Film industries around the world have become a melting pot for nepotism over the years. Without having prior close connections to the world of cinema, it is almost impossible for a newcomer to break in.
However, the multi-talented Aref Syed from Humayun Ahmed's "Anil Bagchir Ekdin" managed to break the stereotype and pilot his career in acting. The critically acclaimed film was directed by director extraordinaire Morshedul Islam.
"I never thought I would land the lead role in my first ever silver screen work. I did not share any ties with the media either when I was abroad for my undergraduate studies. It was clearly a pleasant shock," Syed told The Business Standard while speaking about his work in Anil Bagchir Ekdin.
What he thought might at best be a supporting role, turned out to be the lead - that too in a story written by the legendary littérateur Humayun Ahmed.
The story of how Syed landed the role of Anil is nothing short of a miracle, either. The break came through with Syed's work in a short film called "The Professionals" where he played the role of Joshim - a simple millworker who becomes crippled due to medical negligence.
"The film was privately screened and Morshedul sir was the chief guest. That is when he saw me perform. We lost touch afterwards but one day suddenly in 2014, sir called me on my phone and asked me to meet him in his office."
"He handed me the book (Anil Bagchir Ekdin) and told me to read it. Days later, I called Morshedul sir back to tell him that I found the book amazing. He then offered me the role of Anil, which is a once in a lifetime opportunity for me," Syed told the correspondent.
"The nervousness was obviously there. I was worried whether I will be able to carry the magnitude of the character on-screen. We did not get a lot of time to rehearse, either. Morshed sir gave me the novel and I studied it while the script was being worked on," he continued.
Needless to say, Anil Bagchir Ekdin was received by the audience and critics alike with open arms. Syed's acting, along with the exceptional performance of the supporting cast - which was graced by the likes of Gazi Rakayet, Farhana Mithu, Misha Sawdagor, Jyotika Jyoti, SM Mohsin, among others - was critically acclaimed as well.
From the audience perspective, Syed's deliverance of Anil's character maintained a flow all throughout the movie and blended in naturally with his movements. Starting from the dialogues to conveying emotions through facial gestures, Syed seemed to have mastered it all. But his grasp over acting did not develop in a day. Syed trained hard and for years to nurture his talent.
Syed flew to the US to pursue undergraduate studies at the Ivy League institute - Columbia University, where he studied Industrial Engineering and Economics. During his stay at New York, Syed trained at the prestigious Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York, which was also attended by Hollywood kingpins such as Robert De Niro, Mark Ruffalo, Salma Hayek, among other notable names in the world of acting.
Syed told the correspondent that the underlying fascination for acting and films in general was difficult to explain and can only be felt. His words shared an eerie resemblance with a dialogue in Anil Bagchir Ekdin that roughly translated to, "There are certain moments of beauty that cannot be translated into paintings but can only be felt through the soul."
"Growing up, I liked films and movies. But my target landed at education. I always wanted to become independent and educated," he said.
Attending Stella Adler gave Sayed the boost he needed to invest his time and effort into acting and to pursue it more seriously. "I had that acting bug in me somewhere. Then I went to Columbia University to pursue my undergrad and thought that I should take some acting classes at Stella Adler," he told the correspondent.
"I started off with evening classes and I fell in love with it. The classes made me curious and that is when I slowly started to weigh whether I should quit my job and pursue acting full time or not. I did not want to regret not doing something I had the passion for once I turned 60 or 70 years old.
"Breaks were not even in my mind. My urge for acting came from a place of sheer love and passion for the arts," Syed continued, adding that training is important. "I felt that I should push the boundaries and see where it goes."
Even after Syed was attending the evening classes at the prestigious acting school, his calling for the arts was yet to sink in further. "It finally sank in deeper once I started training at Stella Adler full time," the virtuoso actor voiced.
A man of many talents, Syed is both an accomplished scholar and an actor of illustrious calibre. While pursuing higher education at one of the world's finest and most challenging universities, he also managed to pursue acting at an equally well-reputed institute.
On asking how he maintained the delicate balance between education and passion, Syed said, "I love multitasking. My father has always told me to not chase success, but rather to be good at what you do, and success will follow. He taught me to expect an attainable outcome with whatever skills I possess and to put in the work to achieve your goals."
"These teachings still help me to this day. There is no shortcut to life and we only have this one life, so we need to make most of it. The fields I have worked in are very different - finance and engineering. Inherently, I am an entrepreneur, so this side of me helps me both professionally and also with my passion."
According to Syed, the simple answer is baby steps. "Figure out your passions and do what you love. No success comes overnight. There are decades of hard work before that break comes through. Figure out your true calling and be practical."
"If I would have thought that I will become a big star overnight by doing one film, I would never have reached where I am at currently. The important thing is to remain grounded."
"People at Stella Adler helped me push myself as an actor and I was feeding my soul in the process. Sitting down with a script in hand after the long office hours never felt like an added responsibility to me," he said.
Although Syed's big break came with Anil Bagchir Ekdin, he has previously worked in a number of films, commercials, and theatre plays in both the US and Bangladesh - giving him the opportunity to observe the key differences in the film industry of both the countries.
"My work experience in Bangladesh is limited but both the industries have ample talent. The work process in the US is more organised to some extent but Bangladesh is also getting there," Syed opined.
He added, "The Bangladeshi film industry is very organised and focused as well but I have observed that filmmakers in the US like to get the paperwork out of the way as soon as they can."
"The shooting dates, locations, and timings were all handed to the cast and crew one month prior. We were given three weeks to memorise our lines whereas, in Bangladesh, we are more spontaneous and like to do everything impromptu. But there is no difference in passion and talent in the two industries."
Syed's future work includes "Mission Extreme", where he is one of the ensemble actors. He has more projects up his sleeves, awaiting revelation in the near future. "There might be something coming up next month and it may have a digital premier," Syed said with a hearty laugh, retracting from revealing further details.
However, he did tell us of a few films and actors he looks up to. "Tom Hanks is a great actor. Growing up when I did not know what acting was, I still looked up to him as he is very versatile. 'Forrest Gump' is definitely the movie that stuck with me."
"When I was older, I watched a film called 'The Constant Gardener'. It was based on a true story and Rachel Weisz was in it. The power of good storytelling and acting struck a chord in me and I said to myself that I want to do that (acting) and live the moments."
Looking back on the shooting days of Anil Bagchir Ekdin, Syed recalled some interesting and memorable incidents and laid them out before us. "During the first day of shooting, the first scene we shot was the part where I mourn my dead father. A large part of this scene was CGI and it was very difficult for me to replicate the motion in a running bus as it had to be impeccable and natural. My crying also had to be on perfect cue. It was one of the most difficult scenes in the story, but I managed to pull through."
The iconic "murir tin" in "Anil Bagchir Ekdin" was faced with an accident on its way back to Dhaka from Dinajpur. "It was supposed to ride back to the city after the cast and crew left and while it was heading back, the bus collided with a truck and fell in a ditch," Syed said.
The "murir tin" was later fixed and used for the remaining length of the film's shooting.
"Anil Bagchir Ekdin" is now available for streaming on Hoichoi.