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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



DIFF 20, 2022, 07: The bumpy road to Dhaka

DIFF 20, 2022, 07: The bumpy road to Dhaka

Everything was ready at my end. I had a valid passport, expiring in 2028. A letter from Rainbow Film Society, which was founded in 1977 and which organises the Dhaka International Film Festival (DIFF) had been received by email, and I had a printout. And the most important document was also sent to me by email: A letter from the Bangladesh Ministry of Home Affairs, approving Visas on Arrival to over 90 persons, coming to the festival from various countries. My name was at No. 46, along with my passport number. So, I did not even need a visa.

Then came a phone call, followed by several more, from a co-ordinator based in Kolkata, that I should get a Visa nevertheless, because the letter granting Visa on Arrival might not suffice when I landed at Dhaka. Then why was it sent? Anyway, I agreed to go to the Bangladesh Deputy High Commission at Cuffe Parade, Mumbai, with all relevant documents, to ask for a visa. The man who received me was named Asif, and spoke reasonably good Hindi. I, for my part, spoke broken Bengali. Even that broken Bengali made him happy. Then came the pronouncement: Bangladesh had stopped issuing tourist visas, in view of Covid.

Not being a tourist, I told him that I was a member of the Jury that was to judge Bangladeshi films at DIFF. He asked me for my visiting card, another card proving my journalist status and a covering letter, asking for the visa. I wrote the covering letter there itself, on an A4 sheet, provided by Asif. All documents ready, I handed them over. He took them inside, and came out after a few minutes to hand me a token, “I will call you in a couple of days and you can come and collect your visa in 4-5 days, on presenting this token.”

Sure enough, he called, from his mobile number, but only to give me the news that the physical, stamped visa had been denied. The Deputy High Commissioner had gone through all my documents and concluded that I did not need a visa to reach Dhaka. As mentioned in the letter sent by the Ministry of Home Affairs, I would be granted a visa on arrival. In fact, Asif chided me for wasting my time and theirs. I tried to convince him that my co-ordinator in Kolkata had insisted that I get a physical visa, but he said it was not possible. I could come and collect my passport and papers any time, but I would not get the visa. When I conveyed this to my co-ordinator, he still insisted that I should, somehow, get the visa, without giving me any clues about how to go about it.

A couple of days later, I went to Deputy High Commission again, and met Asif. I pleaded with him to allow me to meet the Deputy High Commissioner, but he did not relent. “You cannot see him. I told you we cannot issue a visa when our superiors in our own ministry have already issued visas on arrival. Once again, you are wasting your time and mine.” End of chapter? But my co-ordinator was adamant. “Do something,” he insisted! So I sent an email to the Deputy High Commissioner, as well as a letter, by Speed Post. As I had expected, there was no reply.

Two young film-makers were in the same plight, Gaurav Madan (Barah by Barah) and Rohit Khaitan (Dar-Ba-Dar), and I was asked to “help” them. I did get in touch with them, and found that they too had not got their visas. A third ex-Mumbai passenger, Delhi-based Assamese film-maker Rajni Basumatary, who was essaying multiple roles at DIFF, including Jury duty, changed her itinerary and decided to join our flight at Delhi, where we had an 8-hour layover. Gaurav’s name was in the list, Rohit’s was not. Anyway, come 14 January late evening, I and Gaurav landed at the airport.

Question is, which airport? In all places – website, email, travel agency communication and on the customer service phone line, it was clearly mentioned that the flight would depart from Vile Parle. Now we have two airports in Mumbai. One was known as Santa Cruz airport, though technically it is located at Vile Parle, which is the adjacent postal district. Most domestic flight take-off from here. There is another airport, at Sahar, close to Andheri, from where international flights depart. We were flying Vistara, first to Delhi, a domestic flight, and early next morning from Delhi to Dhaka, an international flight, also on Vistara.

As we approached the Santa Cruz-Vile Parle Terminal, I asked my driver whether he knew about Vistara’s departure terminal. He didn’t. As we entered the Terminal concourse, I asked the same question of three different, uniformed persons. One said all domestic flights would depart from there while the other two were sure that all Vistara flights were based at Sahar. Luckily, I had left home early, and asked the driver to proceed to Sahar. And sure enough, it was the right choice.

I had left Santa Cruz far behind, but trouble followed. The check-in counter would not accept my visa on arrival and demanded a rubber-stamped, physical visa. I met the Vistara manager-on-duty, and pointed out the Vile Parle gaffe. Like me, how many passengers would have been led astray is anybody’s guess. He said he would convey this to the higher-ups. Then I explained my visa situation. He took the visas on arrival list from me and made me wait for about 20 minutes while he consulted the relevant authorities. Meanwhile, I met Gaurav Madan, who is a tall young man in his late twenties, and we got friendly. After an anxious wait, the problem was resolved and both of us got our boarding passes. Rohit Khaitan had decided to pull out.

‘Travelling light’ are the opening words of an old song, and they applied totally to this trip of mine. Usually, I have to carry so many things that I just about get away with the baggage allowance limit. And here was Vistara, offering us 30 kg of checked-in baggage for a 15-day trip. So nice of them. But, you guessed it, there was a catch. Both our flights to Dhaka were booked on Vistara, while the return flights were on SpiceJet, via Kolkata. Vistara allowed 30 kg, while, on the other hand, SpiceJet restricted us to 20 kg. So were in a Catch 20/30 situation. We could take 30 kg, but could bring back only 20 kg. Now, with winter and warm clothes, 30 kg was just about right, while 20 kg was unrealistic.

I wrote to SpiceJet, asking for increasing the allowance, in view of the strange predicament I found myself in. Nothing doing, said SpiceJet. So, I left behind a lot of things, and decided not to bring anything from Dhaka as souvenirs/gifts. When I lifted the check-in suitcase at home, it felt like 20 kg, or a little less, which was fine. And how much was it when they weighed it at the check-in counter? 14.9 kg. I must be getting old. I AM getting old.

Mumbai to Delhi was a regular flight, with one surprise in store for us, in the form of meals. One would have thought that Vistara might go the SpiceJet way and offer nothing but water. Spending time at Delhi was a huge problem. We had the whole night to spend, and I cannot sleep on chairs, especially at airports. But this too passed. It was soon dawn, and we were checking-in to go to Dhaka. Here too, we were surprised by a meal.

The flight was on time, or even before time, and I disembarked, with a little song on my lips. After all, I had never really visited Bangladesh, except for a stopover at Dhaka, on the Mumbai-Dhaka-Singapore route, 21 years ago. The airline had then insisted that I spend my two days’ layover confined to a hotel, since I did not possess a visa. I defied the order and went out one day, only to be followed by a Security guard all the way, wherever I went. Not the ideal way to visit and see Dhaka, let me assure you. But this was different. Festival authorities provide accommodation and transport, with a fleet of volunteers to cater to your special needs. Moreover, I had made two contacts in Dhaka, the young Reaz Ghouri and the retired H.Q. Chowdhury. More about them, and DIFF, later.

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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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