Based on a celebrity scandal that shook conservative Bangladesh society, “No Bed of Roses” avoids every tabloid ingredient the story potentially holds. Through the director-protagonist’s divorce and the painful rift it causes to his family, the film ponders the big existential questions of why happiness never lasts and whether loneliness is a preexisting human condition. Directed with an assured and graceful touch that evokes the elegiac tone of a requiem, Mostofa Sarwar Farooki proves he’s a singular voice in Bangladeshi cinema. With Irrfan Khan delivering another sublime lead performance (while being billed as co-producer), the film should bloom at festivals and secure a limited release in India, despite some censorship issues back home.
The sixth feature by Farooki is based on an affair of one of the country’s most prominent authors (who also directed films). It was considered a breach of propriety because his lover was his daughter’s classmate. The film has encountered some censorship issues — its No Objection Certificate was suspended; and even after the suspension was lifted, it has yet to pass the Bangladesh Censor Board.
The opening shot is a striking tableau of two young women in elegant white saris, sitting side by side, their lovely faces stained with sorrow. In a flashback to their girlhood, Nitu (Parno Mittrs) asks Saberi (Nusrat Imrose Tischa) why the latter’s father always casts her in his films. “I’ll ask him to cast you next time,” she promises. This is a telling exchange whose meaning is apparent later as the narrative unfolds back in time.
Esteemed filmmaker Javed Hassan (Khan) takes a break from shooting to go on holiday with his family: wife Maya (Rokeya Prachy), daughter Saberi and son Ahir (Rahad Hossain). It’s obvious that father and daughter adore each other. As Saberi rests her head on his chest, they gaze at each other like playful lovers. He’s more glum around Maya. Despite having the most magnificent scenery at their feet, he’s brooding and discontented. “Why are you always dwelling in the past? You talk as if we have no present,” Maya complains. The main theme, and the seed of tragedy, is conveyed in a poetic soliloquy by Javed, who reminisces on how his estranged late father told him God is ready to let a person die once he or she has stopped communicating with loved ones.
Back in the capital, Dakka, a media storm galvanizes Javed. Nitu, who has indeed become the lead actress of his current production, told the media that she has “developed a friendship” with the director, an innuendo that’s enough to whip up a national scandal and tear his family apart. Farooki maintains an unbiased stance, implying that Maya is equally responsible for pushing her husband closer to Nitu through her wounded reaction and refusal to trust or listen.
The screenplay is dotted with tantalizing ellipses at key points when others might have dialed up the melodrama. For instance, when Nitu climbs over the wall of Javed’s mansion to see him, it’s left to audience’s imagination whether something has been going on before or something will happen that night. The actors certainly express unspoken longing in the simple act of sharing a cigarette on the balcony. For despite Sabiri’s insistence that Nitu seduced her father out of jealousy and competitiveness, it remains a mystery why and how they were eventually thrown together amid all the public outrage. The situation invites one to ponder the vagaries of human behavior while upbraiding Bangladeshi society for its uptight morality.
Since the crisis blew up just when the Hassans were about to move into their luxurious new house, a plot point based on real life accounts, the act becomes a symbol of their emotional dislocation. DP Sheikh Rajibul Islam shoots the protagonists through doorways, stairs or perched on rooftops, seldom giving a full view of their homes, suggesting how physical separation from their father compounds their spiritual limbo. Farooki captures the siblings’ anguish with particular sensitivity, as they struggle with their enduring love for their father despite his betrayal. Wrenching scenes of how Sabiri can only confess her most vulnerable feelings to both parents through phone conversations reinforce the film’s motif of failed communication.
Khan pours his own force of personality into a character who’s tormented by fierce intellect and human weakness, unable to change course even when he sees how much suffering he has caused. He portrays Javed not as a dirty old man but a desperately lonely one, clutching at any kind of diversion from his inner emptiness, echoing the Bengali title which means “drowning.” Other actors in the mixed cast of Bangladeshis and Indians are equally absorbing, especially Tischa.
Islam frames the earlier scenes, set in country locations in Chittagong, Rangamati and Bandarban, as a paradise of lush foliage and tranquil lakes that symbolizes a state of innocent bliss from which the Hassan family is exiled forever once they return to the soiled mess of city life. His symmetrical compositions are marked by a profusion of high angle and aerial shots that serves to distance the viewer from the simmering drama. While editing is sometimes a little rough and uneven, the score by young Bangladeshi composer Pavel Avin is sweeping and melancholy, especially the epilogue’s riff on “Auld Lang Syne” using as lyrics a poem by Tagore.