PRATAYA SAHA - HIS JOURNEY THROUGH CINEMA AND MEIN MEHMOOD
Shoma A. Chatterji writes, 'Mein Mehmood (I Am Mehmood) is the sad story of Mehmood, an Asian immigrant in Dubai whose life collapses around him for one single reason – he cannot communicate in English.'
Is it really possible to tell a story through cinema within a brief span of eleven minutes? Yes, it is. Many years ago, Normal McLaren of the National Film Board of Canada made films on celluloid in one minute and there was a story in them. He was a pioneer in a number of areas of animation and filmmaking, including hand-drawn animation, drawn-on-film animation, visual music, abstract film, pixilation and graphical sound. McLaren was also an artist and printmaker, and explored his interest in dance in his films.
Today however, one need not be an animator or an artist to make a very short film and yet make it narrate a story. One of them is Prataya Saha. He is an independent filmmaker, Tedx performer, theatre director and photographer based out of Bangalore, India and Dubai, UAE. He recently made a trip to India and his 11-minute short film Mein Mehmood was screened at the 28th Kolkata International Film Festival in November 2022. The film won the Golden Royal Bengal Tiger Award for Best Short Film at KIFF.
Image: Filmmaker Prataya Saha
Mein Mehmood (I Am Mehmood) is the sad story of Mehmood, an Asian immigrant in Dubai whose life collapses around him for one single reason – he cannot communicate in English. He works as a tour operator at a travel agency with targets to fulfil every month and his job depends on his ability to fulfil his target. His wife and daughter live back home while he struggles to earn a livelihood in a far-off country not knowing whether he will reach this month’s client target or not. He lives in a narrow room and sleeps on a two-tier bed the lower berth used by another immigrant from Kerala. He has a Bengali colleague in his office, also an immigrant who is very good at his target because he is very fluent in English and can cut deals in a jiffy. Mehmood is stuck in a no-exit situation and tries to look for tuition classes in English but perhaps cannot pay the fees as he is saving to place his small daughter in a good school. He loves his pretty wife but once, he catches her on the video cam on his mobile with a lover. A very sad Mehmood walks off into the sunset, musing over his dark future as he has no clue how he will save himself from getting fired.
Bengaluru-based Prataya Saha who has made award-winning films such as Just Another Day and The Good Wife, explores this thought-provoking subject that affects millions of lives across the world. Starring Ozair Abdul Aleem as Mehmood, the story follows this immigrant who works as a telecaller at a travel company. He has targets to achieve to ensure he retains his job and saves enough money to send back home to India for his daughter’s education. Prataya wanted to write and make a film about such immigrants who work in the UAE ever since he started visiting the country in 2013 for work.
Image: Film still
Just Another Day was a short film on domestic abuse during pregnancy. This film had its World Premiere at " the prestigious New York Asian Film Festival and was the only Indian film to screen at the festival. also won an award from Kuthaya Dumlupinar University, Turkey, on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. In 2017, Prataya founded Red Polka Productions, leaving behind his life as a statistical analyst to devote himself to art full time. The company made its debut , a raw, yet poignant take on the restricted lives of women, starring his co-founder, Anshulika Kapoor.
Prataya's directorial debut was Anna's Weekend in 2016 which got selected for festivals in the US and China. He is now 12 short films old with his films selected in 85+ film festivals around the world, winning 27 awards in 14 countries, including the prestigious Oscar & BAFTA Qualifying festivals like Flickers' Rhode Island International Film Festival and major South Asian festivals like IFFSA Toronto, Chicago South Asian Film, Tasveer and SAFFA. Other prestigious festivals include BISFF, New York Asian Film Festival, Oaxaca Film Fest, Woodpecker International Film Festival, Cardiff International Film Festival, Jaipur International Film Festival, etc.
The unique feature of Mein Mehmood is that it has just a single actor and everything is shown from his point of view which also becomes the viewer’s point of view. Says Prataya, “The film is very close to my heart as it talks about two critical subjects viz. the isolated lives of blue/pink collar immigrants in foreign countries and how the lack of knowledge of a popular language (in this case English) becomes a barrier to leading a better life. “A language (any language for that matter) in the end should primarily be (among other things) a medium of communication and a portrayal of culture rather than a parameter for creating barriers between people. For example, in my research, I found that immigrants who do not know the English language have lesser access to healthcare than their counterparts that know the language. I wanted to write and make a film about such immigrants who work in the UAE ever since I began visiting the country in 2013 for work.”
“The Middle East is an amalgamation of many different cultures. I have experienced this since I started visiting the place many years ago. I have travelled by public buses and I have also lived in shared accommodations. This is where I have seen the problems of immigrants first hand. Since I know how to speak in Dhakai Bengali and also speak in Hindi, I was able to speak with many of these people. This is where I found my inspiration,” says the director who wrote the script of the film at a coffee shop in Dubai within 10 hours, over a cup of coffee.
The film’s world premiere was at IFFSA, - the largest South Asian film festival in North America on August 15th last year. The USA premiere was at Chicago South Asian Film Festival. The film is now an official selection at the DC South Asian Film Festival, Washington, Vancouver South Asian Film Festival, Canada and Tasveer South Asian Film Festival, USA. The film recently reached the semi-finals of Flickers' Rhode Island International Film Festival, an Oscars Qualifying, BAFTA Qualifying and Canadian award-qualifying film festival. It bagged the Best Short Film Award at our European Premiere at River to River Florence Indian Film Festival, Italy and Best Story at DC South Asian Film Festival.
The protagonist of the film is not an actor at all. His name is Ozair Abdul Aleem who heard the script and decided to join Prataya. He is brilliant in expressing the pain of being victim to a strange kind of linguistic racism that threatens to destroy his work, his earnings and even his family relationship as he is forced to live away from his wife and little daughter who he misses terribly every waking minute. His face, frequently held in close-ups, is filled with anxiety, uncertainty, fear and diffidence. He finds himself trapped in a country which is not his, in a situation he cannot control and in a financial crisis where he finds he has lost his job mainly because he cannot speak English and is forced to talk in Hindi to his possible clients. ““He is a writer and used to work for Sharjah TV since 1994. Not being a professional actor but as someone who has observed Dubai and the life of immigrants closely, he was able to perform as naturally as possible,” explains Prataya.
The music is muted, subtle and filled with the pain of loss. The editing, crucial in a short film, is very good too. The cinematography, specially when Mehmood is captured in silhouette against a setting sun, sitting all alone and then walking away, holding his shoes in his hand and picking up his bag from the sands, is brilliant.
The film is dedicated to “all the hardworking immigrants across the world.” The film ends with the telling information – “English is just one of the 6500 languages in the world. JUST ONE,” and ends in this note of pain.
About the author: Dr. Shoma A. Chatterji is an Indian film scholar and author based in Kolkata.