Taking a look at Bangladesh cinema down the years
CONSIDER these lines, as quotations or as a paraphrase: “Bengali Muslims of East Bengal/Pakistan were a vitally important audience for the Bengali film industry of Calcutta during the “golden age” of this industry (that is, from the 1930s to the 1950s).” The Indian film scholar Someswar Bhowmik attributes the decline of the Calcutta (Kolkata) film industry in the 1960s to the rise of the second Bengali cinema industry in Dhaka. “The Bengali Muslim middle class considered the foreign films to be a threat to Bengali cultural modernity.” And, so, when one of the pioneers and stalwarts of the East Bengal/Pakistan film industry, Abdul Jabbar Khan, approached Mahmudunnabi, a minister in the East Pakistan provincial cabinet, in 1957 to take the necessary measures to establish a film studio in the province, he was asked to justify the need for filmmaking in such a poor country. Khan's riposte: “Do you want our countrymen, sitting in our theatres, always only watch Indian films and learn Indian culture, politics, lifestyle and ideology?” Zakir Hossain Raju's book, Bangladesh Cinema and National Identity: In search of the modern? works around these points in detail to do justice, with some dexterity, to the title, and then some.
In the event, Mahmudunnabi was convinced, and he requested Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to introduce in the Legislative Council the bill for setting up a film studio. The outcome was the formation in Dhaka of the East Pakistan Film Development Corporation (EPFDC), now more familiarly known as FDC. Raju explains the significance of this development: “As foreign-language films were produced outside the cultural arena of Bengali Muslims and had no direct cultural relevance to the Bengal delta and its populations, they wished to establish a film industry that would produce films reflecting a cultural-national modernity as well as defining the Bengali- Muslim cultural identity.” This nationalist mission to uphold the local culture against the intrusion of foreign influences has endured even as late as 2002, as evinced by the official website of FDC: “FDC provided a film base to launch counter offensive actions to block the infiltration of foreign culture.” The issue has cropped up in late 2014 and early 2015 as Bangladesh film producers, directors and artistes have banded together to vociferously oppose the importation of Indian films by exhibitors. As of this writing, the standoff has yet to be settled.
The irony is that, during the days of East Bengal/Pakistan, foreign films from India (both in Hindi and Bengali, until their public exhibition was banned following the 1965 India-Pakistan war), the US, and Europe, not to mention Urdu films from West Pakistan, were regularly exhibited in movie theatres in this country. One reason, as mentioned in the book, was that prominent American and British distribution companies like MGM, Twentieth Century Fox, Paramount, and Rank Organization had their offices in Dhaka in the 1950s. It was relatively cheap for the local cinemas to collect English-language films and screen them as morning and midday shows. And the mass exhibition of popular Hindi films from Bombay (Mumbai) and Bengali films from Kolkata was so widespread in this country that, in the Indian film historian M.B. Billimoria's assessment, entire Pakistan was considered a part of the home market for popular Indian movies.
Raju professes in the introductory chapter “to situate the function of Bangladesh cinema texts, from production to reception, within the broader social, political and cultural domain of twentieth century Bangladesh.” His rationale is sound, as he goes along with Annette Hamilton's perspective that, “Film and cinema…can only exist within social, economic, and cultural parameters….” As such, the book concentrates heavily on studying the social, cultural and political mise-en-scene within which film and cinema operate in, rather than engage in a linear discussion on movies made in East Bengal/Pakistan and Bangladesh. He concludes that, “…the Dhaka-based Bengali cinema that developed as a vernacular “cultural” cinema during the 1950s and 1960s transformed itself to meet state-national aspirations.” The cinema further transformed itself by progressively letting go of “the cultural marks of Bengali-Muslim and delta-focused Bengali identities in order to become a “Bangladeshi”, Bengali cinema.” Raju further elucidates on the theme of growing nationalism: “So this cinema, by constructing “Bangladeshi” identity as the one-size-fits-all umbrella for all Bengali Muslims as well as non-Muslims and non-Bengalis living in Bangladesh, worked towards imagining the sense of a Bangladeshi modernity.”
Raju explains his rationale for taking the path he has chosen to in discussing Bangladesh cinema, and it seems to be a reasonable one, especially if it serves as a complement to the linear discussion of all the films that have been produced in East Bengal/Pakistan and Bangladesh: The “history of Bangladesh cinema emphasizes discontinuities, recognize that historical cause is non-linear and change is non-evolutionary. For this reason, I focus on a number of key film texts, institutions, personalities, trends and events in Bangladesh cinema history rather than imposing a linear model of evolution of this cinema.” He identifies three discourses of film scholarship in Bangladesh, each of which could be located in distinct periods as to their origin. The first is popular journalism, which began in the late 1930s, and continues to the present day, with Cinema, Chitrali, Purbani, Tarokalok, and Anondo Alo, among others, as representative examples of defunct and circulating publications; the second is critical appreciation, which originated in the early 1960s, and is represented by film club movements and their periodicals and anthologies; the third is film-historiography, or empiricist research and historical works, of which the book under review claims to be one. This last discourse began in the late 1970s and, the author avers, it is characterized by the deficiency of certain principles of film-historiography to be found in the academic West.
