|Volume 6 | Issue 12 | December 2012 ||
Weak Father, Strong Mother and (In)visible Nation:
Nationalist forces and global modernity are constantly re-defining the role of genres and narratives of popular cinema, suggests ZAKIR HOSSAIN RAJU.
The recent upsurge of a film hero like Ananta Jalil, both on and off screen -- in spaces ranging from Facebook to family gatherings -- has once more made us aware of the power of popular cinema as a social discourse in contemporary Bangladesh. 'What is there to talk about Bangladesh popular films? Aren't all these same?' -- while such cruel, aestheticist judgment of middle-class intellectuals reproduces their part indifference and part ignorance towards popular cinema, the overwhelming presence of popular film culture in a rapidly urbanising Bangladesh cannot be overlooked. However, it needs to be noted that though Bangladesh cinema is the foremost Bengali-language film industry in the world, this is one of the least discussed Asian national cinemas. This essay is part of a series of steps towards beginning a discussion around Bangladesh cinema as a national popular cinema.
Below I portray the textual parameters of popular film genres and their relation to perceptions of nationhood in an age of globalisation using two recent films as 'cases'. These two films represent the social and the action films, two major genres of Bangladesh popular cinema and by analysing these two I demonstrate the relation between the popular cinema and perception of nationhood in an age of globalisation. Though on a limited scale, here I outline what kinds of film texts are being produced within the informal but nationalised and State-driven industrial environment of contemporary Bangladesh cinema. I argue that in contemporary Bangladesh the nationalist forces and global modernity are constantly re-defining the role of genres and narratives of popular cinema, especially to meet the challenge of constructing and disseminating a definitive 'national' identity in/of/through Bangladesh popular cinema.
The high-risk but high-profit and quick-production orientation of the popular film industry in contemporary Bangladesh produces several kinds of film texts that directly serve the nationalist rhetoric of the State and the local film-capitalists. Social and action films, two major genres of the recent popular films, attempt to forge a Bangladeshi identity on screen that is actually at stake in globalising Bangladesh in numerous ways. Here I dissect and compare two representative film texts of contemporary popular cinema.
The 'social' films are actually family drama films supposedly addressed to the female viewers, especially the middle-class and working-class women living in or around towns. These films, as sentimental family dramas, started portraying the males and the females as simple and unproblematic iconic figures generally in a semi-traditional social backdrop of 1960s East Pakistan. Later the social films struggled to meet the challenge of addressing and appropriating the complexities of the gender and class relationships in a modernising 'national' society in 1970s-90s Bangladesh. In these family-drama films, the central characters are no more idealist rural-based male figures traumatised by the process of industrialisation coupled with one or two all-sacrificing and mostly silent female figures frequently propagated and prevalent in the popular 'social' films of the 1960s-70s. However, in the social films of the 1980s-90s and beyond, the protagonists are now more into facing the challenges of urbanisation and modernisation in the context of a globalising Bangladesh.
Such transformation of conventional social films coupled with the rise of a new genre in Bangladesh popular cinema. Action cinema as a major genre mainly developed in the 1980s-90s, especially to meet the challenges brought forward by the new viewing options such as video and satellite television brought in Bangladesh by the forces of globalisation. The social films not only transformed the narrative strategy to suit the new media scenario, but also the number of social films started to decrease while the action films became the staple of Bangladesh cinema since the mid-1980s amid the threats of video. I would argue that in the battle against the Indian and other foreign films on video (and later on disc and cable television), action films with bodily actions became the major weapon of the Bangladesh film industry since the mid-1980s being equipped with the State incentive such as capacity-based taxation. The exhibition of male and female bodies 'in action', although in different ways and of course for different reasons, can be located visibly in the recent action films of Bangladesh popular cinema. Most of these films can be seen as the playground for battle of the sexes in which the male bodies are depicted as strong killer-heroes and the female bodies are supposed to be soft, vulnerable-victimised-heroines signifying the well-accepted gender roles in Bangladesh society.
