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Bangladesh Cinema: Decaying or Rebirthing?

PRITO REZA

Many are worried. Many of us are worried about what is happening to Bangladesh cinema
for some years now. More specifically, the worried ones among us freely discuss their disgust at the kind of films the Dhaka film industry produces. Whenever we happen to talk about our local films, we tend to share the thought that the industry produced next to nothing (that is, in aesthetic terms) and it is going to be ruined soon! So 'decay' is the popular term to denote our film industry nowadays even by media scholars and film critics. That is why, 'Bangla cinema' was termed as 'an industry in decay' when Kajalie Shehreen Islam wrote a piece for The Daily Star special issue on its 12th anniversary in May 2008. More recently, Iftekhar Ahmed wrote a long piece in First News (24 October 2010). He echoed the views of Kajalie Islam when he concluded: 'Bangladeshi cinema is passing through a crisis. [It] has gone backwards and its productions have declined in quality.'1 I, of course, hold a different view about the turn of the Dhaka film industry. To say that the industry is going to decay means to me that we are unable to draw the larger context of media production and consumption and how the local cinema is a part of that. Actually most of us tend to look at Bangladesh cinema only as a cinema that is destined to serve only the

population within the geopolitical territory that we call Bangladesh. This essay, by analysing the importance of the recent cinematic movements between Bangladesh and India, is one of the first attempts to look at the transnational dimensions of the 'national cinema' of/in Bangladesh. My point is: even the Asian film industries based on a vernacular language and with a large 'captive' audience tied to the vernacular (as it is the case for Bangladesh and West Bengal cinemas) are 'transnational' media industries. This cinematic flow can be seen as an oppositional symptom to the decay of Dhaka film industry. The possibility of Bangladesh cinema being and becoming a transnational media industry can actually lead to the rebirth of the industry. First, what do I mean by the 'larger context' for Bangladesh cinema? Primarily, our media as well as cinema shares a common South Asian mediascape (borrowing Arjun Appadurai's term). Bangladeshi cinema along with other South Asian cinemas is serving both as a carrier of national culture and as a globalising agent. The screen media, especially the film industries of/in South Asia are key sites where the local, the global and the transnational intersect each other. Within this context, I locate a slow and silent attempt of rebirth of Bangladesh cinema. This is happening through a partial encroachment by Dhaka cinema of the audiences from the other Bengali language film industry, that is West-Bengali cinema produced and circulated from the better known Bengali 'media capital': Calcutta. Why and how is that happening? Before going to that, a bit of history.

PRITO REZA

The tale of two Bengali film industries Since the 1960s, both the Bengali-language film industries based in Dhaka and Calcutta targeted a distinct population, a Bengali-speaking audience within their national or regional boundaries and rarely beyond that. Such a linguistically-defined viewing context coupled with 'captive' audiences for Bengali-language popular films ensured that Bengali film industries continued to survive as those rare species of medium-sized, vernacular film industries amid the globalising forces. Therefore, these two Bengali cinemas manage to survive, almost ignoring the Hollywood film industry, considered as a major threat to many film industries in the world. This success lies in the fact that the two cinemas addresswellidentified market sector, a non-English-speaking national/sub-national audience that is, Bengali-speaking Bengali Muslims in postcolonial Bangladesh and Bengali Hindus of West Bengal and Eastern India. In other words, the two Bengali cinemas somewhat divided the Bengali population in terms of their national and religious orientations and their films represent these biases in creating a particular spectatorship though sharing a common language. To put it in local terms: Dhaka industry focused on producing films for Bangals while Calcutta cinema attempted capturing whom we (the Bangals) call the Ghotis. Despite being the base for renowned Indian art cinema by filmmakers like Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, the Bengali cinema of Calcutta retained its somewhat communalist characteristics. This cinema still serves the Bengali-Hindu audiences of West Bengal and neighbouring states in Eastern India. The so-called 'Golden Period' of this film industry ended in the 1960s. Shomeswar Bhowmik pointed out that during late-1960s the annual average production of Calcutta film industry came down to 28 films from 52 films per year produced in the mid-1950s.2 On the other hand, the Dhaka film industry came into being as a full-fledged production industry only in the 1960s. The first feature film production in Dhaka happened in 1955, more than three decades later Calcutta and other Indian film centres started producing feature films. Its rise as a Bengali film industry coupled with the ban on theatrical exhibition of Indian films in East Pakistan decreed during 1965 India-Pakistan war have also contributed in declining Bengali film production in Calcutta in the 1960s and onwards. In the first decade of Dhaka film industry, that is between 1966-1975, it produced on average 28 films each year, the same number of films produced by Calcutta in the late1960s. However, since 1976, the Dhaka industry has seen a dramatic increase in the number of films produced annually. During 1976-83, it produced on average 42 films each year including 50 films in 1979. This number has gone up to on average 67 films each year during 1984-1992. In the next eight years, during 1996-2003, Dhaka film industry produced on average 80 feature films annually.3 In other words, since the mid-1970s, the annual film production in Dhaka industry has increased at a rate of 25-30% in every five years or so while the Calcutta industry saw a sharp decline in the number of productions since the 1960s. While Calcutta film industry produced 46 films per year in the 1950s, this number decreased by 35% in the 1960s-1980s and went down to yearly 30 films or less4. In this way, by the 1980s Bangladesh popular film industry turned to be the larger and stronger Bengali-language film industry in contemporary South Asia. 'Bangal films for Ghoti audience': A free flow of Bengali cinema in contemporary South Asia? Calcutta and Dhaka have 'always shared a love-hate relationship'5. Among other things, this is also reflected in calling each other Bangals and Ghotis! Within such a relationship, cinematic travel happened almost as one-way traffic, that is, Ghoti films for Bangal audience. For example, the first film screening that happened in Dhaka in 1898 in the then