Having made clear in which category this book resides, Raju provides a comprehensive reasoning for writing it: “…for me, cinema is a process, not a product and I intend to present it through its texts and institutions as well as through its intertextual and contextual relations…. Following Elsaesser, I locate cinema as one of the discourses (or a certain combination of several discourses) competing or interacting with other discourses and/or combinations of discourses within the social organization; of many other aspects of social formation, like power, pleasure, knowledge, sexuality, representation, etc.” From a theoretical standpoint, Raju studies Bangladesh films and their reception as being noticeably different from the films and viewing practices of the West. And this is a pragmatic approach. Otherwise, it would be like comparing apples and oranges. Or, to take the author's classification of approaches to national cinemas --- colonial political-nationalist and neocolonial cultural-nationalist --- the division between the First and Third Worlds is brought to focus. From a number of perspectives, such a division exists, including in cinema.
Raju subscribes to the revisionist-industrial historiography method, as initiated by Bordwell, Balio, and Gomery, in conducting his study, rather than a linear-teleological or a revisionist-industrial history. Having stated his preference, he proceeds to revise, taking off on the acceptance by many persons of Mukh o Mukhosh (The Face and the Mask, 1956) as the beginning of Bangladesh cinema. He questions this assertion, although he acknowledges that Asiya (1960) was the first film produced from FDC. The author believes that the early films of the East Pakistan film industry “were committed to visualizing a rural, idyllic East Bengal contributing towards a cultural modernity focused on the Bengal delta region.” He will allow that identifying The Face and the Mask as the pioneering effort of Bangladesh national cinema fulfils the desire for the construction of nation-state modernity in contemporary Bangladesh, but is unwilling to accept it as the first film of this nation-space.
Instead, the author pinpoints three alternative approaches to the beginnings of Bangladesh cinema history. One is from the standpoint of film production. That would take us back to the silent one-reel films produced by Hiralal Sen of Manikganj district between the years 1898 and 1900. Historians believe that his Dancing Scenes from “The Flower of Persia”, shot in Kolkata in 1898, is the earliest example of a film shot not only by a Bengali, but by an Indian. An attempt at improved filmmaking by the Nawab family of Dhaka resulted in the silent feature The Last Kiss, directed by Ambuj Gupta in 1929, and was exhibited in the Mukul Theater in Dhaka in 1931. The second approach would consider the beginnings from the film-exhibition standpoint. That would make the Crown Theater in Dhaka, which first showed films (the author does not make clear if they were produced or distributed by the company) by the Bredford Cinematographic Company on April 17, 1898, the progenitor of Bangladesh cinema. From another perspective, it could be Picture House in Dhaka, which was the very first cinema theatre in East Bengal. The third approach would be from the standpoint of cinema as social institutions. From this perspective, Raju considers Roopban, released in November 1965, as the pioneer because, first, it supposedly saved the Dhaka-based Bengali film industry from extinction, and, second, because its widespread reception among the villagers of the 1960s East Pakistan may be seen “as cinema's earliest negotiation with active social and cultural practices of this area.” He posits that the intertexuality and narrative style of the film made it very acceptable to the rural audiences.
The author also draws attention to the fact that a Bengali Muslim directed a film in the Calcutta film industry during the British raj. Obaidul Huq from East Bengal, however, had to adopt a Hindu pseudonym, Himadri Chowdhury (the reason is a combination of factors), in order to get his film Dukhey Jader Jiban Gora (1946) released in the movie theatres in that city. And Asiya is considered to be the first “art” film to be directed by a Bengali Muslim in Bangladesh. Furthermore, in Raju's estimation, in the context of Bangladesh, this attempt “can be seen as a step towards developing a cultural modernity through cinema as was the case with other media and cultural forms such as fine arts, drama and novels a decade earlier.” The author ends his book with a discussion on “art” cinema discourse and its globalizing attempts, after having taken a critical look at the way “Bangladesh cinema transformed itself in the 1980s and 1990s to become an entertainment medium for the poorer and less-educated populations living in semi-urban areas….” He quotes the summation of this transformation of popular cinema in this period by the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies: “With much higher capital requirements, it became critical to reach a mass audience. The result has been the transformation of the cinema into a vehicle of mass culture which is tawdry, cheap and vulgar. More sophisticated audiences now depend on the VCR for their visual entertainment.” Those interested in the historiography of Bangladesh cinema would benefit from going through Bangladesh Cinema and National Identity: In search of the modern.
The reviewer is actor, educationist and former Foreign Service officer