Friday, May 30, 2008
Bangla Cinema: An Industry in Decay
By Kajalie Shehreen Islam
30 May, 2008
The theme and storyline of Bangla cinema has taken several shifts since the 1970s. Fahmidul Haq, an assistant professor at the department of Mass Communication and Journalism at Dhaka University, says this shift ranges from social storytelling to high tone violence.
“The major genre of films made in the 1970s,” says Haq, “was social, particularly rural social life such as Lathial and Sujon Sokhi (1975) and Sareng Bou (1979). In the 1980s, the major genres were costume-fantasy, for example, Nagin (1980), Banjaran (1983) and Beder Meye Josna (1989) and action (Jony, 1983; Nasib, 1984). In the 1990s we saw two more genres: teen romance (Chandni, 1991; Keyamat Theke Keyamat, 1993) and violence (Danga, 1992; Ammajan, 1999). The present decade,” says Haq, “is wholly dominated by violent films with pornographic insertion (out of text hard core 'cut pieces' and within text soft pornography).”
The song and dance routine, according to Haq, who has co-authored the recently published book Bangladesher Chalochchitro Shilpo: Sangkote Janosangskriti (The Film Industry in Bangladesh: Popular Culture in Crisis) along with Dr. Gitiara Nasreen, has not changed over the years but the nature of visualisation has. “Once, songs in Bangla films were used as a romantic expression of the protagonists and became very popular among the audience. But in recent times, they have been used as spectacles of sexually explicit materials with appealing dance.” After the drive of the special task force led by RAB in late 2007, however, Haq says that the making of so-called vulgar films (which are actually violent films with vulgar songs) has stopped. With people expressing their satisfaction about the retrieved cine environment, some directors have taken up making social films again which are drawing an audience.
Technology and cinematic techniques in Bangla cinema have also deteriorated. With the decline of the industry since the 1980s, the FDC studios and cinema halls have not been renovated or updated with the latest technologies, rather, their condition has worsened. “Very recently, a digital lab has been incorporated in the FDC and a few theatres in the capital have introduced DTS technology,” says Haq, “but we are yet to see the effects of new technology established in FDC.”
According to Haq, there have been no auteurs in recent years as there were in the1960s and 1970s such as Zahir Raihan, Alamgir Kabir, Salauddin, Subhash Dutt and Amjad Hossain, and so more decline in terms of cinematic technique and representation.
The stream of independent or alternative films, however, has improved over the years and achieved international recognition. “But these films are not viewed by the broader audience of the country,” says Haq. “The target audience of these films are international film festivals and the advanced and literate audiences of Dhaka. Some of the films produced by TV channels are enchained in TV premieres.” The shutting down of prominent theatres indicates the decline of the cine business, says Haq.
Just the phrase “Bangla cinema” evokes images of brutal violence and vulgarity, but how big a problem are they really? According to Fahmidul Haq, neither violence nor vulgarity are problems if films are well-made and refers to many critically acclaimed Hollywood and Bollywood films with violent and sexual content. In Bangladesh, however, the problem is that such films have no grading or ratings.
“During our research, we found that 22.36% of the audience were adolescents with no entertainment options other than going to the movies. This is where the problem lies,” Haq points out. Other than that, he believes that the worries of middle class civil society around only the vulgarity of Bangla cinema is more an expression of religion-driven morality and “sympathy from a better class” towards the lower class “rickshawala” audience. The main problem, he thinks, lies elsewhere, in the total decline of cinema in terms of storyline, cinematic technique and lack of originality.
Most mainstream filmmakers today give the audience as an excuse for their work, claiming to be giving viewers what they want. This is a largely false claim, however, seeing as that the audience, especially those living in peripheral towns who do not even have access to television, have little choice and so go for whatever is offered, becoming a sort of captive audience of such films. While working on their book, Dr. Gitiara Nasreen and Fahmidul Haq conducted an audience survey in which they found that a large part of the audience (37%) wanted to watch social films or films that could be enjoyed with the family. Some of them (24%) wanted films with good stories. Though women comprised a large part of the audience of Bangla cinema in the past, today, they hardly ever go to theatres due to the content of the films themselves as well as the environment of the cinema halls.
The cost of making a film ranges from 50 and 80 lakh takas, depending on the scale and grandeur of the song-and-dance routines. Though the exact profit margins for these films are unknown, according to the FDC website, the organisation paid Tk. 6 lakh 38 thousand in revenues to the government in 2004-2005.
As with everything, the government has a major role to play in the development of the film industry in Bangladesh and this includes infra-structural development. “The government never had a plan to nurture the popular media,” claims Fahmidul Haq. “Its role should not be only to collect taxes or even just prevent vulgarity. It has to have a plan and policy to improve the overall situation of the sector.” A film can overcome language barriers and play a vital role in society through entertainment and teaching, says Haq. “The government must consider cinema an important aspect of popular culture and medium of entertainment.”
Watching films on a big screen should be a completely different experience from watching them at home, believes Haq, who is currently doing his doctorate abroad in Cinema Studies. He suggests a number of ways in which this can be done -- by establishing cineplexes in major towns and introducing the latest cine technologies, by supporting filmmakers through regular grants, producing human resources through the establishment of a film institute, film centres and a film archive.
