Home   |  Issues  |  The Daily Star Home | Volume 4, Issue 13, Tuesday April 3, 2007


slivers of the small screen

Pronunciation and dialogue delivery are indeed two key aspects that have recently gone missing with directors and scriptwriters seemingly believing that the street jive of our time, plagued by colloquialism makes for good hearing on the TV screen-a conception that needs definitive change in the long run with a well-needed shift towards more proper Bangla, if not in day-today conversation, then at least on television.

All that glitters is not silver:
The consumers speak

One winter day in early 1994, the streets of Dhaka saw protests of a different kind-fiery all the same but unique in its own way. It could have been rebellion to the government, or difficult economic conditions, or dissatisfaction about unemployment. It could have been just another dirty political rally. Instead, it was about injustice done to a man who had dedicated his life to just the contrary. It was about a hanging too painful to bear and a man too likeable to lose. It was about Baker Bhai. And this is about Bangladeshi television-its evolutions and its impact.

The transitions of our small screen can broadly be divided into three categories according to time frame and to start off with, we have the initial phase of hope and temporary contentment. In the first decade and a half or so after independence, give and take a year or two, the all Bangladeshi dream was fresh out of the box and the general outlook to a newly-liberated country was visibly mirrored in the widespread perception of the country's various industries. Rightly so, the audience's take on the then channel monopoly BTV involved not only expectations, but expectations that looked set to be fulfilled. Something in between classy news bulletins, Dallas, McGyver and Ei Shob Din Raatri did not make having only one channel seem such an unthinkable vice.

With the turn of the decade, unrealistically elevated expectations evaporated and in seeped a death knell for local television-satellite. At a time when BTV's stages seemed more sham than ever, program quality had deteriorated by two folds and the unsightly but resolute head of politics had spread it's influence into the small screen (with each change of government changed the hands of ownership and resultantly the preferred set of actors to be either done to death on screen or banned altogether), it would have been unnatural for viewers not to succumb to the temptation that allowed an excess of five times more the current number of channels, service that didn't show the national flag by hours before bedtime and all this and more at very well-worth nominal amounts.

Aside compromised quality, the advent of satellite TV and the uncalled-for impact of politics, a fourth antagonist (in no particular order) in the demise of Bangla programs was then reigning societal concerns, namely, undue obsession with all that belonged across the seven seas. Whether programs from beyond borders brought forth this trend or whether this trend brought forth increased viewing of foreign channels is a topic for much deliberation, but the point of focus remains- come the 90s, local television had promised much but delivered little. Bangla, and everything Bangla at that, was out and the small screen had to go with it.

Another turn of time, now a millennium, and we seem to be moving in circles. Thanks to the realisation that we do not need to subscribe to foreign tongues every time we sift through channels and that BTV alone will not suffice, Bangladeshi television has undergone a revolution of its own-drastic and dramatic. No more are we consigned to the fate of watching only heard-before shongeet onushthhan, run and rerun, of well-known artists on lifeless sets; now has come a time when we cannot hope to remember what was airing on the first Bangla channel in our lists by the time we get to the last.

Bangla channels have not only increased significantly in number, they have literally brought with them a new meaning to entertainment. The immediate effect of having more channels to choose from than we know how to deal with is a well-ascended number of options. “With a diverse range of segments such as news, serials, talk shows, reality TV and single episode natoks, we finally have what we can call entertainment for all tastes. Fights over the remote are now for Bangladeshi programs, my personal favourite being Siddika Kabir's Recipe and my daughter insisting on watching Close Up 1 or some other musical show, and that alone says a lot.”, muses Parveen Sulatana, a middle-aged homemaker.

Such bold changes to the realm of local television have not only ushered in innovation and variety in terms of viewing, but also endless opportunities for those who aspire to enter the industry. With so many different programs airing on so many different channels, there is just that bit more hopes to hold, auditions to give and careers to build. The wildfire expansion of the industry has meant that people seeking to make their professions on the small screen have become more widespread and consequentially, this is a prospect becoming more 'normal' and acceptable to society, as is bound to be the case with every dominant societal inclination.

But turn the coin around and there is a flip side. “The operation of so many channels raises a demand for more artists and unfortunately Bangladesh has not yet churned out enough. Nevertheless, the show must go on, as they say, and to that end, I believe producers and directors have made compromises on selectivity in terms of both looks and talent. In some cases, almost anyone will do it seems”, says school teacher Salma Parvin.

Hers unfortunately, was not the only opinion expressed along these lines. Offering more professional insight into the issue is script-writer and actress Rhea Mahmood who emphasises that back in the late 80s when she first started acting, a liberated Bangladesh was freshly coming out of its shell and the driving force for artists of that time was the 'need' to do something, to bring about some form of cultural change to society as compared to only fame or money. “So stiff was competition back in the day, that acting was entirely taken up with the severity of being an art and not just a profession. Most of us came from stage performance backgrounds which is the ideal initiation point in terms of learning for any actor's career. We even had to learn the equally important aspect of speaking on screen, pronunciation and dialogue delivery, the strongest point of decline today. Acting, these days, seems only to be an eventuality of modelling.”

Pronunciation and dialogue delivery are indeed two key aspects that have recently gone missing with directors and scriptwriters seemingly believing that the street jive of our time, plagued by colloquialism makes for good hearing on the TV screen-a conception that needs definitive change in the long run with a well-needed shift towards more proper Bangla, if not in day-today conversation, then at least on television.

