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Bangladesh @ 50: The country’s cinema existed before the nation did

While 2021 saw Bangladeshi parallel cinema having a moment in the sun, the country’s films and filmmakers have a long history of leading from the front

Written by Tanushree Ghosh | New Delhi |
December 16, 2021 6:00:01 am
jibon theke neyaZahir Raihan's Jibon Theke Neya (1970), made in the backdrop of 1952 Bhasha Andolan/language movement, became an inspiration for the Liberation War

When the muktijuddho (Liberation War) was on, in 1971, a 20-something Alamgir, associated with a Mukti Bahini platoon, would go and sing to boost the morale of the soldiers in the evenings. The actor, whose father was a producer on Abdul Jabbar Khan’s Mukh O Mukhosh (The Face and the Mask, 1956) — ostensibly considered East Pakistan’s first Bengali theatrical feature film — would debut in 1973 (Amar Jonmobhumi) and go on to win Bangladeshi National Award nine times in his 230 films’ career, and act in, even direct/produce, films on either side of the border dividing the two Bengals — divided over food and football, united in the arts.

Bengali auteur Ritwik Ghatak, who had to relocate from East to West Bengal after Partition, projects through his hope-laced-mournful cinema, especially the Partition trilogy (Meghe Dhaka Tara, 1960, Komal Gandhar, 1961, and Subarnarekha, 1962), evinced in the joined hands of the protagonists in the last scene of Komal Gandhar, his utopian desire for unity of the two Bengals. His cross-border contemporary Zahir Raihan, with the satire Jibon Theke Neya (1970), would allegorise a disunity — linguistic and cultural — between East and West Pakistan. In the film, a family warring over a bunch of keys signals a people’s demand for autonomy. The register shifts from the individual to the nation in both the films.

1. Mukh O Mukhosh (1956) Abdul Jabbar Khan’s Mukh O Mukhosh (1956), ostensibly considered first Bengali theatrical feature film made in East Pakistan.

Made in the backdrop of the 1952 Bhasha Andolan/language movement, where an “unnaturally divided people” demanded their mother-tongue Bengali be recognised as an official language of then Pakistan, Jibon Theke Neya “shadhinotar juddher jonno onuprerona holo, became one of the main forces that gave a ‘push’ to the muktijuddho, inflamed the spirit of the protesting people,” says Alamgir, 72, who’s married to that truly trans-subcontinental singer Runa Laila, who’s sung in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh since the ’60s.

The late pioneering Bangladeshi filmmakers Raihan and Alamgir Kabir, like most of the then East Pakistani cultural activists, were involved in the muktijuddho, directly or tangentially. They made documentaries Stop Genocide and Liberation Fighters, respectively, from the training camps of the freedom fighters. After the war, Raihan disappeared and the London-returned cultural polymath and trained-in-guerrilla-warfare-in-Cuba Kabir became Bangladeshi cinema’s sine qua non with his postwar-society movies and film writing, stressing on the “region’s individual identity, unique language of art”.

Rehana Maryam Noor Abdullah Mohammad Saad’s Rehana Maryam Noor (2021) was the first Bangladeshi film to make it to the main competition of the Cannes Film Festival this year

Even before the war, East Bengal churned out films, of all kinds: “samajik (social), paribarik (family), gram (village stories), action, folk fantasy. Our films were low-budget, and in direct competition with the big-budget Pakistani Urdu films, which released in East Pakistan, along with Indian (Bollywood, Bengali) films — such as Uttam Kumar-Suchitra Sen’s and Dilip Kumar-Madhubala’s films in the 1950s — until 1965, when then Pakistani government banned Indian film releases here,” says Dhaka-based Alamgir, whose co-stars include yesteryear Calcutta heroines Sandhya Roy (Satya Mithya, 1989) and Debashree Roy (Mayer Ashirbad, 1993), and 106 films with Bangladesh’s Shabana. As for Uttam-Suchitra counterparts in East Bengal, he mentions the pre-liberation Rehman-Shabnam (a top Pakistani actor, who was Bengali, and stayed back in Pakistan after the Liberation War, owing to her film commitments) and post-liberation Razzak-Kobori in the now-Bangladesh.