Before, a good story was enough for the success of a film, but now, with so many entertainment options, the audience want more. "You have to project a colourful movie in a cool theatre with good décor, widescreen and Dolby digital facilities," says Haq. "You have to provide the audience with visual pleasure, recreating the aura of film watching, making the audience think it's different, larger than life. You have to alter TV viewers to movie goers, and that is a big challenge.”
Haq also believes that in this day and age, with the rising popularity and availability of media content on the internet, censorship is a dying concept and should be liberalised. “The government has to respect the freedom of expression of the creator. Censorship means controlling creativity. Since the 1960s, countries have been liberalising censorship. The questions of sex, violence, religion or morality can be easily met by a grading system.” Many countries have boards but to certify or register films, not to censor them, and are even known as film certification boards, says Haq.
“In our country, the Film Censor Board never worked as it should have,” says Haq. “It was used to pass bad ones and act as an obstacle for good films. The corruption of some boards was an open secret. The Censor Board was a total failure in controlling so-called vulgarity, which is considered to be the board's prime duty.”
An improvement in the quality of films accompanied by the latest technology and a good environment in theatres can bring people back to cinema halls. “You have to make filmmaking difficult (in a positive sense) for directors and producers which requires extensive preparation,” says Fahmidul Haq. Instead of making several low-budget films, make fewer but better films with the same budget, export them. “There is a Bangladeshi audience in many parts of the world, you just have to explore the world market and provide quality films for them.”
Sunday, May 4, 2008
Published On: 2008-05-03
Star Books Review
The rise and steady decline of our cinema
Nazma Yeasmeen Haq recommends a scholarly work on movies to readers
Although not unprecedented, yet Bangladesher Cholochitro Shilpo assuredly is rather unique in the sense of its being the product of a research work carried out systematically and that in turn attains academic standard as a thesis. The book raises a number of questions, diagnoses the malaise that has been eating into the vitals of our film industry, in particular since the 1980s. Once the diagnosis is made correctly, etiology is determined and thus very confidently the writers come up with a prescription to be administered to cure the ills of the disease prevalent in the films that are there.
The factors that are inextricably related to the making of a film that ideally ought to cater to the taste of a wide spectrum of viewers, thus qualifying it to be of a popular genre, have very ably been dealt with by the authors. One can accomplish this only when one has a full grasp of the subject one is involved with. Only those with an intention of delivering things beneficial to society can be so succinct and painstaking in their endeavour, as we see the authors progress in their work. Trying to mend or fill a cavernous hole in our filmdom that has apparently come to exist demands much tenacity on the part of its doers. As the writers themselves have stated, coming back to trends that are healthy in essence might, although they can be considered as an achievement, nevertheless cause a feeling of a sense of complacency about it that must not be there in the right frame of one's mind. That is because it would only mean moving to zero from a minus from where it is a very long way to reach the positive. This assertion tells us, the readers, about the abyss we are in in terms of having access to one of the vital social outlets of recreation in our lives.
The authors have been much methodical in tracing the history of film making in this part of our region through a synoptic treatment of it in a chronological order, which is very useful to a reader to check for quick reference. As it is, in these days of haste, most people go for reading things that are presented in a concise form and exactly this is fulfilled by this particular presentation. One gets a very clear view of the growth and development of films both in terms of their quality, quantity and genre along with the proceedings of the chapters that are arranged as clapstick 1 to clapstick 7. Designating the chapters with terminologies of film thus keeps reminding one of what the book deals with that often transforms it into a film in print.
The authors have applied primarily a methodology of survey research to collect data for their purpose. Content analyses supplemented by audience analysis have revealed the quality of the content of three films of the present time that are absolutely devoid of any sense of purpose, let alone some residual sense of beauty which is part and parcel of any creative work. To a sensible person such a job is truly a product of empty-headed people who think that they can make viewers consume whatever they feed them. This myth that keeps film makers engulfed in their daydreams has been altogether dispelled by analysing the responses of the audience statistically. Demand for a good film has been indicated even by people from lower income groups. Such viewers are more often than not taken as primary consumers of low quality films. The indication of the authors regarding this make-believe perception of the film makers is most palpable in their strongly worded utterances.
The latter part of the book deals elaborately with the erosion that has consciously been brought about by many associated with the film industry. A regression of a vicious nature thus has taken place, creating an abyss. When the authors wistfully talk about the lost glory of cinemas, one feels a kind of frustration knowing that there was once a time when the cinema hall was not only a centre for entertainment but also a hub for social interaction in a community.
The most vital lesson one learns by going through this book is that the audience by and large demand good films the same way they ask for other amenities of life since wholesome entertainment is part of life, society and our culture. Dedicating this very recently published book to the memory of the unforgettable Hiralal Sen is laudable, although his production is not recognised as the first film of Bangladesh owing to some debatable issues.
Since the focus of the book is on the intensity of decay in popular culture in terms of film making, the prescriptive approach contained in the last chapter is most useful as a set of recommendations. To highlight the contrast between present day films and quality films of yesteryears, the authors could have incorporated content analysis of a couple of films from the latter. Also the photo frame on the front cover page could have had a display of the same to draw a distinction between these two classes of films rather than having all from a bunch of incredulous ones. This would have been more in keeping with the sub-title of the book.
We wholeheartedly agree with the authors that we too love to see films and therefore would like to see how early things can be put back on the right track. Let us raise a slogan echoing the authors that we demand healthy entertainment through films.
Nazma Yeasmeen Haq is a critic and Principal, Radiant International School, Dhaka .