In completion of the full circle, local TV productions have seen rise and fall and tide and turbulence at the same time and in the same manner as Bangladesh herself. The first two decades after independence saw hopes and dreams aplenty and for some time, the weight of expectation delivered. Come the nineties, inferior quality, alternative options and the inevitable arm of politics ground the industry one foot into its grave just as was Bangladesh depressed and failing. Phase three and we are right back where we began. Bangla is in on the rise, Bangla is in vogue, Bangla is us. Welcome back to it!

Inside the looking glass:
What the professionals feel

The advent of satellite television may have seen numerous TV channels springing up right, left and centre; but amongst the professionals in the field, the attitude towards the host of TV programs, serials and shows that are being aired everyday remain that of guarded optimism.

While almost all actors, directors and ad-makers believe that the boom in the media industry is a good thing since it paves the way for opportunities and provides the public with a wide array of choices, many also hold on to the notion that “quantity is not necessarily quality”- stressing on the possible dilution of quality and burnout with so much on display now.

“There are both positives and negatives attached to this phenomenon,” says renowned ex-actress and household name Shomi Kaiser.

“The positives are pretty obvious, because with the growth of the industry beyond national borders and into the realms of satellite there is increased competition which will in the long run benefit the entertainment sector on a whole. There is also a wider range of opportunities for people who want to take this up as a profession.”

Popular actress Tarin also displays a similarly overtly positive attitude.

“I definitely look at it as a plus point. Ten years ago, there was only competition between the entertainment industry we were competing with each other. Now we are competing with the whole world, trying to hold down the attentions of people at home and abroad. Thus it's a constant learning process and a steep curve at that. We have to move forward along with the world and cannot be left behind. Just look at the improvements in the technical aspects of natoks it has been marked. That alone should show that we are in the right track,” she says.

But Kaiser thinks that the advent of so many channels also has its downsides the fear of diluted quality being forefront in her mind.

“There is some fear of this whole industry being mired in mediocrity. With such speedy growth a lot of people come into this sector without any professional training of sorts and are very inexperienced. They learn by doing instead of learning before doing and this means that they cannot put in dominating performances straight up,” she broods.

But although this is seemingly a quite popular viewpoint amongst consumers, Tarin refuses to abide by it.

“It's something I cannot agree with. One should not judge the quality of a natok only by the acting. The social problems that this form of entertainment can uphold are so much broader than what could be done even five years ago. Pressing social issues like extra-marital affairs and drug related problems were rarely outlined then.”

“We should also remember that we are targeting a different audience now, one that has evolved steadily. We have to cater to their tastes and I can firmly say that we are doing so. Or how do you explain the huge amount of sponsors and interest about natoks during festivals? This shows there is a huge demand for this form of entertainment.”

Kaiser is also quite positive about the new generation of script writing although her views are much more restrained.

“I agree that script writing has become a lot more diversified to take into account a lot more of social strata. It can even be termed a revolution of sorts. But I still feel that the old scripts were far more solid in terms of quality. But even now, once in a while certain scripts come up that capture your attention a lot.”

It is an issue that Ferdousi Mazumdar, who has been in this profession for the best part of three decades, has much to say about.

“There has been a significant decline in the quality of script writing,” she bluntly states. “The scripts that you see today are quite weak when compared to that of say even ten years ago and I feel that the main reason for this is the amount of productions that are being churned out. There are some promising writers but overall, as regards climaxes, twists and character development, script writing today does not stand up to the quality of yesteryears.”

And she also maintains that more is not always merrier, because with actors engaging themselves in up to three mega-serials at one time, the quality of acting will undoubtedly suffer.

“It’s self-explanatory really. When you act in a number of simultaneous presentations you are multi-tasking and that means you rarely have time to think about the character that you are playing. It's hard to develop an identifiable character who will capture the imagination. This is caused by too many productions.”

Which might explain the lack of characters like Baker Bhai these days.

There is also the issue of time, with people not being able to watch anything with any sort of continuity. That is why one-off natoks have become so popular these days and also why advertisements are receiving such rave reviews.

“With the way the world is these days, it is very hard to hold down people's interest for an extended period of time,” says ad-maker Rana Masud.

“That is why improvement is more marked in advertisements than it is in shows that run for a longer period of time.

Although the general level of the shows aired have risen as regards to effects and quality of editing, the on-screen activities have not really increased in the same mould it has a quite amateurish ring to it.”

There is also the issue of profit that is all-important to producers. Quality productions even ten years ago could fetch profits up to 300 percent of investment with state run BTV the only buyer. The margin has declined significantly over the past couple of years with the increased opportunity as satellite networks have increased.

This means production houses now stress on earning more through producing a larger volume one of the reasons for so many programs these days.

Also to note is that while natoks and serials fetch only a single figure percentage return, advertisements have become a quick source of income leading to its fast development. All in all though, most of the figureheads of their art are agreed on one point the only way to go from here is up.

“The change in this sector has been almost 100 percent,” says Kaiser, and it is a view that most mirrors along with that of the fact that competition is now rife.

And if the laws of economics are applicable in this regard the higher the competition the better the finished product.

In the long run, that is all we can expect.

The winds of change are already blowing in terms of TV production. And although the people involved believe up is the only direction it can move towards, sterner tests remain in the future.

By Subhi Shama Reehu & Quazi Zulquarnain Islam
Photo Courtesy: Daily Star Culture Desk Archive


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