life as Shimu reads from the book of labor rights, which she has been given by Farzana apa, the labor rights organizer. The scene opens with the neatly arranged chappals (slippers) of the women on the floor, perhaps alluding to the fact that they all come from the same walk of life and walk their journeys together. Shimu passes out sign-up sheets that she needs to register the union. The gendered norms associated with the home are enfolded into their political organizing.

Other scenes show the women out on the streets, literally traveling together. These are powerful visual narrations of a changing industrializing city where working class women are increasingly taking up space. The bodies in motion narrate not only women’s journey from the home to the workplace but the nation’s progression from LDC (Least Developed Countries) rank to that of lower-middle-income country according to development indices. Yet, Hossain complicates that story by depicting womenwho have been championed as the magic formula for Bangladesh’s developmentin hardship, and in joy; in love and in despair. In one such scene, they laugh and tease one another as they walk out of the factory after an overnight shift and into the wee hours of the morning. In another, they leave the factory side by side in the twilight, with Shimu reading to them from the book of labor rights. Some scenes show them stepping over bricks laid out on puddles of water as they walk steadily together toward work. In a departure from their walking together, a different scene shows Daliya alone on the street, wearing heavy makeup, smoking a cigarette, and climbing on to a rickshaw. After she has lost both her job and marriage prospects, Daliya presumably enters commercial sex work. This brings an exit from her circle of friends, raising the question whether their support can extend to women who opt for choices that are not considered moral.

The question of multiple and competing models of solidarities is a prominent theme in the film, most notably in the contrasting transactional relationship between Shimu and Nasima (Shahana Goswami), the NGO activist, and the more horizontal solidarity of Shimu and her fellow women workers. Nasima enters the scene in the aftermath of the factory fire that has killed Moyna, and she is shown lurking in the alley, waiting to catch workers as they exit the building. She invites Shimu to her office, offering to pay for her conveyance. When Shimu arrives, she is ushered into a room with posters advocating for anti-violence and women’s empowerment. Shimu and Nasima sit across the desk from each other. Nasima is clad in an organic cotton sari and sleeveless blouse, her hair is cut in a short, fashionable bob, she wears a teep, and she has a tattoo on her back. The aesthetics of middle-class activism is on display also in the rolled-up jute mat behind Nasima’s chair. The distance between the two is further accentuated as Nasima just happens to have a spare mobile phone that she gives Shimu to document the happenings inside the factory. Shimuwho is struggling to pay rent with an unemployed husband and with Modern Apparels’s closing without paying the workers’ wages following the fireasks Nasima for help. Nasima takes five large bills out of her wallet without flinching and hands it over to Shimu, assuring her that there is no need to pay her back. Clearly the relationship here is one of transaction, yet by no means on an equal plane. Nasima is indignant when Shimu tells her in a later scene that Sohel wants her to quit her job: “Who is he to say that? Tell him you’re the union president now. You have responsibilities.” Shimu responds, “Apa, we are women. We’re screwed if we are married and screwed if we aren’t.” Even though the comment applies to all of womanhood, viewers are hard pressed to believe that Nasima would share in this sentiment, given her somewhat condescending attitude toward Shimu. This relationship stands in sharp contrast to the more equal solidarityperhaps even sisterhoodthat exists between Shimu and women factory workers in the film.

In a post-screening conversation, Bangladesh Garment Workers Solidarity President Taslima Akhter questioned the mechanical relationship between Shimu and Nasima and what one might surmise from that: Are we to assume workers can be bought in the way Nasima seems to at least approach Shimu? Are workers only seduced into mobilizing through monetary gain? This is of course a directorial decision, one that viewers may interpret as a representation of various components of the apparatus of Bangladesh’s Ready Made Garments Industry of which NGO activists are also a part, beholden as they are to their own funders to produce measurable outcomes and thereby linking them in a tightly woven chain to both transnational capital, and their employees. Here the character Farzana seems to offer an alternative to the transactional and hierarchical approach of the NGO activist, Nasima. Played by Dr. Samina Luthfa, an activist and professor of sociology at Dhaka University, Farzana is a human rights organizer who trains and educates workers about labor laws and rights. Sporting a short haircut, she speaks eloquently about both women’s rights and workers’ rights being human rights. It also appears that Farzana is working independently of NGOs, i.e. Nasima. The two seem to have a disagreement when meeting with the deceased worker Moyna’s mother, and Farzana expresses her dissatisfaction with Nasima, who is more focused on raising money for the family than seeking justice. The walls of the union office are covered with posters with the inscriptions, “Rana Plaza, Tazreen Never Again.”[3]On April 24, 2013, at least 1,132 people died and more than 2,500 were injured in a fire and building collapse at the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, which housed five garment factories. This was a … Continue reading Farzana asks Nasima whether she is putting a price tag on the bodies of dead workers.

