By Fatima Husain
If you were to check your lot of clothes from everyday fashion labels, chances are many would bear a ‘Made in Bangladesh’ tag. A familiar phrase with an unfamiliar story.
Bangladesh-based director Rubaiyat Hossain’s latest feature Made in Bangladesh tells us just one of the many stories behind the merchandise unethically produced in Bangladesh factories. And of course, the over-exploited and underpaid female workers operating in lousy conditions.
Shimu Ahmed, the protagonist fled her home at merely 14 years as her stepmother attempted to marry her off to a middle-aged man. Now 23, strong-willed Shimu carries the weight of her home, and an unemployed husband, on her fragile yet determined shoulders.
Together with other women in the neighbourhood, Shimu works gruelling hours at a nearby garments factory - Modern Apparels - for meagre pay; working under inhumane conditions, sewing clothes tirelessly. Many of which make to the illustrious stores at shopping centres and high streets in the West.
Until one day a fire in the factory results in the death of a co-worker and deprives the others of their pay, leaving many, including Shimu, with no provisions.
As the workers tirelessly await reopening, a destitute Shimu storms the site, but in vain. However, in her futile excursion she bumps into an activist Nafisa Apa (Shahana Goswami) who offers to pay her an amount in return for an interview. Taking the opportunity, Shimu meets Nafisa a second time, and pours her woes about the garment work.
This meeting triggers the start to Shimu’s endeavour to fight the owners and form a workers’ union - through Nafisa’s guidance, self-education and raising rights’ awareness amongst the other female factory workers. All this while facing her husband’s restrictive ideology at home.
Made in Bangladesh organically portrays the raw stories of deprivation and self-empowerment of women who are intentionally left uninformed of their rights, particularly in such factories. This in turn, chiefly dictates the socio-economic realities around them; their surrounding culture, acceptance and rejection, widespread misogyny and the constant struggle against dominance.
Actor Rikita Nandini Shimu, who plays the lead character Shimu, convincingly portrays the mulish character, who climactically discovers within herself courage and steadfastness.
The vigorous performances, tactful dialogues and routine life on littered Dhaka streets, skilfully solidified the unswerving production. One such dialogue that stands out is when Shimu addresses her friend Daliya, who considered marriage to be the ultimate solution to all miseries that befell women. Shimu remarked: “We’re screwed if we’re married and screwed if we aren’t.” Fittingly describes the misanthropic outlay of the society endured by the women.
The tight camerawork constricted breathing room signifying the dimly-lit cramped spaces – accurately depicting the restricted setting and therefore, class of the textile workers. This women-centric factory drama has women filmmakers leading the key departments of sound, production, design and camera.
The thought-provoking narrative acts as an urgent plea for attention and responsiveness towards human rights, in particular, which are being crushed under the humungous banners of gigantic fashion labels.
So the next time you pick up a shirt from Joe Fresh or peek into H&M for a quick shop, check the tag and ask yourself – who’s the woman behind this label?
Made in Bangladesh screened under Contemporary World Cinema programme at the Toronto International Film Festival ’19.
*Editor’s Note: Made in Bangladesh originally screened at the Toronto International Film Festival ’19