Cinema: In Search of a Revival
Bangladeshi cinema has taken a huge dip in the last couple of decades. Various problems have compelled cinema hall owners to convert the theatres into warehouses and supermarkets. The statistics are telling: at least 600 cinema halls have been shut down since independence. the Star looks into the reasons behind the downfall of such a popular source of entertainment.
Photos: Amirul Rajiv
Screens marked with age-old stains; weak projections comparable to a clumsy classroom presentation; distorted sound systems that resemble speakers used at weddings and rickety seats that give you the experience of sitting on an unreliable rocking chair; these are the most noticeable features that describe the dire states the country's cinema halls are in.
Recent figures from the Film Development Corporation (FDC) indicate a three-fold decrease in the number of halls, across the country, with the current count hovering around about 350 to 400. More than half the cinema halls have either shut down due to financial constraints or have been converted into marketplaces. Below par hall-facilities combined with video piracy and the rapid development of 'home-theatres' have almost eliminated what was once one of the most important outlets for spending leisure time.
“The last time I went to a cinema was when 'Third Person Singular' was released," says Iffath R Pritomi, a student from a private university. "Honestly speaking, there are a very few cinema halls worth going to. Most of them don't even have proper seats," she adds.
Several filmmakers and producers have pointed out the pathetic state of technology and equipment in most of the cinema halls. They claim that ordinary sound systems and the unavailability of digital projection in majority of the theaters have discouraged people to come to the halls.
“Ticket sales have decreased a lot in the last ten years. We have around 2000 seats, but we only get around 150 to 200 people for each show,” says an official from the 'Anondo' cinema in Farmgate.
Electricity crisis has forced halls to decrease the number of shows per day.
The electricity crisis in a number of areas has also forced halls to decrease the number of shows per day. “Nowadays, I prefer going to a tea-stall or watch television. Most of the halls don't have generators and remain closed for long periods of time,” explains Abu Saeed, a rickshaw-puller who used to be a regular at the cinemas.
Renowned director, Morshedul Islam says that good quality cinema halls are the key to attracting the public. "Most of the cinema halls today do not have the required facilities. They don't have an air-conditioning system, no generators, no proper washrooms etc. They need to adopt digital projection. It makes distribution a lot easier," he explains. He also urged filmmakers to come to terms with the latest film-related technology, in order to make better films. "People know how developed the filmmaking world outside Bangladesh is, why will they want to watch our movies?" he claims.
A ticket tax close to 100 per cent proves to be a burden for hall owners.
Echoing Islam's sentiments, filmmaker Shahidul Islam Khokon says that cinema hall owners don't have the luxury of renovating or upgrading their halls. "Most of the screens don't have clarity and their sound isn't good either. Even the awful colour we get on screens today is because of the faulty chemicals used on the machines. We are still way behind," he explains.
He emphasises on the building of new movie halls with the latest technology. "The middle-class go to very few cinema halls, namely, Cineplex, Modhumita etc. Think about it, the new areas in Dhaka-- Banani, Gulshan, Baridhara, Uttara-- have no room for movie theatres! What is RAJUK doing? How do you expect cinema halls to run if the government itself doesn't plan to encourage them?"
Filmmakers believe that the dearth of good cinema halls has directly affected the quality of films. "Both our cinema and cinema theatres are in a bad position. They are both interdependent on each other," says the director of 'Monpura', Giyasuddin Selim. Critics also claim that the lack of proper movie theatres has led to a reduction in the number of films produced by the FCD every year.
At least 600 cinema halls have shut down since independence.
Selim whose first film, 'Monpura' received critical acclaim, also believes that video piracy is another problem that has adversely affected the film industry in Bangladesh. He claims that producers would invest a lot more money into movies if it wasn't for piracy.
Piracy has proved to be a problem for both filmmakers and hall owners. With VCDs being sold at extremely cheap rates, cinema halls end up losing a large section of their audience.
“Video Piracy has badly affected our sales. It takes only a week or two for a movie to come to the market following its release,” explains Iftekharuddin Naushad, owner of the Modhumita Cinema Hall. “No matter how good a film may be ticket-sales always drop once a film reaches the DVD market,” he adds.
The high rate of piracy in fact encourages producers to launch the premiers of their movies on private television channels; a short while after it's released in the theatres, in order to recover their money. "This culture of premiering movies on television channels right after the release is as good as stealing. Why will people come to watch a movie in my theatre, if they can watch it for free in their very own bedroom?" exclaims Naushad. These kinds of 'dual' releases describe the kind of budget barriers that producers have to deal with.
Echoing Naushad's sentiments, Shahidul Islam Kokhon believes that the government should take a strong stand against piracy. “I depend on the film industry for a living and it's extremely disheartening to see my movies getting sold illegally. I think the law enforcers should at least increase the jail-term for piracy to five years and allow mobile courts to sentence them,” exclaims Kokhon. A tough ask considering the fact that a lot of money is actually involved in piracy in Bangladesh.
There are no immediate plans to renovate the existing halls.
Apart from video piracy, certain government regulations have also contributed to the fall of the cinema halls. An excessive ticket tax, close to 100 per cent, proves to be a burden for hall owners in times like these. A report written by filmmaker Catherine Masud states that the ticket tax in Bangladesh is one of the highest in the whole world. Furthermore, hall owners are also taxed when they import cinema-related machinery such as projectors, sound equipments etc.
"Cinema needs to be treated like an industry. It's understandable when the government increases the tax rates when an industry is flourishing. But the cinema industry is actually on the verge of disappearing. How can the administration levy taxes at such a high rate?" questions actor-turned-producer, Masud Parvez (popularly known as Sohel Rana).
