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Perceptions

The Dramas of Our Lives

Kajalie Shehreen Islam

Mid-1980s Romania, during the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceauescu. Two friends, Gabita and Otilia, spend the day preparing for Gabita's abortion, illegal in the country at the time. When the hour finally draws near, they are forced to give in to the sexual demands of the black market doctor in exchange for his carrying out the operation. It is a day in both the women's lives they promise never to talk about, but it is also not one they will ever forget.

The ups and downs of young love are a common theme in our drama serials.

This is the storyline of Cristian Mungiu's 4 months, 3 weeks & 2 days, which won the Palme d'Or and FIBRESCI awards at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, among a host of other international prizes. Long, unbroken takes, the jerking of a hand-held camera, silence when there is nothing more to be said than what the faces express, all make the film tension-ridden and realistic, immersing the viewer in that one day in the lives of the two women.

It is difficult to come up with such reality-based or thought-provoking films and dramas in our own country. The alternative stream of cinema has made some progress, but mainstream cinema is far from thought-provoking or even realistic. It may be argued that films are for entertainment, but not exclusively so. They should have objectives, messages they want to give, and while a genre of film may be fantasy, every film being melodramatic to the point of unreal cannot attract audiences for long. For, though we may look for avenues of escape from our own everyday problems, the solution is not always and only fantasy. Sometimes, we expect something more real, even on screen, something we can actually relate to, something to which we can say, “God, what if this happened to me?”

Never mind mainstream cinema (which is no longer a very popular or even respected mode of entertainment for most middle-class Bangladeshis anyway) or alternative films, which do not reach the majority of local audiences, but look at the hundreds of dramas, daily soaps and mega-serials aired on every television channel, every half hour, every day of the week. How much of boy-meets-pursues-convinces-marries-girl followed by their domestic problems can people take in a day? Why should they either, when there are so many other problems in a society as poverty-stricken and conflict-ridden as ours?

A scene from the new drama "Doinik Tolpaar".

Many of these dramas are targeted at middle-class urban youth, but finding the perfect mate is not the only problem of this group. Few dramas talk about the frustrations of unemployment or corruption in society, the escalating drug problem or even campus life beyond, again, the boy-meets-girl syndrome. As for women, their only problems are not with their boyfriends and mothers- and sisters-in-law. They also go out on the street, to school, work, use public transport, and do not always consider the pursuit of the neighbourhood thugs or even classmates, to the point of sexual harassment, to be romantic. As far as older people are concerned, their problems also range beyond the home and children to the work environment, making ends meet and struggling daily with social problems and moral dilemmas.

Once in a while a drama serial like “Doll's House” (currently being aired on ATN Bangla) with its high-profile cast will make one sit up at the mention of real-life issues. Illegal migrant workers being sent back from Malaysia, a young man being framed for murder by a influential family in his village, or a teenager getting pregnant before marriage are issues in the news or happening around us every day. But why should such dramas be the exception and not the norm? Do we as a society really have the luxury of spending crores of takas and hours of the day on unrealistic, worn-down teen romances and domestic duels, ignoring the other multitude of problems we face every day?

Granted, our dramas are better than most of the Indian saans-bahu serials with their seizure-stricken camerapersons who spend minutes zooming in on every person in the room during some melodramatic family crisis, accompanied by thunderous background music. Our characters are also more realistic than the Mihirs and Tulsis coming back thrice from the dead and twice with cosmetically altered new faces, or the Brookes who marry the father and two brothers from the same family, and then her own son-in-law, in American soap operas. But no one ever said these are the ideal television serials. No one really watches them for the years and years that they run and neither are they anything to learn from. Their only value is the power to temporarily addict and blank out the minds of the viewers, providing them with some relief from their own mundane or, alternately, troubled lives.

But neither does it do to show prolonged conversations of teenagers over the phone or the unending bickering between sisters-in-law, for, even if this is reality, it must be something that people want to watch and are not bored out of their wits by. With our serials, most of the time when the closing credits are shown, the audience are not exactly waiting with baited breath for what happens next. It may be difficult to depict reality, be creative and make it interesting all at the same time, but that is where truly talented directors and artistes come in.

The media, besides entertaining, also have a duty to inform and, whether or not on purpose (though usually, very subtly so), also persuade towards a position or reinforces a stereotype or mindset. Keeping this in mind, it is essential for those in the media “business” even, to churn out not only (often poorly) entertaining and profit-making content, but also to give the audience something to think about, something they can consider doing to improve themselves and society, as well as ways to deal with their own problems. In a country where the majority of the population is illiterate, television and film have major roles to play in educating people besides, or while also, entertaining them. Going beyond the mundane and stereotypes and making people think might actually draw them to screens and theatres if there is more on offer than the same old, same old day in and day out. Everyone likes a challenge, or at least promise of a really entertaining treat, whether full of laughter or suspense or just drama. Sadly, most of our media give the audience neither.

We have the talent and capability, all we need is to put it to better use. Names of favourite dramas from the 1980s and early 1990s like "Shaukal Shondhya", "Eishaub Dinratri", "Ayomoy", "Bohubrihi" and "Kothao Keu Nei" come to mind easily. Strangely enough, it is much more difficult to recall names of popular dramas made in recent years, simply because they have not been as well-liked or touched as many people with their stories or performances. Interest in the trivial is just as fickle. What is the point of churning out hours and hours of programming people have no use for and forget the very next day? Leaving a mark of some sort, or even an impression, is what will count both today and in the years to come.

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