In the world’s first country to be carved out of a linguistic struggle, its cinema predates the nation. “Unlike most other nation-states, cinema history in Bangladesh begins before the beginning of national history. Exhibition and the shooting of actuality footage began in the geopolitical area now called Bangladesh at the end of the 1890s (referring to East Bengali Hindu photographer Hiralal Sen’s short film Dancing Scenes from ‘The Flower of Persia’, 1898, made in undivided/pre-Partition Bengal),” writes Prof. Zakir Hossain Raju in Bangladesh Cinema and National Identity (2014), who counters the claim of Bangladesh’s cinematic historicity which begins with Mukh O Mukhosh. Khan was prompted to make the film after West Pakistani distributor F Dossani’s had commented “the local climate (East Pakistan’s) was unsuitable for filmmaking”, besides the absence of technicians, equipment and artistes.

Owing to a lack of production studios/labs, for developing, a film had to be taken to Lahore, “until 1957, when the East Pakistan Film Development Corporation Bill was passed, and the FDC (like India’s NFDC) was set up, owing to the efforts of then minister of “industries, commerce, labour, anti-corruption and village aid” Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, aka Bangabandhu (friend of Bengal; who’d later become a liberated Bangladesh’s first prime minister), who played a major role in building film infrastructure,” says writer-director-producer-professor Abu Shahed Emon, 37.

Emon divides Bangladeshi cinema into three periods, “1947-’70 pre-liberation, with mostly partition subjects; 1971-’90s ushered in the modern era, with the Liberation War and postwar society as themes, and post-1990s on Bangladeshi regionalism, culture.” The era 2000 onwards witnessed a downfall in quality and quantity.

No man's land Mostofa Sarwar Farooki’s No Land’s Man (2021) stars Nawazuddin Siddiqui and has been scored by AR Rahman

Actor Alamgir says, “post-liberation, the number of films increased (around 110-120 films per year) as did the number of theatre halls (to around 1,400 between the years 1989 and 2000). Moviemaking became a big industry. In the 1990s, shilpi der aadan-prodaan shuru holo (the exchange of artistes between the two Bengals recommenced), but after 2000 grohon laglo, dui desh fall korlo, it consumed our cinema, of both East/West Bengal, filmmaking became mechanical, we became old and moved away. Ashleelota (vulgarity) entered cinema, kono Bangla-i ashleelota ke protsyay deye na (neither Bengals encourage it), and then the trend of remakes of Madrasi (south Indian) films drowned our culture,” he says. “Today, there are hardly 100 cinema halls, and 15-20 films release annually. But cinema moves in cyclic order, it will be good again,” adds Alamgir, who battled COVID-19 this year, and was last seen in Ranjan Ghosh’s Ahaa Re (2020) and directed Kolkata actor Rituparna Sengupta in Ekti Cinemar Golpo (2018). The porosity of India’s eastern border, unlike the western one, reflects in Bengali cinema’s continuing artistic exchange (in recent times, Bangladeshi actors Arifin Shuvoo, Jaya Ahsan, Rikita Nandini Shimu, Azmeri Haque Badhon, etc., in West Bengali films). The trend of India-Bangladesh co-productions, post-liberation, was, perhaps, first seen in Ghatak’s Titash Ekti Nadir Naam (1973). With the story, most of the cast and the location being on the other side of Padma, it was a kind of homecoming for the tuberculosis-afflicted Ghatak.

“Bangabandhu’s assassination in 1975 had an adverse effect on our cinema, filmmakers were unsure about the subject matter, post-1975 saw political films, some even with anti-Bangabandhu sentiments. Alamgir Kabir emerged as the only finest filmmaker of that decade, a vital force who paved the way for edgy filmmakers like Tareque Masud, Morshedul Islam, Tanvir Mokammel to arise decades later,” says Emon.

