Mindlessness as Food for the Mind?
At a time when it is essential to maintain social distancing in order to remain safe amidst the Covid-19 outbreak, we see many people displaying a reckless disregard for the need to stay indoors. Announcements explaining the necessity for physical distancing are regularly made in the media. Members of law enforcement agencies often try to reason with people who pay no heed to such announcements. But throughout the country, many people still seem reluctant to abide by the lockdown regulations, making us wonder if all the advice and requests about physical distancing have fallen on deaf ears. A few days ago, in Brahmanbaria, nearly one lakh people joined the funeral prayer of a religious leader. The police could not stop them from forming this huge gathering. If people do not understand how risky physical proximity can be at a time like this, it would be difficult to make them act sensibly merely by use of force.
Also in Brahmanbaria, defying the lockdown, rival groups recently took part in several bloody conflicts. In a video of one of the conflicts, participants of both groups are seen hurling spears and lances at each other on a swampy ground. During a clash in Brahmanbaria, some men became so brutal that they chopped off the leg of a rival and performed a jubilant procession with the severed limb. In Feni, a man reportedly hacked his wife to death and he committed this ruthless murder live on Facebook. He did not hesitate to let people see his brutality. In Gazipur, a man died and another sustained gunshot injury when a police officer shot them. This officer was also a bodyguard of a minister. It was reported that he was suspicious about an illicit relationship between his wife and one of the men he shot.
When so many people tend to exhibit such irresponsible, reckless and violent behaviour at a time of great danger, we need to ponder about the likely causes behind this.
National Professor Abdur Razzaq once said that in order to know about the people of a country it is necessary to observe what food they eat and what books they read. For him, the bookstores of a country can reveal where the country is headed. To this, I would like to add that people's behavioural tendencies and temperaments are also shaped by the cultural goods such as movies and television dramas. Because of the proliferation of cable television and social media, television and social media content have a huge impact on the ways people think and behave. Thought-provoking, socially meaningful productions and cultural products showing glitzy and sensational elements definitely influence people differently. What type of films and television productions are given priority in our country?
Every afternoon, several television channels show Bangladeshi mainstream movies. Common attributes of these films include: hero, heroine and villain, exaggerated acting, depiction of gory violence, garish song and dance scenes, puerile humour, tasteless dialogue, and of course, a happy ending. Almost all of these films contain a predictable plot—the hero ultimately defeats the villain no matter how menacing he seems. In doing this, such films offer an unrealistic solution to social problems because, in real life, a larger-than-life hero who can singlehandedly fight and eliminate evil forces does not exist. In these movies, heroes solve major problems through violence. In our country, crime and violence are also glamorised in various films made outside the dominant film industry even though alternative films are supposed to dispense with the ingredients of conventional cinema.
For instance, a 2019 Bangladeshi film titled Sincerely Yours, Dhaka does not draw on traditional norms of mainstream cinema. However, violence is depicted as enjoyable and easy to get away with in several scenes of this film. A young girl wants to shoot her boyfriend using her father's pistol after knowing about his affair with another woman. She carries the gun in her purse and when she bumps into her boyfriend in a bar, she hits him over the head with a bottle. A young man named Jibon puts a pistol against his opponent's chest and intimidates him. Carrying out the order of a local hoodlum, Jibon also shoots a man. A bank employee claims that he was framed by his boss. But instead of seeking the help of police, he says he does not have any other option but to kill his boss. Later, he kills his boss by shooting him at point-blank range. In these scenes of Sincerely Yours, Dhaka, violence appears as pleasurable and casual. It is unlikely that such scenes will make people loathe violence.
Gone are the days when TV dramas of our country used to make a positive impression by dint of their careful exploration of social situations, excellent acting, compelling dialogue and meaningful social messages. Unfortunately, most of today's dramas revolve around trifling problems of the romantic relationships of young couples. Overly sentimental and trivial dialogue, poor acting, and fatuous humour seem to be the defining traits of these dramas. With the vast majority of the people consuming such mindless and shallow entertainment as food for the mind for many years, can we expect them to have social awareness, good taste, and the capacity to think wisely and rationally?
To make their films more appealing, directors often glamorise violence that sends the message to the audience that violence is a means to achieving a particular objective. When many people in our country are so frightfully imprudent as to take part in murderous fights and refuse to comply with lockdown rules at the time of a global pandemic, we need to think of the cultural and social elements that shape their mentality. It is unfortunate that there are no attempts to provide people with socially responsible, aesthetically pleasing films such as Pather Panchali, Aparajito, Apur Sangshar, Titash Ekti Nodeer Naam, Akaler Sandhane, Shurjo Dighal Bari, Matir Moina, Runway, Padma Nodeer Majhi, etc. Such films are rarely shown in our television channels these days. Most of these films are set in rural areas and deal with the lives of the common people as well as social problems. Therefore, they are relatable to most people.
Mentioning the name of eminent Russian dramatist and novelist Nikolai Gogol, Russian playwright Anton Chekhov once said, "You must not lower Gogol to the people, but raise the people to the level of Gogol." In our country, carefully planned measures are not taken to raise the level of intellectual maturity of the general public, hence the lack of good sense among many people. Cultural creations conveying mindlessness and superficiality only hamper people's mental development and do not invoke social consciousness. We must, therefore, present realistic, thought-provoking, culturally sensitive productions to make people conscious, rational and sensible.
Dr Naadir Junaid is Professor, Department of Mass Communication and Journalism, University of Dhaka.