He further says that it is only logical for businessmen to break down cinema halls and start profit-making ventures instead. "If government officials cared about the cinema sector then they would have asked these owners to at least build one or two screens along with the markets," says Parvez.
Several filmmakers claim that multiplexes– multi-storied markets with more than one screen— are the future of cinema. The last couple of years have seen multiplexes take cinema to a different level altogether in countries like India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Based on these success stories, filmmakers believe that the government should encourage private investors to build multiplexes. As of today, Bangladesh has only one multiplex.
"Multiplexes can greatly improve the cinema sector in Bangladesh. A cinema hall with 2000 seats is something from the past. People today need options. The cinema halls need to be renovated and the ones that are being broken down need to be replaced with multiplexes. The government should support the owners by giving them tax holidays and various other incentive packages," says Morshedul Islam.
Cinema owners claim that there aren't many artists who can attract audiences to the theatres.
Echoing Islam's sentiments, Mostafa Sorowar Farooki, director of 'Bachelor' and 'Third Person Singular', hopes that the government can develop a similar strategy to that of India. "The Indian administration changed the exhibition side of their cinema by giving them five-year-long tax rebates. Why can't we do the same? Our government has a habit of providing Indian examples. Why can't it follow the way India has supported cinemas?" says Farooki.
While multiplexes may encourage a certain section of the society to spend their money on movies, majority of the people though, will continue to depend upon the existing cinema halls. However, with no immediate plans to renovate these halls one wonders if they can be accessed at all.
The dire state of the cinemas in the country is summed up by the owner of Modhumita, one of the better running cinema halls in the country. "We are running this cinema hall with money from other sectors. It's not possible to make profits from the cinema hall alone. I can even build a commercial structure in place of this hall and earn more money, but I don't want to do that. We might however, add 2-3 extra screens if things get worse," says Iftekharuddin Naushad.
The censor board is another stumbling block that works against both the cinema owners and the filmmakers. The absence of film-gradation-- a process by which films are deemed appropriate for a certain age-group-- creates several obstacles. "In other democratic countries, movies are graded based on its genre. Over here the censor board just bans them at will. This is a huge problem," says Naushad.
In a similar vein, Masood Parvez says," We are an independent nation and banning films randomly right before its release is something unacceptable. Can we make religious or political films… or films related to the BDR carnage? No we can't, because they'll be banned immediately. We can make romantic films, but if they're a little different, they'll be banned here." He further adds, "Before criticising the movies we make, one needs to understand the kind of freedom that we have."
In a bid to improve sales, a number of cinema owners have approached government officials in order to allow them to project Indian movies. The Bangladesh Motion Pictures Exhibitors Association managed to import 12 Indian films in 2010 when the prohibition on Indian movies was temporarily lifted by the government. One of the films was shown last year and members of the Exhibitors Association plan to project the rest of them in the coming months.
"All the Indian movies available in the market are pirated. Piracy is causing the government a lot of money. Why don't they just legalise them and benefit by putting higher taxes on them? Let the theatres start showing Hindi movies and I guarantee that our business will boom in a matter of months," says Naushad.
While cinema owners believe that the arrival of Indian movies can improve the scenario of the cinema halls in the country, various filmmakers tend to disagree. "Our cinema industry is slowly reviving and the young filmmakers are coming up with original stories that are quite compelling. If they open our market to films like 'Dabaang' or other commercial movies, our art movies are going to suffer," explains Farooki. "Our filmmakers need at least 10 to 15 years so that they can build an audience for themselves, after which, it really doesn't matter even if they open the market to Indian movies," he adds.
Major changes are required for the survival of halls in the country.
Despite all the gloom, the last couple of years did see a rise in a number of movies made by independent filmmakers-- films made outside the Film Development Corporation (FDC). While it may be the only bright spot in the sector, they too require good cinema halls to project their movies.
"It's not that our movies are badly made. People do like to go and watch Bengali movies, but the problem begins with the halls," explains Ashfaque Ahmed, an independent filmmaker. Stating an example, he says," The movie 'Khoj- the Search' had a full house at the Cineplex at Boshundhara. This goes to show that given the right infrastructure, people will willingly go to watch movies."
Obviously major changes have to be made to ensure the survival of the halls in the country. Filmmakers have long urged the FDC to take a number of stops for a while now. However, the FDC rarely pays heed to the requirements.
Masud Parvez sums it up: "If you want to run things in a professional manner then you need to bring someone who is an expert and can actually make changes. In the last 40 years, we have seen at least 25 to 30 Managing Directors in the FDC. Most of them are from the local parties and lack the knowledge regarding this industry. They don't even know the difference between television and cinema. The truth is that nobody cares about films and nobody in the FDC wants to do anything about it."
When contacted, a member of the FDC claimed that they had put up a proposal to the ministry to bring a number of changes. "In a way the FDC is definitely responsible for the condition of the cinemas in the country. We however, have made suggestions to improve the scenario and are waiting for an approval," says Sajjad Zahir, member, FDC. One of the suggestions includes building at least one screen in places where cinema halls have been broken down.
However, judging by a quote given by one of the senior members of the FDC, Rezaul Karim, it seems like the approval of the suggestions is not exactly the first thing on their agenda: "We are from the Ministry, we come and go. We might be here today and might very well be transferred tomorrow. It really doesn't matter as to what we do."
Catherine Masud, in a recent report, termed cinema as the Nomoshudra (one of the lower castes) of Arts in Bangladesh. And if the current scenario continues, it won't be too long before every other cinema hall in the neighbourhood fades away. The country has seen a number of artistes dedicate their lives to the world of cinema. From using it as a medium to represent Bangladesh abroad to uniting the different classes of this country through compelling tales, cinema has done a lot; it's high time the nation gives cinema the respect it deserves.