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Cinema of Bangladesh & its legacy by Shabbir Ahmed


To understand any art form, it’s necessary to know its journey and the evolution it undergoes. To apply this to cinema, some factors need to be considered. In this article I have endeavored to give a glimpse of cinema in Bangladesh. To make such a big topic comprehensible, it’s best to categorize the topic. Charting the early practitioners and those who achieved breakthroughs in Bangladesh, this writing attempts to put forwards the ways in which these filmmakers propagated their practice involving different aspects of film; and most importantly the level of commitment and integrity towards their land and its tradition using the medium in best way possible. After investigating four landmark figures, I tried to make a connection of their legacy and the current practicing industry – whether the legacy continues or has it halted or altered.

The Legacy

Legacy is a vital matter in the development and continuation for the future generation. Next generation looks back at their earlier generation’s body of work. Sometimes they follow their footstep; other times they defy those or even few times they outrageously revolt against those age-old paths and carve new path, which is not common.

Cinema’s legacy can be traced back to the early cinemas, sometimes extending even before its advent, as this medium has many elements of other art medium. Cinema is a geopolitical phenomenon as it is shaped by the influence of the geography in which the filmmaker is born and raised, the culture of its people, and the co-existence/intolerance of people of difference – all these factors add diversity to an otherwise mechanical device-based art form.

Colonialism is an acute factor in shaping the extent of branches in the sphere of art and culture. The pros and cons often get disproportioned and leave a mark resulting in tremendous loss to the land and its people.

Bangladesh has a history of turbulence as it earned its victory of independence. From 1947 to 1971, it’s a time of flux which culminated in the decolonization and birth of an independent country – Bangladesh. This historical perspective – with all its horror, glory and complexity – is the nearest memory of the country people’s identity formation.It is the reference point of a whole generation of people and a dream for the next generation. After independence from the oppressing forces, the country faced some dark hours as it moved towards freedom and self-sufficiency. It took nearly two decades to regain democracy. This political timeline has a clear reflection on the cultural aspects of the country.

If any discussion on cinema of Bangladesh arise, the first and foremost figure to mention is Hiralal Sen, who was born in the present day Manikganj district, Bangladesh (then British India) in 1868. He was born in a prosperous family and from an early age he had open mind to embrace new technology and innovation. Thus, when he saw the first film in 1898, he found a latent prospect in filmmaking. Film can draw large group of audience. Its magic encouraged him to buy a camera and a projector. He was the first person from the subcontinent to make entertaining films like Ali Baba and the forty-thieve. However, unfortunately, as the nitrate-celluloid is very flammable, a devastating fire accident destroyed all his films. There is no trace of his filmmaking left, only the legacy and memory remain.

Hiralal Sen was born in the present-day Bangladesh, but he worked mostly in Calcutta. There was a void in the practice of filmmaking in this region for a lot of factors among which the lack of infrastructure, Urdu language dominating in the Bengali-speaking region, and lack of studios. However, in the late 50’s an audacious person Abdul Jabbar Khan got forward to make a film from the then East-Pakistan titled Mukh o Mukhosh (Face & Mask). It was one of the films that essentially instigated series of films from this region. The myth that the then East Pakistan is not suitable for filmmaking, weather-wise, got dismissed. The government established Film development corporation in1957 and East Pakistan film society was established in 1963.

The key figure who emerged from that time was Zahir Raihan. He was very active in the political and subversive affairs of the state. He resisted oppressive activities, most prominently exemplified in the 1952, 21st February protest against the speech of Jinnah that “Urdu and only Urdu shall be the state language.” He was put in jail as he protested against this notion. Later, in his film Jibon theke Newa (1970) a political allegory, he portrayed that insurgent period.

The filmography of Zahir Raihan reflects the time in which he lived. He started his film directorial debut with Kokhono Aseni, a magic realism fable about the situation of artist in society. His other noteworthy film is Kacher Dewal which depicts the plight of women. It is loosely inspired from Ibsen’s Doll’s House. After making these two unorthodox and experimental films, his box-office declined. Understandably the majority mass audience were more used to the stereotypical characters, conventional plots filled with melodrama and songs, and the Urdu language films. So, in this condition Zahir Raihan made few mainstream-films in Urdu language which in comparison to his own lofty standards is average.

Zahir Raihan was the first filmmaker from the Pakistan to use color in the film Sangam; also, first time he used cinemascope format in Bahane: the use of such craft to its fullest potential are reasons why he can be called the most innovative and thought-provoking filmmaker of the country. Later, in the late 60’s and 70s, when the country had reached its boiling point against the oppression of West Pakistan, he made the brilliantly nuanced film Jibon Theke Newa. This film uses allegory and metaphor to depict the dictatorship and fascism reigning in that period. The story took place in the backdrop of the 1952 February protest against the declaration by Jinnah that “Urdu and only Urdu shall be the state language of East Pakistan.”