East Bengal was organised by a group of film exhibitionists who went down from Calcutta. Both Hindi and (Calcutta-produced) Bengali films, most of which are melodramas depicting Bengali Hindu lives, have been exhibited in East Bengali film theatres until the 1960s. For example, the Uttam-Suchitra cycle of Bengali melodramatic films of the 1950s-60s produced in Calcutta, was and is very popular among the Muslim middle class in East Bengal (now Bangladesh). These films are the foremost examples of melodramatising Bengali lives even for Muslim Bengalis and thus enveloped the communal barrier between Hindu and Muslim audiences in both parts of Bengal at least partially during mid- to late-twentieth century. Especially the availability of consumer VCRs since the early 1980s made circulation of videotaped West-Bengali as well as Hindi film melodramas among Bangladeshi audiences much easier. These West-Bengali film melodramas have been seen as ideals for the romance and family drama genres in Bangladesh cinema in the 1960s-90s. Though Bangladesh cinema appropriated and localised film plots and other elements from Calcutta cinema since film production began in Dhaka in the 1950s, the film industry in Dhaka somewhat positioned itself as the base for a Bengali-Muslim cinema from the 1960s onwards.6 But that did not mean an end of cultural hegemony of Calcutta over the Dhaka middle class. As a teenager, I grew up in the Dhaka of 1980s. At that period Dhaka was much more provincial, and especially the cultural environment we experienced was largely dependent on all things Calcuttan. In the 1970s when most of the Dhaka middle class did not have a TV at home, we used to listen to the weekly radio drama from Akash Bani Calcutta. And of course, we received a regular diet of literary supplements from Calcutta too: starting with Leela Majumder, Sunil Ganguly and Satyajit Ray, we voraciously read the pulp fictions of Nihar Ranjan and Falguni Mukherjee as well as the 'high-brow' novels of Bimol Mitra, Shankar, Shirshendu and Shamaresh Majumder. In the film arena, we not only watched the works of three great Bengali filmmakers (Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen) with great enthusiasm, but films by lesser known West-Bengali talents also received much admiration from us. We appreciated our local authors or filmmakers very little (it probably did not improve a lot even during last few decades). And to tell the truth, we developed an impression that our local talents are not of 'high standard'! Why and how did we receive such a 'wisdom' that many of us still believe in? This is not the right place to enumerate all those historical journeys and political mishaps in the last one century or so that transformed the fate of our (un)divided Bengal(s) for good. The idea that Calcutta is the 'cultural capital' of Bengali-speaking people around the world is still strong among many of our minds, both from West Bengal and Bangladesh. Starting with the prose pieces by great reformist-authors of the 19th century Calcutta, we, the 'lessmodern' populations of riverine, rural East Bengal have always imported the cultural products from Calcutta, a process that apparently geared the cultural modernisation of East Bengali Muslims during the last 100 years or so. However, the cultural hegemony of Calcutta over East Bengal/Bangladesh is no more intact. The fissures and gaps in such hegemony are visible in different forms in local media productions that many of us probably do not notice. As part of the globalising South Asian mediascape, the Dhaka media are coming of age at last and Calcutta is no more the only media capital for Bengali-language people around the world. Within such global/local interface, in recent years an opposite cultural flow (that is travel of Bengali cinema from Dhaka to Calcutta) is taking place. Since the early 1990s, starting with Beder Meye Josna (Josna, the daughter of a snake-charmer), Dhaka-produced popular films are being remade for the West-Bengali audience. Though there is no empirical study available, approximately 40-50 Bangladeshi popular films have been remade in

Calcutta film industry for Indian, Bengali-Hindu audiences. This remaking of Dhaka films in Calcutta happened during 1991-2006 mostly, and if each year there were three or four films remade, that means at least 10% of West-Bengali films were remade upon recent Bangladeshi films. This phenomenon of remaking Bangal films for Ghoti audience is significant on a number of counts. Primarily this opposite flow signifies a certain level of freedom -- at political and economic levels, for both the Bengali-language film industries. In the 1990s-2000s, both film industries, as popular-cultural institutions are negotiating their roles and functions with globalising forces and nationalist discourses. The survival and expansion of both these cinemas lie on their partly-conflicting and partly-dialogic relationship with the postcolonial nation-states and their captive audiences who are greatly affected by the globalisation of media and economy. The travel of popular films from Dhaka to Calcutta proves how globalisation affected and transformed the older transactions between the two Bengalilanguage popular film industries in the world. Here cultural globalisation seems to be more powerful than cultural hegemony, and this scenario can only push Bangladesh cinema to go further in the global media playground. This kind of transnationalisation efforts can signal a rebirth for Bangladesh cinema in the coming years. So, stay tuned