The Lost Glamour of Old Cinema
Syed Maqsud Jamil
I was passing through the older part of the city. Nishat or today's Manashi cinema hall was in my way. It was difficult for me to make out whether the people in its corridor were cine-goers because I could not associate them with the cross-section of cine-goers that used to throng it in my time. There was no large banner; handful of garishly printed posters displayed the name of the movie 'Torture'. Later I talked to one of my relatives who owned a theatre that represents the last vestige of the past elegance of cinema halls of the country. He informed that the cinema halls of Dhaka have formed a combine to release two movies each week. I found out that the name of the other movie is 'Khude Jodhdha' (the little warrior). It was apparent that the moviegoers do not have much of a choice. The obituary of movie going is being scripted from quite a time with a succession of movies having weird names like ' Gunda', ‘Dasyu Shaitan’, 'Kasai', 'Lalu Mastan' etc.
Movie going is no longer a favourite past time. We no longer see a cross-section of people frequenting the cinema halls. Cinema halls wear a deserted look with even 'Modhumita' expressing a sense of gloom. It is a pity that a city of over 120 million people is witnessing the decline of one of its most popular entertainment outlets without any sign of revival. A remedy would involve a major awakening in the film industry and of forcing it to raise its standards in order to compete with imported Hindi and English films. The city of Dhaka never backed away from the local film industry in the sixties when it was competing against films from Lahore. It always patronised well-made films like 'Sutorang' (Therefore) 'Nil Akasher Nichey' (Under the blue sky), 'Abirbhav' (The Arrival) and the celebrated 'Jibon Theke Neya' (Scripted from Life). The movies ran to full houses and the viewers came from all sections of the society. Dhaka was all along a city that loved cinema. It was at Manashi, at that time Nishat, the Mehboob Khan technicolour extravaganza 'Aan' was release in 1952. The Balidy Siddiki family who owned the cinema hall made its release a mega event of the time. Elephants were used for the scattering leaflets and for spraying colour water. Aan ran to packed houses all over the country. I grew up to see to the movie in its rerun. It was a time of Indian Hindi and Bangla movies. Star Corporation led by Iftekharul Alam Kichlu and Sher Ali Ramzi played an important role in the distribution of many of these films. Mr. Kichlu is also widely known for his eminence in the spread of Rotary Club activities in this country.
I started visiting local cinema houses in the mid-fifties. Before that, my mother and her sisters used to take me along with them to see movies. I remember visiting Picture House, today's Shabistan in early fifties to see Bimal Roy's 'Maa' with Leela Chitnis in the title role and Bharat Bhushan as her son. Picture House was a pretty old theatre in those times and it was renovated into 'Shabistan' in the late fifties. Shabistan was opened with Guru Dutt's 'Baazi' (The Bet) a vintage Dev Anand film. I heard of two other cinema halls, Paradise and Britannia that perished early before I became a keen cine-goer. Paradise was Ali Naqi's Dewry of Satrowza. It was Paradise Victor Mature's Samson Delilah was shown. The cinema hall caught fire several times and ultimately closed down. Britannia was near Rex Restaurant in Ramna. Rex survived even when its white owner left but Britannia closed down. Soon Gulistan the first landmark of modernity in Dhaka came up. It started with Raj Kapoor-Nargis duo's film Amber in 1952. Gulistan was indeed Cinema Paradiso with its imposing architectural built and looking down on the square. It survived for several decades as a landmark of Dhaka till its abasement over the last two decades made it a rich prize for demolition. In comparison, Calcutta has fared better with Metro surviving and Nandan coming up. In the sixties Gulistan stood up as a model institution nourishing the roots of cultural modernity and reflecting a lifestyle led by an educated middle class. Naz or pride was a chic addition to the entertainment provided by the cinema halls of the city. It focused the excellence of a fine outward looking taste developing among the enlightened community of the society.
I had just finished reading Margaret Mitchell's American Civil War epic Gone With The Wind and Indo-Pak war was few days away. To my profound joy, Gone With The Wind was released at Naz. Clark Gable's Rhett Butler was incomparable. It further deepened my love for filmic after I watched King Vidor's 'War and Peace' at Gulistan. Leo Tolstoy's 'War and Peace' was a 4-hour movie and there were two intervals. Lion was Mirza Abdul Kader's cinema hall. It was not much dear with the family viewers because disreputable characters dominated it. Even Lion redeemed itself by screening 'The Hunchback of Notredame' with memorable performance from Anthony Quinn as the Hunchback. Star formerly Maya mostly showed Hindi movies to capacity crowd. Mukul later Azad showed Calcutta Bengali movies and among them Suchitra-Uttam's 'Shilpi' and 'Pathe Holo Deri' glorified love to the endearment of the values of the time. Nagar Mahal, which is today's Chitra Mahal, was and still is a cramped cinema hall. It did not deter cine-goers from all sections of the society to fill it up for weeks to see 'Sagorika'. Modern theatres like Balaka, Modhumita and Avishar represented a crowning of the growing love for Bangla language and culture. It also highlighted the need for modern entertainment among the enlightened Bangali middle class. These movie houses projected a vibrant lifestyle eager for absorbing modern thoughts and taste.
I grew up in the fifties and sixties. Movies and sports were the two major sources of entertainment of the period. Popular movies of our time mostly dealt with idealistic love and the trials of a family. The idealism dealt with goodness in love. It was treated as a lifelong commitment that remained constant in all trials dared not to perish in death. A villain was a ubiquitous presence but the treatment was different. It was the machinations of the villain that was projected with the help of dialogues and articulation perfecting villainy to an art. Kung Fu and Karate were not on display. Another important element was family that idolised a spirit of sharing and sacrifice. However, cinema explored other subjects as well, like mythology, tales and fantasies. Movies of these genres excelled in heroism, sword fight and magical feats. Besides action packed English movies in gun slinging western thrillers, medieval contests and wartime woes and heroism also drew viewers to the theatres. Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Burt Lancaster, Victor Mature, Kirk Douglas were the icons of their time. Movies like High Noon, Apache, Samson and Delilah and Vikings are fondly remembered. But they did not represent the taste of the time. The moviegoers always stayed movies that dealt with the interplay of human life. It can even be said that the perceptions of those times were different and rather simplistic because the world was yet to see the inventions that made the pace of life faster and demanding instant stimulation.
Perceptions indeed are an important factor in changing the tastes of the time. Perceptions do matter for all societies. It is a fact that perception in our society has also changed with the growing popularity of electronic entertainment. The messianic hero is not compatible with the times we live in. It is no longer a social scenario where a male medical student Uttam bumps into a female student Suchitra and knocks down her 'Sanchayita' and that develops into love in 'Sagorika'. The boys and girls of today are unhindered by social taboos in their interaction. The courtship is now a more a matter of choice than chance happening. It is a pity that our movies take note neither of the perceptions of the times gone nor of the time that we live. The underlying malaise is in the fact that the enlightened are almost an extinct species in our tinsel world. Our cinema no longer has the likes of Zahir Raihan, Subash Dutta, Khan Ata, Kazi Zahir and Mita. It is an impoverished world declining in intellect, taste and commitment to the trade. Cinema after all is a form of art where the intellect, flights of imagination, gifted display of performing abilities and technical skill meet and blend into another art form that can be seen, heard, felt and enjoyed. Our cinema today is a parched land. It needs talented and committed men of arts and letters to cultivate it back to a green pasture of adoration where cine goers will return to the cinema halls again .
(R) thedailystar.net 2006