No Ground Beneath the Feet Mohammad Rabby Mridha’s debut No Ground Beneath the Feet (2021)

The ’80s saw mainstream films about social struggle but also kung-fu, karate, roopkatha/fairytale and films where the hero turned into djinn, or the heroine into a snake, like the Sridevi-starrer Bollywood film Nagina (1986). Between the 1990s-2010, Emon adds, “sainik clubs and cinema halls had a trend of ek ticket-ey dui chhobi (one ticket, two films), along with a film from Taiwan or Hong Kong would be a pornographic film, for the soldiers — quite ironic for a conservative society. And with vulgarity (rape and sex scenes), the middle class boycotted the cinemas. The number of films and theatres dwindled, early 2000s also saw bomb blasts at film halls, with the idea that if the cinema can be shut down, society can be controlled. It was a dark time.”

But, parallelly, a “bikalpa dhara (alternative stream)” cinema was sprouting seeds. Masud’s Matir Moina/The Clay Bird (2002) won the Fipresci award at Director’s Fortnight, a parallel section at Cannes Film Festival, Abu Sayeed’s Nirontor (2006) won an award at the International Film Festival of India (IFFI). Then 2006 onwards, satellite television began telecasting. Entered Mostofa Sarwar Farooki, the now critically-acclaimed New Wave director, who evolved from telefilms to films, local Bangladeshi ethos to global cinema, steering an avant-garde filmmakers’ movement Chabial. Others like Rubaiyat Hossain, Abdullah Mohammad Saad, Mohammad Rabby Mridha and Rezwan Shahriar Sumit, among many others, followed suit. “They began to tell new kinds of stories, outside ordinary thinking, and a break from the trend of themes around muktijuddho, tapping into the international festival circuit,” says Emon, who’s produced around 15 feature films in the last three years.

In its 50th year, 2021 has been Bangladeshi parallel cinema’s moment in the sun, with four films touring the circuit. Farooki’s Nawazuddin Siddiqui-starrer, AR Rahman-scored No Land’s Man (NLM), about identity warmth and crisis, mocking the world through the tragic loss of the powerless. “NLM is a global film, shot in New York, Sydney, Lucknow and Mumbai, and made by a Bangladeshi. If an Australian can make Lion (2016) in India, why can’t a Bangladeshi make a movie in the US? Cinema crosses borders, it’s about the story, if a filmmaker has a good story to tell, the world’s your oyster,” says Mumbai-born, New York-based Columbia University teacher and director/producer Shrihari Sathe, 38, who co-produced NLM.

Salt Waters_Film Stills_mypixelstory (4) Rezwan Shahriar Sumit’s debut Nonajoler Kabbo/Salt in Our Waters (2020) was the only South Asian film that was invited to the UN COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow last month

Saad’s Rehana Maryam Noor, the first Bangladeshi film to compete in Cannes’ main section (Un Certain Regard), helmed by Badhon, is about a medical professor taking on a sexual offender male colleague. Mridha’s debut Payer Tolay Mati Nai (No Ground Beneath the Feet), produced by Emon, showed at the recent 52nd IFFI, is about an impoverished ambulance driver trying to find his feet in his two marriages, and between a metropolis and his flood-stricken village. Sumit’s Nonajoler Kabbo/Salt in Our Waters (2020) finds a vulnerable fishing community at the centre of a tussle between climate-change impact and religious conservatism. The remote fishing island village of Patuakhali, now submerged and its 20 families displaced. Both Rehana… and Nonajoler… just had theatrical runs at home. Sumit’s naturalistic debut was also the only South Asian film at the recent UN COP26 Glasgow conference, where Sumit, 35, was jolted to see that the Netflix-COP26 recommended film’s list had “only two films (including My Octopus Teacher) from the Global South. Even in general, most environmental films are made by the Global North, while the most climate vulnerable nations are in the Global South. That needs to change,” he says.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been propelling her and the nation’s father Sheikh Mujib’s vision and efforts for cinema, with this year, doling out grants (around Rs 50-65 lakh taka each) to more than 20 films, urging more films to be made. Sumit has been a beneficiary, too. “Traditionally, muktijuddho-centric films get the green light,” he says. Adding that while his fellow indie filmmakers in India may not enjoy something similar, India’s “NFDC Film Bazaar”, where he found his French producer, “is the one thing that’s working in the subcontinent”. As Emon quips in, “if our contemporary (commercial) films’ show of drugs and violence, trying to look ‘cool’, is a killer for Bangladesh, it is our parallel cinema that will become mainstream.”

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