What would Dhaka be like without those lurid neon billboards outside the numerous cinema theatres dotted around the city? What would the city walls look like without the colourful posters advertising 'hit' films with outlandish names like Dushtu Chele Mishti Meye or Tero Gunda Ek Panda? Would you even recognise it without the rickshaws bearing fanciful depictions of the latest Dhallywood heartthrob?
Let's face it, the canvas of the city would be very dull indeed without the colours of cinema. For the past two decades, until very recently, however the practice of 'going to the movies' had been abandoned by the educated populace to the working classes. The past couple of years, however, has seen a renewal of interest in 'catching a movie in the hall'. Let's take a quick look at the reasons behind the decline and revival of cinema culture in Dhaka.
Enter the screening room of a typical cinema hall in Dhaka city today, and the first thing you will notice will be the overpowering stench of urine, sweat, and stale cigarettes. As the usher barks useless orders from the top, you stumble your way over rickety steps until you find your place in a dilapidated bucket seat. The blurry scene before you flickers to life, and you watch, bemused, as an overweight, orange-haired old man tries to strip an even more obese, buxom woman. Just as you think it cannot get worse, the first 'item' number begins, featuring some bulky belles engaged in some obscene pelvic pumping, bust thrusting choreography, accompanied by equally obscene lyrics. From behind you come the catcalls, the whistles, and maybe even a few laser pointers creating red dots that dance over the gyrating bodies on the screen. Shocked at this reaction, you turn around to look at your fellow audience members, and when you can finally see in the near-darkness of the half-empty hall, you realise that the audience is composed almost entirely of rickshaw-pullers, day labourers and members of the working class.
It hadn't always been like this, however. Till the mid-eighties, going to the movies was a decent, wholesome, and fun pastime for everyone. Rita, a homemaker, recalls growing up in the 60's where going to catch a film with friends at the Naz theatre in Gulistan or the Balaka Cinema Hall, opposite New Market, was something most college students looked forward to. The period between the late 60's and the mid 80's was also a particularly prolific one for our local film industry, which had outstripped the Calcutta film industry in terms of productivity.
Now, several things happened simultaneously immediately after the Liberation War, which led to the change in viewership of the Dhakai cinema (an epithet given because the film industry is centred in Dhaka).
Firstly, the financial means of a large number of people improved drastically in the post-war years and they sought to invest some of their new-found wealth in the film industry. Secondly, the people of the newborn nation were also no longer in the mood for the starry-eyed social romances so popular in the late 60's, so the emerging film-makers of the time turned to a new theme, and with the blockbuster Rangbaz (1977), the 'action-film' genre was introduced. The success of this venture snowballed into further experimentation with themes that deviated from the romantic, idealistic, and moralistic themes of the earlier movies, so that sex and violence gradually took precedence over the other elements in the films. The 80's in particular, saw the rise of high-action 'kung-fu' films starring actors like Sohel Rana.
The 80's also saw a massive rural-urban migration, with people flocking the cities for work and cinema attendance amongst these people shot up as did the attendance in theatres in the rural areas. The film-makers of the time gradually began to cater increasingly to the tastes of this segment of people and the educated middle and upper middle class, no longer finding these themes palatable, began to seek other means of entertainment. As luck would have it, this was around the time that VCR's hit the market, so those who could afford them, sought this way out, until by the 90's, the cinema halls were almost exclusively the entertainment centres for the working class.
There were some efforts in the 90's to pull the classes back to the cinema, with movies like Chandni (1991) which launched newcomers Shabnaz and Nayeem to super-stardom, Dipu Number 2 (1996), the Ferdaus-starrer Hothat Brishti (1999) directed by Basu Chatterjee and critically acclaimed both here and in West Bengal and even some attempts to bring in Hollywood blockbusters like Titanic in 1997. But it wasn't until the enormous success of the 2004 hit Bachelor and the opening of the Star Cineplex, the country's first international standard state-of-the-art multiplex cinema theatre in the Bashundhara City Shopping Complex, that the cinema comeback really cemented itself.
'To call this return to the cinema a revival wouldn't be appropriate', says Dr Zakir Hossain Raju, senior film researcher, 'Because the audience now flocking to the theatres isn't the same audience who frequented the halls in the 60's and 70's." For the current generation of cinema-goers, this trend of 'catching a movie at the hall' is part of the whole fast-food joint/shopping mall lifestyle of the consumer society, a result born out of globalisation, or what Dr Raju calls 'McDonaldisation' of society. With these large cinema halls offering Hollywood and even the occasional Bollywood hits as well as Bangladeshi art films and 'middle cinema', the cinema experience in Dhaka today is truly a multicultural one.
What is even more heartening is that, with a decade of exposure to international films behind them, and the return to the culture of the cinema, young people are taking a keen interest film art, with degrees offered up in universities and different organisations sponsoring new and creative film-making ventures, giving those with genuine and innovative ideas scope to practise their art, and in general, take greater interest in what was formerly highly exclusive 'art' cinema like Matir Moyna and Lalshalu. Bangladeshi films have never been this hip and happening. And with the exhibition venues and halls waking up to this rage and more multiplex cinema halls being planned, cinema really has got its 'cool' back.
By Sabrina F Ahmad
Special thanks to Dr Zakir Hossain Raju, PhD
Department of Media and Communication
School of Liberal Arts and Science
Independent University and also to Star Cineplex for helping us with the photo shoot.
Photo: Zahedul I Khan