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     Volume 4 Issue 25 | December 17, 2004 |

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Bangladesh National Cinema in the Age of Globalisation

Catherine Masud

Today we live in an age of the overpowering influence of "global" cinema with its uniform stamp of mainstream American values. Global cinema is often considered synonymous with American cinema, but this is misleading, as it in no way reflects the artistic and cultural diversity of American films; global cinema is rather the product of a particular type of film, emanating from a particular regional industry (Hollywood) and system of production. In the face of this overpowering onslaught, there is paradoxically a hunger for diverse and original cinematic expressions coming from outside that imposing stream. The tools of film production have become more accessible and more affordable to people even in remote regions of the globe. This is why we see a trend of new emergent "national" cinemas coming from lesser known countries. In the decades after the Second World War, it was the "new" cinema of Italy, France and Germany that burst upon the global scene, breaking through the vise of Hollywood. In the '80s and '90s, Iranian, Chinese, Taiwanese, Argentinian and other national cinemas became established as major artistic trends. For India, Pather Panchali was the single film that launched decades of international prominence for Indian cinema. In all of these cases, there was already an established local film industry and infrastructure in place that facilitated the emergence of original talents. However, in recent years, new national cinema is emerging from such obscure regions of the world as Chad and Bhutan, countries that lack even a single cinema theatre, let alone an industry. International film festivals in particular are eager to be the discoverers of heretofore "unknown" talents from far flung regions of the globe, particularly when such films are authentic and complex representations of local tradition, history and culture. Neo-colonial, postcard perfect films trumping oriental exotica have lost their appeal and credibility abroad. It is rather those small voices, with insightful, inside views and a critical perspective, that garner enduring appreciation. At the same time, the most successful examples of national cinema treat universal human themes, their appeal effortlessly transcending national boundaries. Often such films are picked up by international distributors, and are seen in theatres and on television screens around the globe, mostly in their original language. Thus national cinema becomes universal, and has the potential to confront global cinema, if not on an equal footing, at least as a significant countervailing force.

When we speak of "national" cinema, this does not necessarily imply a state-supported cinema, or even a country's mainstream cinema produced through its major industrial studios. National cinema is rather defined by its quality as an authentic reflection of a country's tradition, society, history and culture, in all its diversity and richness. Such a cinema may or may not emerge through industrial channels. In Bangladesh, an industrial studio film more likely than not will be a crude song-dance-fight formula copied from the Bollywood model--a model which, incidentally, is arguably not an authentic representation of the diversity of Indian culture any more than Hollywood is of America. In exceptional cases, however, through a fortuitous combination of factors such films may be original, creative works. Likewise, an independently produced film may adopt the crude conventions of typical commercial cinema, without adding anything meaningful to the artistic legacy of Bangladesh's national cinema. The primary factor behind the creation of "national" cinema is the creative vision of the individual maker. It is the maker, with the contributions of his/her creative team, who can tap into local traditions and translate these into a cinematic expression that is at once a reflection of particular aspects that define cultural and ethnic identity and a universal expression of the human condition. Secondary factors behind national cinema are the requisite favourable conditions for producing such films, financially, politically and technically.

For Bangladesh, 1971 is the defining moment in national memory and identity. Not surprisingly, the Liberation War has figured prominently as a theme in a number of films, both those produced through the industry and outside of it. Although these films vary widely in terms of originality and quality, the creative inspiration of '71 is the main identifiable characteristic that sets Bangladesh cinema apart as a national phenomenon. In this sense, even certain films produced before Bangladesh's independence, such as Zahir Raihan's Jibon Theke Neya, could be considered examples of national cinema.

However, the works of filmmakers who attempt to treat the subject of '71 are often compromised by two major pitfalls: firstly, the tendency to fall back on time worn conventions and sentimental cliches, and secondly, an inability or unwillingness to maintain a dispassionate distance from their subject matter. The national cinema of Bangladesh has also touched upon a range of themes beyond '71, themes which reflect the cultural diversity of the country, and the richness and complexity of its traditions. The challenge is to present these themes not only creatively, but also authentically and critically, as a truthful depiction of the society and its roots.

Often an original and creative filmmaker's work may contain elements critical of certain aspects of his/her society and culture. In our sophisticated era of instantaneous global communication, it is naive to believe that local attempts to limit such internal critiques through intimidation and censorship will ultimately be effective. Negative portrayals, particularly of the Muslim world, are already being propagated in abundance by outsiders, and a critique with an insider's perspective is far more likely to present an authentic, balanced and nuanced view. The Iranian government, for example, has wisely chosen to promote the work of its most talented filmmakers abroad, regardless of subtle critical elements which may exist in their films, and has been in large measure successful in counterbalancing the continuous wave of negative stereotyping from the Western media. The success of Iranian cinema has far-reaching implications that go beyond the immediate realm of the cinema world itself. Because of the power of film to transform the viewer's understanding of reality, decision and policy makers, potential investors, media representatives and ordinary audiences have an alternative impression of the life and culture of Iran. Conversely, attempts to suppress cinematic expression on the part of government authorities has only served to embarrass those authorities, both at home and abroad, and eventually tends to support the same negative Western stereotypes about predominantly Muslim countries that the authorities profess to be against. To make small but rich voices of cultures such as Bangladesh's heard above the din of the contemporary world demands intelligence and foresight. If we can successfully rise above petty factions and debates to promote our national cinema, this will serve the nation's interests, both locally and globally.


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