The two films Baba Keno Chakor/Father as Servant (1997) and Ammajan/The Mother (1999), two of the record money-spinners in late-1990s Bangladesh, I present as case studies below underscore the major characteristics of Bangladeshi social and action films more succinctly.
Weak father in social film Baba Keno Chakor (Father as Servant, 1997)
In Father as Servant, following the patterns of the conventional social films of the 1970s, almost all the incidents happen within the four walls of an extended, middle-class household in contemporary Bangladesh. Though there is no direct reference to any specific event of the 1990s, the film is full of cues that easily translate it as a story of contemporary Bangladesh. There is a reference to a suburb of Dhaka in the film as well as one of the characters is said to be working in Chittagong, the second largest city in Bangladesh. The patterns of houses, gardens, cars, shops, streets depicted in the film clearly communicate that this tale is happening in a middle-class household in the city of Dhaka.
The story (and plot) of the film goes like this: a retired accountant Raqibuddin's happy family starts facing disruptions as his elder son Shakeel borrows a huge sum from him to solve some immediate problems in his business venture. This money Raqibuddin received as his pension and saved to meet the expenses of the wedding ceremony of his daughter Khooshi. Soon Raqib's friend proposes marriage between his son Asif and Khooshi. Raqib, his wife Shahana and Khooshi herself accept the idea happily. However, Shakeel says that he is unable to pay back the money he borrowed from Raqib. Julie, Shakeel's wife, bitterly reminds that everybody in this household is dependent on Shakeel's income and it's not a big deal if he uses Khooshi's wedding fund for developing his business. Raqib and Shahana feel disturbed hearing Julie as well seeing that Shakeel does not stop Julie from insulting his parents. Khooshi goes to Asif and says that the wedding has to be stopped. But because of Asif's and his father's kindliness, the marriage happens and Raqibuddin needs no money for the ceremony. However, the quarrel and conflict of Raqib and Shahana with their daughter-in-law Julie increases day by day especially because of Julie's mother's ill-intentions. Julie becomes the female head of the household taking the keys from her mother-in-law Shahana and sends Raqib to do groceries on the ground that the servants at house are always stealing money from the grocery bill. She also sends Raqib to reach lunch for Shakeel at his office and there Shakeel's partner consider him as a 'good servant'. Feeling severely insulted, Raqib and Shahana leave the house. Raqib becomes a push-cart labourer. Shahana dies with the family-photo on her lap. At the end Raqib's younger son Shameem reveal all the evil plan of Julie and all of Raqib's children including Shakeel come to seek forgiveness to him and take him back to the house.
The story of Father as Servant is exemplary for Bangladeshi 'social' or family-drama films. We see the disruption and dismemberment of a large but tightly-knit happy family throughout the development phase of the film narrative while the cohesion of the family/household is recouped at the end of the film. Interestingly, there is almost no outside enemy or 'villain', who can be cursed for the conflicts developed among the members of the family. Normally the villains are important players in the action films, the other major genre of contemporary popular cinema in Bangladesh. Actually, there are very few characters outside this central family in the film and only two of them can be summoned as minor criminals for the trauma the family go through. All the conflicts happen and are also being resolved within the members of the family/household: the parents, two brothers, one sister and their pairs.
In this way, one can find that the supremacy of the traditional family relations within a modernising, patriarchic and semi-capitalist nation-state called Bangladesh is the key theme of the film. In the very first scene of the film we see the dining table of Raqib's family with all the members of the family present. Raqib, the father receives and delivers comments on the contemporary affairs of his children here. This meeting seems a daily ritual and it emphasises father as the head of the family while mother is his obedient deputy and caretaker of the household. The dining-together also communicates the importance of the family in the lives of the individual members (that is, individual is not independent, he/she always needs to consider how he can be a better 'part' of the family). Because of that we see the family-photograph several times in the course of the narrative until Shahana, the mother dies with the photo on her lap.
