The Teetering Act

by: , February 6, 2024

Debi (meaning: Goddess) is a 2018 Bangladeshi film about the mentally unstable protagonist Ranu, who has the paranormal ability to foretell the future. Debi is a mix of supernatural and psychological thriller genre, and is based upon an iconic literature series by Bangladeshi novelist Humayun Ahmed. Ahmed created the beloved character of Misir Ali, an investigative psychoanalyst, for the series, and in Debi, we follow Ranu, and the interpretations of her dreams and hallucinations by Misir Ali. Debi was produced by the popular Bangladeshi actress Jaya Ahsan, who also played the lead role of Ranu.

During the promotion for Debi, Ahsan remarked that she grew up reading Ahmed’s stories and wanted to act in any film adaptations. She eventually decided to create her own opportunity, and in collaboration with the government of Bangladesh, produced Debi as her first feature film under her production house banner C for Cinema (Raisha 2018). Her performance earned her the fourth Bangladesh National Film Award for Best Actress. That being said, despite being a popular actress, there is little English-language material available on Ahsan beyond a Wikipedia page.

The second key member of the production team is costume designer Aniqa Zaheen, who has even less English-language information available online. Despite repeated attempts to interview Zaheen, I did not get a response, and so I learned about her career history through a Bengali news article screenshot on her Instagram, which I then translated through Google. The Bengali article was published in the Bangladeshi newspaper Prothom Alo, which revealed that Zaheen has worked on nearly 400 projects as an early-career costume designer, including TV, films, documentaries and commercials, and that she wishes to establish a design studio of her own (Dhaka 2021).

While there is little about Zaheen online, there is a lot written about costume designers in academic scholarship. In the academy, costume design is commonly understood as an act of world building for the audience to understand the characters they watch (Durbin 2023), achieved by constructing ‘cinematic identities’ as a framework for portraying visual narration  (Bruzzi 1997: 2). However, the main area of focus has been western cinema. Although I am analysing a Bangladeshi film, I have had to turn to scholarship on Hindi cinema (or Bollywood as it is more popularly known) to better understand the role of the costume designer in a South Asian context. Bollywood is the biggest film industry in South Asia and, consequently, has garnered more scholarship than other film industries in the region.

In Hindi cinema, personal designers for actors have come to be known as ‘dress designers’ as a way to differentiate themselves from the star’s personal tailors on the basis of them possessing ‘superior artistic sensibility’ (Wilkinson-Weber 2005: 3). Historically, costume design has been a largely female dominated field,  and much can be said about the gender stereotypes associated with it. However, in South Asia, tailoring is a predominantly male field (Stutesman 2018). In her study of Hindi cinema, Clare M. Wilkinson makes the distinction between tailors and costume designers, noting that ‘with tastes that were shaped both by their schooling (often in fine arts and other creative degrees, such as dance and music) and by immersion in the anti-colonial movement, designers saw themselves primarily as creative artists who could produce more refined assessments of what a heroine or hero should wear than the tailor who did his job straightforwardly and without much reflection’ (2016: 8). In a prior essay, she has gone on to suggest that although dress designers in Hindi films are not always given the foremost credit, the celebrity reputation that they enjoy as close collaborators with film stars in print and digital media discussions is not often seen in western cinema (Wilkinson-Weber 2005: 12).

My video essay, ‘The Teetering Act’, is informed by the writing of Deborah Nadoolman Landis, who argues that practitioners create these identities through ‘colour, texture and silhouette’, and in so doing, ‘costume designers also help paint each “frame” of film. If the dialogue is the melody of a movie, the colour provides the harmony, a satisfying visual cohesiveness or “style”’ (2012: 11). Taking my cue from Landis, in ‘The Teetering Act’, I explore the contrast between the protagonist’s exteriority and interiority through costume design. I probe at the characterisation of Ranu through the film’s use of colour, and I consider how colour relates to the spirit she embodies at any one time. In later iterations of my video essay, I chose to experiment with sound. By setting the main (and only) song in the film as the parameter, I play with noise textures and effects: overlays, fade ins and outs, feedback, and reverb to induce a sense of unease, which highlights Ranu’s inner conflict. The song begins to sound like a broken record, evoking memories of suppressed trauma. It offers a sense of contrast between her interiority and what she represents herself as to the world. Therefore, the phrase ‘the balancing act’ becomes ‘The Teetering Act’. The song refers to grabbing the anchol (decorative edge of a saree), and in my video essay this grabbing becomes a visual, tactile metaphor for Ranu’s experience as she clings to her sanity.

The case study for this project may have been geographically close to me, and yet I have still found it very difficult to research. This experience has made me reconsider my own positionality. To what extent can I as a researcher, coming from a similar cultural background to Zaheen, position myself from a ‘nearby perspective’ (Grant 2021)? Also, I worked on this video essay while living in Pakistan and Germany, and experienced ongoing difficulties with accessibility to and the stability of digital tools, software and resources. Then, the language barrier has been the biggest challenge. I do not speak Bengali, and at first the lack of subtitles was a hindrance. However, it became a blessing. Watching without understanding the dialogue meant that I could focus on the visual components: costumes, expressions, colour, mannerisms and so forth. Much later, when I was able to access a subtitled version of the film (kindly provided by director Anam Biswas), the visual and audio cues began to connect together, which led to a much richer analysis. Through the journey of this project, I have concluded that producing a videographic work is an act of resistance, not only in the act of researching and highlighting marginalised voices, but in attempting to make this work visible and accessible to all.


Bruzzi, Stella (1997), Undressing Cinema: Clothing and Identity in the Movies, London: Routledge.

Dhaka, Hasan Imam (2021), ‘ভুতুড়ে শহরেও কাজ করেছেন তিনি’. Prothom Alo, 8 March,ভুতুরে-শহরেও-কাজ-করেছেন-তিনি (last accessed 31 July 2023).

Grant, Catherine (2021), ‘Teaching Women’s Filmmaking,’ Catherine Grant, 16 April, (last accessed 23 November 2023)

Landis, Deborah Nadoolman (2012), Costume Design, London: Ilex Press.

Poe Durbin, Holly (2022), The Costume Designer’s Toolkit: The Process of Creating Effective Design, New York: Routledge.

Raisha, Nishat Salsabil (2018), ‘Jaya Ahsan: I Read Debi as a Child, and Loved It’, Dhaka Tribune, 18 October, (last accessed 31 July 2023).

Stutesman, Drake (2018), ‘Film Costume’, Feminist Media Histories, Vol. 4, No. 2, pp.84-89.

Wilkinson‐Weber, Clare M. (2005), ‘Tailoring Expectations: How Film Costumes Become the Audience’s Clothes’, South Asian Popular Culture, Vol. 3, No. 2, pp.135-59.

Wilkinson, Clare M. (2016), ‘The Real Professional: Designers and Discourse in Hindi Film Costume’, Studies in Costume & Performance, Vol. 1, No.1, pp.19-39.

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