Zahir Raihan drew experience from his own life and in the film, through the prism of two families. It actually reflected the predicament of the fascist regime of the 60’s of the West Pakistani authority on East Pakistan. This film exemplifies an audacious and subtle manner of storytelling in order to get out of the net of censor board; that’s why the family’s central fascist character can be read as the metaphorical character for the political tyrants of the time. The protesting tone and invigorating spirit of the film played an active role in the 1971 liberation war of Bangladesh.

In the wartime, Raihan was as active, or even more, than before. He was the eye and ear of the genocide, exodus, and the human condition of that time, many of these narratives were weaved in his heart-rending documentary.

After nine months of war, Bangladesh earned its independence. However, before surrounding the Pakistani army – in an act of utter cowardice and contempt – assassinated majority of the intelligentsia. Among them was Shahidullah Kaisar, the elder brother of Zahir Raihan. Kaisar was taken away from home. Later on, Zahir Raihan was telephoned and informed. In a rush he went out to find and bring his brother. Alas he never returned. It was a great loss to cinema and literature. Zahir Raihan has some large scale, ambitious unrealized project some of which were shot in a very short span of time. This was his very strong skill – pulling off production/principal shooting in short time.

Alamgir Kabir can be called the big next name in Bangladesh’s Cinema after the untimely death of Zahir Raihan. Kabir was born in 1937. He studied Engineering in University of Dhaka before going to London for further studies. There he went to BFI where he watched canonical films like the Bicycle Thieves, Rashomon, Nazarin. He completed a film appreciation course before returning to his homeland. Then he befriended and assisted Zahir Raihan.

Alamgir Kabir was a very progressive and socio-politically informed person. His leftist orientation added layers to his artistic endeavors. His films Dhire Boheye Meghna made only two years after the liberation of Bangladesh, is an important film as it stands out from some of the other contemporary films on the same subject that typifies stereotype narrative, black-and-white binary characters of hero and villain. Kabir’s films defy these as these films delve deep into the psychology and motive of the character, attempting to bring the grayer space of the character.

Kabir’s work is also characterized by active, functional female protagonist. Female characters get more space and depth in the films, instead of being a mere passive object. Considering that time, it was a very progressive gesture.

In terms of technical craftmanship Kabir was ahead of his country’s filmmaker peers and almost at par with worldwide skilled filmmakers. The use of internal monologues was innovative in Bangla cinema (predominantly such technique was widespread in the Nouvelle Vague films of Jean-Luc Godard, Alais Resnais, Chris Marker or Agnes Verda). Moreover, camera movement, such as long track shot in his film Surjokonna also draws attention to his mastery of craft.

Alamgir Kabir and Zahir Raihan both had an artistic but vocal stand against any sort of socio-political oppression, authoritarianism as exemplified in one of his films Rupali Saikat. Kabir’s theme has a subtle undertone of the decolonization of the mind. Besides he made documentary films with a sense of historical consciousness and are very well-made films.

The contribution of Alamgir Kabir cannot only be summed up within the framework of his artistic creation. He was also a very dedicated film activist in its fullest sense. He had a sense of responsibility towards building a generation of young filmmakers. He felt audience must be guided towards more informed understanding of cinema. So, he actively initiated such events as the film appreciation course and encouraged the talented young minds to go to India to the Film and Television Institute, Pune. He had a vital influence in the next generation of filmmakers in Bangladesh. He also arranged a major film festival in the 80’s. Unfortunately, a tragic accident killed him in1989 at age of 52. Nevertheless, the seed he sowed has continued its impact on the culture of cinema in the country.

In the 70’s and early 80’s, while Alamgir Kabir was in his prime of filmmaking and film-teaching career, a group of young film enthusiast and film students came forward to making films. Some of them came back from the film institute in Pune with three years of lesson and hands-on experience in filmmaking. However, the Bangladesh Film Corporation (BDFC), infrastructure, logistic and groups worked in different manner. So, these aspiring youths decided to take the alternative route of making, distributing, exhibiting – which was a totally different cine-culture.

Noteworthy practitioners of this school of filmmaking were Tanvir Mukammel, Morshedul Islam, Manzare Hasin Murad, Syed Salauddin Zakir, Sheikh Niamat Alia and Musheuddin Shaker. These filmmakers in general tried to gain independence and control over their film, from ideation to exhibition; so, they sidelined themselves from the mainstream, mainly commercial, mindless manner of filmmaking – that chiefly capitalizes on stereotype, cliché, set formulaic themes. They worked on more profound and nuanced aspects of the liberation war. Such topics as the war criminal issues (rajakar), the dark aspects of the freedom fighters (even the war heroes cannot be discounted from their crimes) to such topics as the farmer’s plight as seen through the lens of the legendary artist S M Sultan.

Tareque Masud was the most insightful of filmmakers among the above listed names. he maintained a consistency of thought, ideology and understanding of the geopolitics of the land in his films. Tareque Masud is a filmmaker whose work and life demands a closer and more contemplative scrutiny.

Masud is a vital name that has gained some synonymity with cinema in Bangladesh, especially among Western cinema crowd. His films probes to more profound subjects than a usual Bangla cinema.