The theme of the centrality of the family is extended in Father as Servant as collision between traditional and modern forces and identities. For example, the film highlights that traditional family-roles (eg. parent-children relationship) need to be followed even if somebody gains wealth and in turn gets a luxurious lifestyle (that happened with Shakeel and Julie in the film). Thus one can feel that there is a palpable fear of/against modern/western forces among the traditional characters such as Raqib and Shahana, who in turn empathise the agonies of the ordinary middle-class population in contemporary Bangladesh. They see modernisation and globalisation as threat to their traditional lifestyle within a local/national community. Therefore the incident of transfer of the household keys from Shahana, the mother-in-law to Julie, the daughter-in-law gets critical importance in Father as Servant. Though it repeats a well-known cliché of South Asian family dramas, it represents the conflict between tradition (extended family/traditional senior woman) and modernity (nucleus family/modern-westernized young woman). Similarly the later roles of Raqib, as a 'servant' of his westernised son and as a push-cart labourer signify the conflict between traditional/national and modern/western identities. Thus Father as Servant represents the anxiety of the ordinary Bangladeshis of being modernised and denationalised in/with the flow of contemporary globalisation of economy and culture.
Strong mother in action film Ammajan (The Mother, 1999)
The story of The Mother develops chronologically and follows a simple cause-effect chain. In the pre-title part of the film that can be seen as the pre-history of the narrative, we see that, Badsha's father (Lal Mia), a plumber in a government department, suddenly died in an electrical accident. While pursuing for Lal's pension, his wife (Badsha's mother) gets raped by the Boroshaheb (the head of the department). An adolescent Badsha while waiting outside the room understands something terrible happened to her mother and runs, stabs and kills the Boroshaheb. The stabbing is shown as 'freeze' shot and then we see the titles of the film on the 'freeze' shot and learn that Badsha has got a 14-year jail term.
It can be said that Lal Mia and his wife are shown as idealist male and female characters, as if this is a conventional social film. They are portrayed as people from the yesteryears when life was easy and people were innocent. However, with the death of Lal Mia and rape of Lal Mia's wife, the screen presence of such innocent characters is quickly minimised. More importantly, they were shown only in the 'preamble' phase of the narrative and they were not portrayed as glorified icons to be respected and followed. At the end of the preamble part, we see the young Badsha lose his 'innocence' by stabbing and killing the boroshaheb. This is a common narrative mechanism we see in action films that is used in order to enter the 'present' phase that is no more peaceful and harmless like it was in the yesteryears. At such point, one of the main protagonists normally lose his/her innocence through a conflict or an accident related with modernisation and urbanisation. In the case of The Mother, young Badsha kills the boroshaheb.
After the titles on the 'freeze' shot of killing boroshaheb, we enter into the main narrative world of the film that is contemporary Bangladesh. Here we find that Badsha has become a very prominent gangster who now lives in a huge villa with his Ammajan, though she stopped talking to Badsha since the day of the rape. Badsha continues killing rapists and collaborators of rapes, by stabbing with a huge knife, whenever and wherever he can locate one. Every time he informs Ammajan and takes her blessings (touching her feet, that is salam to elders in an Islamic fashion) when he starts for the operation. He also accompanies the mother to the local Islamic shrine every week where she prays and hands out money and food to the poor. In the same spirit Ammajan, Badsha and his gang go out to deliver relief among the flood-victims in rural areas. It may be noted that there was a massive flood in Bangladesh in late-1998, presumably when The Mother was under production. In the course of the relief operation, Ammajan locates Rina, a beautiful young woman who was also engaged in providing relief with another team. She finds Rina suitable to be the wife of Badsha. As soon as Badsha understands Amamajan's wish and since he is always on his toes to implement anything she wishes, he runs to Rina and informs her that he must marry her. Rina happens to be the daughter of an ex-minister and engaged with a fellow university student Mijan whose parents live in the US. Only because Mijan loves Bangladesh too much, he is here though his parents are repeatedly asking them to move to USA.
