Bangladesh: The Rising National Cinema

in 16th Dhaka International Film Festival

by Viera Langerova

The festival programme presenting the nine new films from Bangladesh was a surprise, even to the knowledgeable visitor to this part of the cinematic map. If we were used to mentioning only one name in this regard – Tariq Masud and his “Clay Bird” (2002) – when speaking about Bangladesh cinema, after viewing this year’s festival programme it is now clearly the right time to realize that the national cinema has more to offer. And that’s not even counting Bangladesh director Mostofa Sarwar Farooki’s new film, “No Bed of Roses” starring Irfan Khan which has already had a successful circuit round the festivals. As one of the participants at the festival discussion said, Bangladesh cinema is (or better was) hidden and somehow disregarded at various festivals but now is the time for a more considered of view to the country’s output. A brief look back to recent years would include, to take a couple of examples, such key films as: “Jalal’s Story” (by Abu Shahed Emon, 2014) or “The Drummer” (by Tanvir Mokammel, 2014). Others await discovery by international audiences.

The title which caught my attention immediately was made by female director Lata Ahmed , who is a devoted social and environmental activist.  Her “Shohagi’s Ornament” tells the story of Raja, a little boy who roams the surroundings of his village and only shares his tender feelings with his friend Shohagi, the little master of flower ornaments. After an incident with his father and his resultant fears of being punished, he makes his escape to the city. There, he manages to survive the urban rush and unfriendly life that he encounters in Dhaka. He even manages to earn some money to buy earrings for his beloved girl. But when he proudly comes back to be with her, he finds out she doesn’t live there anymore and that the family house has disappeared. Full of grief and anger he throws the box with the  earrings into the river and departs, never to return. Meanwhile, the box wrapped in paper is seen floating in the river far away from Raja who is leaving his village on a boat. The marvellous sense of the visual powers of Bengal nature together with this touching narrative create a poetic metaphor of passing sorrows and the joys of childhood. The film shares the traditional heritage of poetic narratives remade  with new accents on the contrasts between urban and rural  settings. This is the new individual hero with the courage and will to overcome the difficulties of a poor, seemingly minor, life.    

Another film, “Haldaa” is named after a river in South East Bangladesh. The director, Tauquir Ahmed, presents a traditional narrative of tragic love intertwined with environmental issues. The river, the only source of live hood for local fishermen is polluted and the fish are disappearing. The ruthless attitude taken towards nature  is identical to the treatment of the people. A poor man’s boat is stolen by river pirates and he is also forced to accept a marriage proposal from a rich lawyer for his only daughter, who has little choice in the matter. Living in a wealthy house doesn´t bring her any happiness and she tries to escape with her lover. But their happiness lasts for only a little while. This stereotypical love story is made unique by the powerful visual depictions of the fishermen’s lives. Bangladesh is a river country and this natural geography allows for wide possibilities for the unfolding of an impressive range of poetic imagery. “Haldaa’s” cinematic quality is, for a great part, built on  these national assets.

The “Eternal Entity” (Swatt) by Hashibur Reza Kallol gave us a local blockbuster starring the number one star, the beloved  Shakib Khan. He plays a neglected drug addict from a wealthy household who loses his wealth because of buying drugs. But his life is saved by his lover, an involuntary prostitute who is played by the Indian actress Paoli Dam. The film is based on Sohani Hossain´s novel “Maa Satta”.

“The Rest Is Silence” (Chitkini) by Sajedul Awwal tells the story of a lonely mother Moimuna, who is a worker in the stone quarry. She takes care of her  little son, but doesn’t forget her ill neighbour, to whom she brings food. She also has to face the pressure of the owner of the stone quarry who, one night, wants her to open the door to her house threatening her with the loss of her job.  In some aspects these kinds of films dealing with social inequality and  the abuse of poor women remind one of  some of the  favourite issues of social realism in communist countries whose main focus was to illustrate the differences of the murky past and new bright order. The different accent readable in these contemporary films however, is the lack of  ideological pressure. These unsung heroes and heroines leave their hopeless villages heading to cities which are seen to be the places of  new and better chances. This kind of pilgrimage to the city is the metaphor of  modernisation and a becomes a much used cinematic mantra.  

Inter-faith conflict is the theme of the film “Meyeti Ekhon Kotahay Jabe” directed by Nader Chowdhury. Hindi girl Krishnakoli is kidnapped by Moslim Raja and is locked in a side house. When Raja’s uncle comes to visit  the family he finds out about girl and lets her go. She returns home but her parents expel her as there is no scope for dishonour in the house. This is one of the reasons for strict control of the female dress code as well as careful monitoring of their public movement. The honour norms are part of the wide system of traditional social behaviour which is gradually changing along with altering status of women.

To turn to the films about the dramatic history of Bangladesh is to experience less successful  productions which pointed out the fact that local directors, as well as scriptwriters, have problems with the building of story arcs and dealing with time shifts and side stories. This was the case with “Bhuban Majhi” directed by of Fakhrul Arefeen Khan, depicting the transformation of  a normal man to freedom fighter during the time of the War of Independence in 1971. This retrospective insight into the tragic events of that decade is also the main focus of “Rina Brown” directed by Shameen Akhtar about a couple meeting after those years and looking back to their mutual efforts to balance their lives between their love and their historical duties. Much more successful in this regard was “The Cage” (Khancha) a film by Akram Khan which describes the complicated Hindi-Muslim issues that arose during the forced religious migrations after 1947. The story centres on an old aristocratic house which is literally and metaphorically falling to pieces alongside the once rich and compact family who occupied it.

Though dwarfed by the monumental Indian film industry, the smaller cinema of Bangladesh shares a great deal in common: from storytelling to the creative potentials of actors, actresses, DOPs and directors. They know their own audiences and always have their needs and tastes in mind. The Bengal culture (Bangladesh is the eastern part, West Bengal is part of India) is marked by the huge delta of the Ganga river which has brought forth many significant inspirations and spirituality to all branches of traditional art. The permanent presence of beautiful rivers, boats and stunning sunsets inform the films and result in elegant and poetic images. The presentation of the nine films in this strand proved, with varying degrees of success,  the qualities of this tradition. The main problem of many of the films however are the scripts. They often lack a well-plotted story architecture and do not handle the time line shifts very effectively: they appear to be either too long in exposition or problematic with regard to character motivations and misty ends.  Mixing the genres of historical film and love story were too often ill-judged. The film “Death of a Poet” (Ekjon Kobir Mrityu) by Abu Sayeed is an example that proves the difficulties in embracing wider layers of memory, nature, love and the poetic imagination in one story or to imply metaphorical connections  into the storyline.

To step out beyond well-trodden narrative models and to benefit more from the spirituality of local folk art and poetry is not an easy path but it remains the biggest challenge for all creative men and women of Bangladesh cinema.

Edited by James Evans