Naima’s life in rural Bangladesh is nearly impossible.
And then it gets worse.
Her father becomes gravely ill, and loses his job as a rickshaw driver. Her mother is fired from her work, as well. Her father’s medicine is expensive, and there’s no money coming in.
So, young Naima decides, it’s time she went out, into the world.
Rickshaw Girl is the story of her trials, and triumphs, as she leaves her village for the terrifyingly modern city of Dhaka. Naima is a skilled, self-taught artist but no one – her parents least of all – values her talent. Her schooling stopped at fifth grade.
So, to support her family, she takes on the only other trade she knows – pulling a rickshaw. And since no one will hire a woman, she cuts her hair, trims her name to Naim, and decides to pass as a man.
Although Rickshaw Girl is freely adapted from a children’s book of the same name, what it’s been reminding many early audiences of, it seems, is Mulan. But this is a tougher movie than that – tougher on men, tougher on governments – and there’s no pretending that it happened in some long-ago time.
Sexism is everywhere in Naima’s patriarchal society. So is corruption, with bribes expected at every turn. Nothing happens without money changing hands (even a “spontaneous” political demonstration turns up to be populated by paid protesters.)
And exploitation is pervasive. The upper-classes do it with polite indifference (offered a job as a live-in maid, Naima is shown her “room” – half the floors, in a storage closet). Meanwhile, the working classes oppress each other, with threats and casual violence.
Naima, though, beautifully played by Novera Rahman is a survivor, the sort of plucky street urchin movie fans have loved since the time of Chaplin.
the role of victim she fights back – for her family but also for her due. And yet, for all her stubborn practicality, she always steals some time to dream – particularly whenever she paints her vibrant pictures of peacocks and flowers.
Her art, and its bold colors, fills Rickshaw Girl which also opens a window on a part of the world Americans rarely see on movie screens. We get glimpses of Dhaka – as cold and crowded as any big city. But we spend time in the warm, dusty byways of Naima’s village, too. And we see a country crowded with rickshaw drivers and petty bureaucrats, hungry entrepreneurs and sleek movie stars.
Director Amitabh Reza Chowdhury doesn’t always have a firm grasp on his story’s pace, which he seems intent to hurry along. At times, you wish the film were twice as long, so it could sprawl like a Dickens epic, or at least a TV series; by the end, events are so rushed you can’t really savor Naima’s triumph.
But she does triumph. And when she does, we triumph with her.