In the circumstances, Badsha starts meeting Rina here and there and always confirms that he is the one whom she has to marry. In order to get rid of Badsha, Rina's father, the ex-minister seeks help from Kalam, another gangster (though of lesser repute than Badsha) whom he collected from the street and brought up in a way so that he could become a well-known gangster. However, Kalam who is somewhat indebted to Badsha does not take the task seriously. Later, when Badsha kidnaps Rina from the airport at the moment she and Mijan are fleeing for the US, Kalam goes to Badsha's place, shoots Ammajan and brings Rina back to her father. Badsha, attired as a groom, takes Ammajan to the hospital and then goes to collect Rina so that Amma can see Badsha married to Rina, before she dies. Badsha faces Kalam's gang at the wedding centre where Rina and Mijan are going to be married. After Badsha kills most of Kalam's mates, they do a face-to-face gunfight and eventually Badsha shoots Kalam. Then he begs Rina to go to the hospital with him to let Ammajan die happily. When they are starting for hospital, the almost-dead Kalam shoots Badsha from the back. Still Badsha takes Rina to the hospital. There Badsha, being ordered by Ammajan, hands Rina to Mijan. Then both the mother and son die in the same bed.
This story of The Mother is presented in a way that the viewers can experience the violent incidents vividly. As a sample of the extreme-violence sub-genre of Bangladesh action cinema, events like killing, bleeding, gunfight, rape and chase are shown as essential ingredients (if not attractions) of the film. We see a number of killings by stabbing that include the close shot of the blood-drenched knife and of the dripping of blood. Several gunfights take place, especially the last fight between Badsha and Kalam goes for a significantly long screen-time that ultimately ends with the death of both the protagonists. While a number of rapes are reported or mentioned in the film, only the rape of Ammajan is visually presented and few other rape-victims are shown. However, as discussed above, the idea of raping women by any man (and the revenge by the killer-hero) anywhere and anytime is the main thrust of narrative in The Mother.
The (in)visible nation in popular films
The second possibility is probably more important. The apparent invisibility of the nation-state rationalises the cultural identity of the community/group represented in the two films as the national identity for all Bangladeshis. For example, in both Father as Servant and The Mother we see the disintegration of a Bengali Muslim family in contemporary Bangladesh. The settings, costumes (especially of female actors), dialogues and props used in both the films clearly represent the middle-class Bengali-Muslims. Especially in both the films we see a number of traditional Islamic rituals such as burials, weddings, prayers, etc. that strongly communicate that Bangladesh is a land of/for Muslims with Bengali ethnicity. This, though relates to the attempts of the State and the middle-class Bengali Muslims of turning Bangladesh as a nation only for the majority, clearly undermines the cultural identity of the minority groups like non-Muslims (such as Bengali Hindus, Bengali Christians) and non-Bengalis such as hill-tribes living in Bangladesh. Thus the contemporary texts of Bangladesh popular cinema not only represent the conflict between the nationalist discourse and the global forces, but also these films re-organise the Bangladeshi nationhood by covering up the conflicts within the nationalist discourse in the age of globalisation. This is happening because the Bangladesh state and local capitalists use the contemporary popular films to create a standardised 'national' identity in order to subsume and dilute the notion of other kind of cultural/national identities prevalent in Bangladesh. Such a strategy not only enables the state and the local capitalists to suppress non-Bengali and non-Muslim identities lurking under the national identity but also to churn out as much as possible from the 'golden goose' called popular cinema.
Zakir Hossain Raju is Associate Professor at Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB). He obtained PhD in Cinema Studies from La Trobe University, Melbourne in 2004. His forthcoming books include Bangladesh Cinema and National Identity: In Search of the Modern? (Routledge: London), Culture, Media and Identities (Open University: Malaysia) and Film in Bangladesh: A Defiant Survivor (Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema: New Delhi and Colombo).
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