Director: Abdullah Mohammed Saad
Released in 2021
Dr Rehana Maryam Noor (Azmeri Haque Badhon) is a medical lecturer at a private college in Dhaka, Bangladesh. She is also a widow, the mother of a young child, and the sole breadwinner in her extended family, which includes aged parents and an unemployed brother.
In the opening scenes of the film, we get the idea that Rehana is the one keeping things together at home. We see her stressful and frustrated attempts to juggle a career and motherhood. The dim, blue lighting, the closeups of Rehana’s face, her limp headscarf and drooping shoulders, the stark and sterile settings of featureless offices, classrooms and the corridors are gloomy and uninviting. There is a sense of heaviness, of claustrophobia and pressure, of walls, both literal and metaphorical, closing in on her. There is also the impression of intense but unacknowledged loneliness. Rehana doesn’t seem to have friends. She has no one to confide in, to talk to. Is this by choice or because of circumstances?
Two things happen early in the film: First, Rehana dismisses a student, Mimi (Zopari Lue), whom she catches cheating in an exam. Shortly after that, she comes across Annie (Afia Tabassum Borno), another student, a friend of Mimi’s, reacting to having been raped by Arefin (Kazi Sami Hassan), Rehana’s fellow lecturer. Rehana’s response to both incidents is swift and uncompromising. She is relentless in pursuit of justice, and it’s a blind justice, without interest in or consideration for context or extenuating circumstances.
It’s tough enough being a woman attempting to pushback against societal wrongs, but when you’re a woman who rarely smiles and never minces your words, you face the possibility of being told that ‘only women like you get raped’.
Tellingly, Arefin is a seemingly more sympathetic individual than Rehana. He is friendly to his students, showing empathy and compassion for their circumstances and struggles. Perhaps he genuinely cares for their welfare. Perhaps he’s not a wholly sinister individual? Can a sexual predator also be an affable, likeable guy? Likewise, Rehana’s brother, Rony (Yasir Al Haq) comes across at first as a lazy good-for-nothing, but when we see him interact with his niece, it is obvious that is also a loving and caring uncle. Every character is realistically multifaceted. Rehana is probably the only one who is overwhelmingly hard to relate to although we do catch glimpses of a tender side when she is with her daughter Emu, percociously portrayed by Afia Jahin Jaima. As for Arefin, he probably views the sex he has with his student as a natural perk of the job because of attitudes he has lived with all his life. It’s casual sexism if you will, a product of a patriarchal society; not to be condoned, but you can understand what lies behind it.
One of the film’s strengths is the manner in which the characters and the story are presented so baldly and dispassionately. This is what it is; they are what they are. There is no evocative soundtrack to guide our emotions; no affecting backstory that shows us the bigger picture; no dialogue that rationalises anyone’s actions or allows us insights into the psyche of Rehana and the others. We make up our own minds about what happens with only the bare facts on which to base our opinions.
Directly following the screening, I asked myself if my reaction to the film would have changed if Rehana had been a more likeable character. However, I believe the story would have been totally different had she been more empathetic, open, and cheerful. Surely her reactions are part of her personality. Did something happen in her past to shape the person we are shown? Is it the reason for her doggedness? I like that we will never know and I like it that we don’t know her. Despite the film’s title, I feel Rehana is not the point of the film. We are not meant to know or understand her, and a more sympathetic, accessible character would only serve to distract us from the film’s true focus.
To me, Rehana Maryam Noor is not a film about the abuse of women in a patriarchal society. To me, it is only incidentally a film about sexism, sexual harassment and feminism. Rehana’s cause could be the exploitation of workers’ or vivisection or the death penalty — those are just details. To me the central themes of this film is integrity and the price of being true to oneself. The name of the character is significant: Maryam was the mother of Isa, a prophet and, according to Christians, the son of God. Noor means light. Rehana is much more than herself. She is a symbol. A cipher.
Rehana Maryam Noor is about the difficulty of upholding your beliefs. It’s about the sacrifices you and those close to you have to make to ensure that you stay honest and upright. It’s about how it’s easier to take the path of least resistance and how staying on the straight and narrow will label you as difficult, obstinate and foolish. It’s about how you may make choices that keep your conscience clear, but these choices will also get you lots of enemies and win you no friends. It’s about how doing the right thing is often not about doing what’s kind or loving. It’s about having the balls to do the unpopular thing and hurt people you love because it’s all part of the good fight that will take years (decades) before its done. It’s about sticking to your guns and putting it up with shit despite knowing that you won’t see results in your lifetime.
Rehana’s fight at her workplace is paralleled by another fight, at her daughter’s school. It is sexist attitudes that she is battling in both cases, but in the latter scenario, her role as a mother adds a layer to the issue — a layer that may serve as an emotional distraction for some viewers. These viewers may question if Rehana is a fit mother when she puts her ideals before her daughter’s feelings. I wonder if anyone ever questioned if Martin Luther King or Gandhi were fit fathers.
One thought on “Rehana Maryam Noor”
You evoke the action, mood, and characters in this film really well, Daphne, and – I think more importantly – that you establish that it’s a questioning work, one that gets the viewer to reflect on how and why and when we judge others.
And, despite being myself a musician who appreciates incidental music when it’s done well, I applaud that there’s no soundtrack here to manipulate the lazy moviegoer into feeling the ‘appropriate’ emotions at key points.
I may or may never get around to watching this (though we do quite occasionally stream international films, like the recent Mister Cheng starring Pak Hon Chu) but I shall try to not miss it if it comes up in the schedules. Thank you.