Third Person Singular Number (Bangladesh, 2009)

Here we go—my reactions to the first randomly selected film on the list…

A Woman Alone

From director Mostofa Sarwar Farooki, Third Person Singular Number highlights, above all else, the precarious and vulnerable situation of young, and especially single, women in Bangladesh. The protagonist, Ruba Haque (Nusrat Imrose Tisha), faces ostracism and hostility from her community and family for her unconventional lifestyle. To make matters worse, her live-in boyfriend Munna (Mosharrof Karim) is serving a prison sentence for murder, leaving Ruba effectively alone.

In the opening scenes, we see Ruba walking through the city alone at night, which prompts both incredulous and antagonistic questions from (male) passersby. A motorist stops his car beside Ruba, propositioning her: “How much?” he asks. At one point she encounters the ghost of a young woman named Shima Chowdhury, who was raped and murdered at the police station, dramatically highlighting the lack of formal protection offered to young Bangladeshi women. In a later sequence, Ruba fruitlessly tries to find a room for rent; each proprietor angrily dismisses her, refusing to rent to a single girl (and, in some cases, to anyone who is single). In the words of one landlady, “How can one person be a family?” Her rhetorical question points to the importance of conventional family structure and kinship ties in Ruba’s Bangladesh.

Despite the veneer of monogamy, Ruba consistently faces the sexual advances of older, often married, men. With few exceptions, the only “helpful” figures that Ruba encounters are primarily only interested in extracting sex from her in exchange for favors. One man, Siddiqui, offers her a job, before professing his interest in “loving” her. He assures her, “I never jump on anyone, never apply force. I want people to jump on me. I don’t accept anybody if I’m not attacked,” though the film implies (we aren’t shown) that he rapes or assaults her. Finally, Ruba lands a job as a copywriter; her employer, a man named Dicon, tells her what she (and we) already know: “When a girl urgently needs a job, people take advantage.” Such is the perilous condition of a life like Ruba’s; her desperation only augments her vulnerability to sexual violence.

Tenuous Ties to the Past

The relationship between past and present is an important motif throughout the film. At several points, Ruba converses with 13-year-old and 6-year-old versions of herself, both of whom castigate her for her budding romantic involvement with Bangladeshi pop singer Topu (played by himself) and her consequent unfaithfulness to Munna.

Present-day Ruba (left) with her two past selves. (Image: Mostofa Sarwar Farooki, distributed by CC BY-SA 4.0 license)

Ruba tells her psychiatrist that she refuses to believe that the younger versions of herself do not still exist, frozen in time. To her, the doctor’s diagnosis of multiple personalities implies that the past is not real. Similarly, when Munna is released from prison, he tells her: “The jail-doctor told me that the prisoner’s time gets stopped, while everything else moves outside.” Munna accuses Ruba of changing, and essentially leaving him behind, during his prison sentence, but despite his protests to the contrary, it seems—and this is hardly surprising—that prison changed Munna as well. Both Munna and Ruba cling, with almost desperate futility, to past versions of themselves. Once the pair uneasily readjusts to life as a couple, the sense that their present selves are not longer in sync with one another in the way their past selves had been becomes painfully apparent.

All in all, the film is a touching account of a young Bangladeshi woman’s struggles to find happiness amidst sometimes oppressive societal conventions. While most of the film maintains a kind of understated realism, its occasional dreamlike scenes—particularly those involving conversations between the three Rubas—lend the story a mystical, indeed spiritual quality perfectly suggestive of the intangible tendrils uniting past with present.

Up Next…

Conversations on Serious Topics (Lithuania, 2012)

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