Interactions between Farzana and the women workers suggest that perhaps there is more horizontal comradeship possible between them than between Farzana and Nasima or between the workers and Nasima. This may be because Farzana is less encumbered than Nasima by institutional structures such as NGOs; and that Farzana is more politically attuned toward the workers’ everyday and holistic life conditions. Farzana questions putting a price-tag on a dead worker’s life, and instead wants to organize the workers’ around their rights and their entitlements. Speaking of her own character representation, Luthfa shared how she worked collaboratively with director Hossain to develop the scenes where labor laws are articulated in the film. She talked at length about Hossain’s tremendous diligence in nurturing the actors and grooming them to enact the daily life of workers in the city. In this, Hossain clearly has succeeded in bringing the workers to life; but in doing so she contrasts their plight with Nasima’s elitist depiction. Of course, this might very well be intentional, as the film illuminates the class-based professional activism that also appears to be opportunistic and transactional versus the more organic one of the workers themselves and even versus Farzana, who offers a glimpse of a more empowering model. The workers are quite cognizant of the distance between the middle-class trainer and themselves, which is clearly demarcated in the activist aesthetic. Maya comments that Farzana’s hair is too short, and it makes her look like a man. The film effectively showcases the various fields of navigations the workers engage in—in the domestic realm, on the shop floor, in the public spaces; but there isn’t an attendant and adequate scrutiny of some of the structural forces that shape their working conditions—namely, the corporations and their capitalist tentacles. In terms of power, assistant manager Reza (Shatabdi Wadud) seems to be the head patriarch, capable of beginning an affair with a worker and then firing her when their secret is exposed, but in the panel Luthfa poses the question: “Who is behind the manager? In the big scheme of things, the floor manager is a small fish. Who is enabling him? We do not see that side of power in the film.”

At its heart Made in Bangladesh is aspirational. It ends with Shimu using the cell phonea symbol of an aesthetic identity of the upwardly mobile empowered citizento threaten the government officer at the Labor Ministry to sign off on the union registration form. She exits the room with a bounce in her step and a triumphant smile on her face, the light shining on her, suggesting an empowered way forward. Taslima Akhter, while praising Hossain for depicting workers with dignity, raises the question whether the narrative arc projects a false sense of progress with regard to the working condition of women. Certainly, that message was evident in both Hossain’s opening remarks at the screening panel, and those appearing on screen as a postscript, denoting that the apparel sector in Bangladesh had seen much progress and that accidents were no longer prevalent! Absent in the version released internationally, this postscript was added to the Bangladeshi launch, a reflection of the Censor Board’s intervention, and the layers of corporate and bureaucratic navigations the Director engaged in prior to having Shimu released in Bangladesh. The film’s critical depiction of workers’ struggles were not accepted generously by such higher authorities like the BGMEA[4]The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) is the trade association representing the readymade garment industry. BGMEA oversees the apparel industry through policy … Continue reading, representatives of which weighed in on the Censor Board’s evaluations. Hence, Akhter cautions against such a linear narrative of progress and says, “At the end of the day, workers earn a meager 8000 BDT minimum wage. Unlike factory owners, workers did not receive additional compensation during COVID-19. On the contrary, they ended up with lower pay or lost jobs. Legal mechanisms haven’t shifted to favor workers. The owners of Rana Plaza or Tazreen Fashions have not been brought to justice. Presently, we are seeing an alarming rise in prices of daily staples like cooking oil and vegetables. Improvement in workers’ lives entail much more than the absence of accidents and fires. Their well-being also entails good nutrition, good living conditions, access to paid days off. Without these basic necessities, workers are still eking out an existence that is far from a good life.” Nevertheless, Luthfa mentions how important it is to have stories of triumph, especially for diverse women in our society. That a teenage audience member called Made in Bangladesh a “Girl Boss” movie hints of the film’s value: that it is opening many doors for deeper conversations about female empowerment, particularly from the grassroots, and at the same time not shying away from the vicissitudes that mine that same path forward. Admittedly, there is also a critique of the idea of “Girl Boss” as a diluting of feminist ideals to a reductive celebration of individualespecially economic-empowerment of women and in that context the film may be presenting a palatable, and widely-legible version of a complex story. On the other hand, the first of its kind, the film’s attempt to animate the much celebrated yet rarely recognized multi-dimensional lives of female labor in Bangladeshin joy, sorrow, love and struggleinvites more meaningful engagements and interventions. It delivers poignantly on the woman-centric genre of Bangladeshi cinema that Hossain’s filmography is best known for.

 

Notes

Notes
1 Shimu—Made in Bangladesh was jointly produced by France, Denmark, Portugal, and Bangladesh. The main financing came from international grants from CNC, Eurimages, Sørfond+, and the Danish Film Institute fund. In addition, the film was financed by Pyramid Films and Pyramid International, the French distributor and the international sales agent of the film, respectively.
2 “Films, Web Series, and the Feminist Fourth Wave: Alankrita Shrivastava’s Bombay Begums and Dolly Kitty Aur Voh Chamakte Sitare,” Synergies Inde publiée et éditée par le GERFLINT, (2022).
3 On April 24, 2013, at least 1,132 people died and more than 2,500 were injured in a fire and building collapse at the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, which housed five garment factories. This was a mere five months after a fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory in Dhaka had killed at least 112 and injured thousands more.
4 The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) is the trade association representing the readymade garment industry. BGMEA oversees the apparel industry through policy advocacy to the government, facilitating service-delivery to members, and setting the terms, conditions, and social compliance at factories.

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