Senior lecturer of Social Anthropology at The University of Edinburgh, Dr. Lotte Hoek conducted an extensive research on Bangladeshi film –particularly on 'cut-piece' insertions that was prevalent during certain periods of the Bangladeshi film industry. Columbia University Press has published her PhD research paper on book titled 'Cut-Pieces: Celluloid Obscenity and Popular Cinema in Bangladesh' – the book is already available at Amazon. She was the moderator of one session and panelist at another in Hay Festival Dhaka 2013. An enthusiastic academic, Lotte spent few minutes with me to share her perspective of the Bangladeshi film industry.
Interviewed by Zia Nazmul Islam
Like many Europeans who travel around the world after completing school, Lotte Hoek wound up in Bangladesh after graduation. She became familiar with the culture and was fascinated to learn Bangla. So, when it came to choosing her topic of research that was part of her Master's programme, she decided to study the Bangladeshi film industry. Her interest on media and Bangla brought her to Drik Picture Library. There, she developed a larger interest on visual culture on Bangladesh.
DIVING INTO DESHI CELLULOID
Her research paper, 'Cut-Pieces: Celluloid Obscenity and Popular Cinema in Bangladesh' was so dynamic that as a field researcher she spent ten months at a stretch with a filming crew. From then on, she started watching Bangla cinema both in theatres and on VCDs. Her journey took her to places like: Jessore, Khulna, Joypurhat, places around Rangpur, Feni, Kurigram, Bhurungamari, etc.
THE AUDIENCE EXPERIENCE
All through her fieldwork, Lotte Hoek didn't find much difference amongst the demographic of the audience. Whether it's a cinema hall of an urban or rural area she finds a certain pleasure watching movies with an audience. Although, she admits that the audience demography has changed since her research was conducted. She discusses her experience watching films during last Ramadan, “The audience everywhere was much more mixed than people can normally imagine. Different sorts of people go to the cinema halls – mostly young men.” Although she admits that she noticed a few women among the audience too. Most cinema halls outside Dhaka don't have air conditioning or even fans. She says, “Cinema is much more than watching a screen in a black box. Watching a movie in theatres is a unique experience where everyone is united to enjoy the show. People are not necessarily that concerned about the environment around them. I am an anthropologist; I am not interested in what is right and what's wrong. I am interested in understanding the medium”.
Digitization & cut-pieces
In her words, “Tele-films and art films have quite a stable footing in Bangladesh. It's the popular mainstream cinema that's struggling; the industry is struggling hard to attract audience right now”. Although cut-pieces have largely disappeared recently, she feels that digitization didn't play any major role in reducing obscenity. It happened because of political changes in the country. But then again, she feels that 'cut-piece' is a medium itself. She firmly believes that not all cinema halls have changed their ways. Because very few movies are now made in celluloid, old movies; movies from the year 2000's with cut-piece insertions are still circulated in remote cinema halls. She admits that she isn't sure about the current scenario in theatres by adding, “I wouldn't know if cut-pieces are still there or not because I haven't recently done any research on it. But, I wouldn't be surprised if it is still there, because things don't disappear so quickly”.
Cut-piece provides a very special type of pornographic image that can't be found in any other medium. She believes that the unavailability of sexual material is not the reason of the existence of cut-pieces. There is a certain pleasure about watching the type of sexual act that people are interested in. It has nothing to do with financial capacity to attain sexual materials. Cut-pieces are shots insertions from pornographic footages, with a different set of cast and crew. It serves as a certain pleasure. For example: a woman surreptitiously taking a shower will not deliver similar type of image of an actress who is enacting sexual pleasure because that is her role.
Regarding uniqueness of cut-pieces from any other pornographic material she mentions, “If you look at a cut-piece, you will not see an erect penis while in western pornography that is often the central focus. There is a very different series of sex acts that we see in 'cut-pieces'. It is very much focused on the female body and that's why they are always thoroughly shaven. We have a very particular aesthetic notion there. It is a particular imagination”.
ITEM SONGS VS CUT-PIECES
Item songs and cut-pieces are very different. In her words, “An item song is an acceptable erotic diversion within the narrative of the popular film. You see them in all South Asian films. They are part of the logic of genre of popular movies in South Asia. Pakistan also have cut-piece insertions. India has a different censorship system. In Bangladesh, a film either gets certified for general release or not allowed at all. India has particular types of certificates; for example, there are adult films and those for the mass audience. There is no such rating system prevalent in the Bangladeshi film industry.
SHAKIB & ANANTA
Although Lotte Hoek is now getting preoccupied working on her new project, she still follows popular cinema culture in Bangladesh. While reviewing the ongoing Ananta Jalil phenomena she adds, “It is rare to find someone like Ananta who has the financial capacity to do what he wants”. She appreciates Ananta's effort to produce different films with his capacity and he can operate in a system outside the normal strains of Bangladeshi film making. “He makes films that look and feel very different and people respond to them in a different way”, she concludes.
Shakib, on the other hand was already in the industry while she was doing her research. Although he never was part of the cut-pieces but many of his films had cut-piece insertions. Lotte praised Shakib because he managed to go through that obscenity era and to stay in the game. “He played his cards very well and is a very strategic actor”, she thinks.
Currently, Lotte Hoek is in Dhaka starting a new project on film appreciation. It's a long-term anthropological field project. “I am living in Dhaka for a year for the project trying to explore some of the ways people learn to watch cinema”, she says. She is very optimistic about the increasing number of audience in the cinema halls. She was excited to see so many viewers gracing the cinema halls this Eid all dressed up in colorful clothes. We too want to see Bangladeshi popular movies prosper and more academics like her come forward and give us insights of the industry.
Photo: Zia Nazmul Islam