The typical Bangla film of BFDC has some characteristics as overuse of same stock and formula themes; these storied got recycled from generation to generation with overdose of sex and nudity. Masud was very adamant in his conviction; he did not make such films. He embodies a resisting attitude towards the establishment and authority which leads to some difficult relation with the system. This is why he can be considered as the successor of Zahir Raihan, Alamgir Kabir and Yasmin Kabir – independent documentary filmmaker of the country.

Tareque Masud used the medium of filmmaking as a tool to search and represent identity politics. “Identity representation” succinctly epitomizes the spirit of his life long quest in filmmaking. To him, the most personal is the most creative. One of his works, Muktir Katha is self-reflexive in form and content. under the umbrella of identity, subheadings such as culture, art, politics, religion and country are reflected in the theme of the film.

Selections of subject for the first film has determined the future route on which Masud would make films. His debut film was a documentary on the artist S M Sultan. Not a biopic, not infotainment also rather an immersive, insider’s view depicting the farmers as myth. In this documentary the aspects of the countryside, farmers, and their spirit emerged.

Another theme of interest to Masud was the Liberation War of Bangladesh. Among the most notable of these films are Muktir Gaan, Muktir Katha and Matir Moyna. These films can be read like text, as well as the mass audience connect with them passively, just merging with the sensation of songs and images.

What awes me most about his work is how he found the footages of the War of Liberation of Bangladesh through a war photographer named Lear Levin. He later on re-shot some scenes, and adding the original footage to create a docu-fiction piece of cinema, Muktir Gaan. This docu-fiction is about the musician’s troop and its journey from place, to place, inspiring the freedom fighters. Muktir Katha is his self-reflexive work that has interviews of the audiences of Muktir Gaan in public auditoriums. He also addressed the diaspora connection and their trauma towards their roots can be seen in his film Ontorjatra. His final film Runway, film about religious terrorism and fundamentalism.

Recent Times

In the recent times, such names get attention among the young crowds, most of whose background started from making TVCs and only later they became filmmakers. Mostofa Sarwar Faruki, Amitabh Reza Chowdhury, Nurul Alam Atiq, Piplu R Khan are some of them. This article will not accommodate their filmmaking as an extension of the legacy from Zahir Raihan to Tareque Masud. Rather they adopt cinema as an art form. They shrewdly demarcated the line between art and commercial elements in their cinema at the cost of continuity, reality and integrity of the narrative and characters inhabiting the space. Furthermore, barely any stylistic or formalistic innovation are there in the majority of these filmmakers’ works, which is the reason why these filmmakers cannot be considered the torchbeaerers of the legacy of the art film of Bangladesh.

However, some youth, with the emergence of institutions as Bangladesh cinema and TV Institute (BCTI), NIMCO, opening of film and television departments in Public and private universities as in Dhaka University, ULAB, Pathshala, Stanford University and many more are the reason that the once stifled condition of good cinema is taking a turn. The film society movement plays the key role in snowballing the cine-culture in the country.

Young filmmakers like Swajhan Majhi, Debashish Doob, Salman Farshi and many of them are new voices in the making. These group of filmmakers are exploring variety of avenues of filmmaking. Debashish Doob, for instance, has a passion for personal cinema, which is quite fresh and a new mode of cinema in the country. Through the camera he brings out the essence of banality in the everyday life around. His image and sound ooze his voice and vision about the surroundings, some of which are powerful observation but at other times few of the films become lazy and indulgent. However, his works shows effort to improve and re-invent the lost film. Some of his experimental, non-fiction films are availablon his YouTube channel. Likewise, Swajhan Majhi also works with identity issues with awareness of cinema as art form.

Bangladesh has a rich history, culture and identity. In this age of capitalism and state-power structure, many of the artists and filmmakers are victims of censorship – both by the state and the self. There is barely any support. Filmmakers should be voice of the voiceless, rather the situation is such that the state molds the content of the films in many ways. When this happens, a grand narrative is prevalent in the filmmaking practice of the recent films. Questioning and a “different” representation take backseat. More propaganda, redundant biopics, propaganda films on police, army and state mechanism are more the norm,

During such time, however exceptional films came.

Live from Dhaka by Abdullah Mohammad Saad is one such example. This film embodies independence of cinema and creative liberty. The selection of subject is relevant and relatable to the present time. This film is about Sajjad being entrapped in the city and the fight to change the failing fate of the city. While depicting this, other issues such as drug, women’s helplessness, middlemen foxing the youth, promising them a visa to Russia etc also come to the fore.

In the realm of filmmaking, there are some filmmakers who focus primarily on how well-made the film is at a technical level. Other rare class of filmmakers are those who make films with the intention of changing the society, or at least an audacious way to depict the problems of the society in an honest way. There emerges a text, context, and subtext in these films. It’s the second school of filmmakers who took the camera as the instrument to disseminate their vision on screen is my personally preferred tribe of makers.

Shabbir Ahmed is a film enthusiast and writer - critic. Dhaka, Bangladesh.

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