When was the last time that you thought about how the branded clothes that you buy and wear get made? About the people who make them and the conditions under which they do so? Probably never, right? Director Rubaiyat Hossain wants to change that with her film, Made in Bangladesh, which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this year.
Made in Bangladesh tells the story of a 23-year-old Shimu Akhtar who works at a garment factory in Dhaka, like millions of other women. A fire incident in her factory visibly shakes up Shimu as she decides to do something about their condition and, by a stroke of luck, finds Nasima Apa, a human rights activist who instigates her to unionize. The film portrays Shimu’s struggles and sacrifices to form a workers union at her factory.
Bangladesh has long had a paradoxical problem when it comes to women. As pointed out by the director herself in an interview, the head of state in the country is a woman, the opposition leader is a woman and the speaker of the house is also a woman. Women are in important positions all across the country, but women are also employed for peanuts in Bangladesh’s garment factories, the most important source of revenue for the country. These women work in unspeakable conditions with no insurance, no safety and no dignity, just to be able to earn a meagre wage to survive. On top of which, their factories cheat them of their wages regularly by not paying them overtime and threatening violence when the women demand their wages.
Made in Bangladesh not only portrays the problems these women face in factories but also shows how hard their life is in general, especially the ones playing cat and mouse with poverty. These women not only have to deal with the hurdles that arise because of their gender, but they also have to deal with the hurdles arising from their economic and social background.
In spite of being the bread earner in the family, Shimu has to abide by her husband’s rules and bears the wrath of his temper which is spurred by his insecurity. She is told that a woman only needs to work as long as the man doesn’t work and once he does then she needs to stay back home to take care of the household. This patriarchal society objectifies women and wants women to cover themselves up to not arouse the inner demons of men, but it refuses to acknowledge a hard working woman.
The only moment of true joy for Shimu and the other women in the duration of the entire film is the marriage of her landlady’s daughter, where they dance their hearts out forgetting the hardships that will continue from the moment they wake up the next morning, forgetting that their voices will continue to fall on deaf male ears. This is depicted in a scene where one of Shimu’s friends is caught engaging in an intimate act with their supervisor in the factory and while the supervisor is let go after being told an earful after claiming that she led him on, the worker is fired in front of her friends in spite of her pleading innocence by saying the supervisor promised to marry him. Even the other women backing her up by saying it was indeed the truth didn’t help her case.
The qualms that this film presents seem pale in comparison to its achievements. The essence of the social message imbued in the story is not as subtle as one would like it to be, but invokes a feeling of being force fed. The acting is not beyond good, but mediocre would better describe it. This may not be a fault of the cast, as they are probably not professional actors, but we have seen exceptional performances from non actors in the past, so this points towards a flaw of the direction. The editing is not as coherent as I would prefer it to be, being very choppy and jarring at parts.
Made in Bangladesh was inspired by the story of Daliya, a union leader in a factory whom Hossain met. Hossain incorporated stories from Daliya’s life into the film as she gained vital insights about the life of a regular woman working in the factory from her. A lot of incidents and even Shimu’s life story in the film are taken verbatim from Hossain’s interviews with Daliya.
Whether or not Shimu succeeds in her cause is for you to find out after watching the film, but she comes out of the fight a different woman. A woman willing to fight for the basic human rights of herself and anyone like her, and defy all the stereotypes and stigma that have been unjustly set for her. Our society will be done a whole lot of good if this film inspires and makes more Shimu Akhtars stand up for their cause across the world.