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     Volume 4 Issue 61 | September 2, 2005 |

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South Asian Cinema can Bridge the Gap

Only a handful of noticeable films have come out of the Bangladeshi independent cinema scene-- Dukhai, Chitra Nodir Pare, Nodir Nam Modhumoti, being among them. Even fewer have reached international festivals and received awards. Matir Maina (The Clay Bird) directed and produced by Tareque and Catherine Masud, is the sole Bangladeshi film to win a critics' award at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival.

The crux of the problem seems to be that the number of films produced from this country is too small to make international investors or sponsors take them seriously, from a business point of view. Shahnaab Alam, who recently worked as an executive producer for Indian Yash Raj Films, has been exploring possibilities of setting up a South Asian network of filmmakers and producers. It is not a dearth of talented South Asian filmmakers that is preventing films from our part of the world to make to the international screens, he believes, but an inconsistent supply of good films as well as the absence of proper distribution channels are to blame.

The aim is to help filmmakers in the South Asian region get the funds to make films as well as provide a distribution mechanism to showcase such productions not only in cinema halls at home, but all over the world. Alam, whose latest release was Dhoom, says that most films that are shown in theatres abroad are Bollywood box office hits catering to the ever-expanding South Asian expatriate audience. They are not watched by mainstream cine-goers.

"Western audiences are more familiar with films coming from the Orient- Japanese, Chinese or Korean films," says Alam adding that they have little exposure to South Asian cinema. One of the reasons for this, he explains, is that there has never been any concerted effort to create an international market for independent films made out of South Asia, films which have high intellectual content and are made artistically enough to transcend the barriers of language. "There are quite a few films that go beyond the South Asian Diaspora," says Alam, adding that a market gets created only if at least five to six films are produced each year; a number that is never reached in any country of this region.

Alam, along with a few like-minded individuals, intends to develop a collective representation of South Asian films that will be a window to the world, of the respective cultures of the region. "There are enough film makers in Bangladesh and Pakistan to make a stir in the world cinema," says Alam who thinks that distribution of such films will be catalysed through multiplexes which have taken over the old single movie theatre scene in Western countries. "In Western countries they have dedicated infrastructure for good independent cinemas -- in Paris, for example, there are cinema halls that show only these types of films. That's the infrastructure I'm talking about, which, if present, can establish these films locally too."

Whether for the right reasons or not, there is a rising interest in South Asia in the West, says Alam, something that should be seen as an opportunity for the local filmmakers and producers. There is also an overall boredom all over the world, with mainstream film, opening the scope for experimental films. The concept of multiplexes has caught on not only in developed countries but in developing ones too. "A Bengali film like Bari wali, has been running in Bombay for two months," says Alam, "today people are willing to put money for films which have a higher intellectual content".

This means that even in India, where the popularity of mainstream cinema far outweighs that of independent film, it is possible to create a sustainable market for the latter, mainly through proper distribution channels; such as showing them at multiplexes. Alam is quite certain that this phenomenon can be replicated in countries such as Bangladesh and Pakistan. He says that any good film should be successful commercially, provided there is proper financial and marketing backing. "At the end of the day, if the script is good everything else should be in place. Usually they are funded by grants but if a financier puts money into such a film he will expect returns. Japanese and Chinese films, for instance, are released in a big way."

Alam's interest in Bangladesh is partly personal. Half of his extended family lives here. Plus he has been deeply moved by the music of this country. Before getting into film-making, Alam was a passionate fan of band music, designing and organising events like the 'United for Gujarat' in New Delhi on May 13, 2001. The event brought bands across the subcontinent together-- in fact it was for the first time four South Asian groups--Indian (Euphoria and Silk Route), Pakistani (Junoon) and Bangladeshi (Miles)--have performed together in a concert. Alam's vision to somehow bring countries together through music later transferred to films but he has never disassociated himself from the former medium. "I have been picking up music from Bangladesh whenever I can and it is just incredible; because it is not influenced by any other medium", says Alam who is already toying with the idea of musical scores for his films from this part of South Asia.

He has just completed a film called Kabul Express which is based on Afghanistan. It is an independent film, supported by Yash Raj. The idea, says Alam, is to "try to bridge the gap by using the elements of mainstream, in these kind of films". Already he has decided to work on a film with Tareque Masud, showing that he is quite serious about initiating a platform that will collectively represent South Asian cinema and take it to global screens.

-- Aasha Mehreen Amin

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