Mid-shot of a row of men sitting and looking bored in the middle of nowhere in Bangladesh. Camera pans the faces.
It was raining hard as they trudged through the muddy lands of rural Bangladesh searching for women who had suffered and survived 1971. They are shooting a documentary on the role of women in the liberation war. But insistent rains had put a brief halt to their work. They are sitting on the plain wooden chairs so kindly offered by the hosts —total strangers naturally—who are being the typical generous rural people who let urban people, any urban people, muddle through their courtyard and life, and never receive a word of apology. Lazy conversation flows
What’s the biggest problem in making a video?
Shortage of common sense.
The very desire to do it.
Crowd control. See them wait till the rain ends so that they can come around and watch us shoot. Just imagine what happens when a full-fledged film is done. It is a massive task.
Don’t worry. There won’t be any crowd left very soon. What’s the time?
Because at 3 pm sharp Bangladesh Television will start showing the weekly Bangla film and that’s when the crowd goes home to watch something more interesting than makers of a video.
Close shot of rural Bangla salons watching the mini screen. Hundreds of people are fading into homes and neighbour’s homes. They forget to brush muddy feet, and enjoy themselves to the hilt. The most popular programmes of Bangladesh Television are the film shows The next most popular is the movie song show. There’s an irony somewhere but it’s lost in the sound of the first song-and-dance routine.
CUT TO Ahmed Zaman Chowdhury (AZC), editor of Chitrali, Bangladesh’s oldest cine weekly. Chitrali was established even before films were produced in Bangladesh. AZC is not just an editor but a dialogue, script, story and song writer as well. He has now forayed into film and TV. “If you take South Asia I would say that the Bangladesh film industry is the most successful one after Hindi and South India. We are better off than Pakistan and other SAARC countries and much bigger than most Indian regions, including West Bengal. Calcutta’s Tollywood is nowhere near Dollywood.”
How many are produced every year? What is the size of investment per film?
“In 1993-94 the industry produced over 70 films. The figure would be higher now, certainly more than 80 films. There are of course a number of films which get started but never finish because of so many reasons.”
That would take a lot of cinema halls to show, right?
“Of course. In 1972 there were around 300 cinema halls, that figure now stands at around 1200. If you take the thousand who watch every day, day in day out, you will see that it reaches more people than any other medium. TV hits its highest ratings when they show films. This is a cinema-driven mass culture.”
CUT TO rural and rainy Bengal filled with the depressed TV crew. The cameraman is a Poona Film Institute graduate of two decades’ vintage. He is a seriously respected veteran with many tales of the movie world. He says it’s a world of its own with its own sub-culture and hierarchies. It seems that the movie world is a fertile ground for anthropological studies with its gradations, fraternities, conflicts and classes. Some suggest it is not anthro- but ethno-graphy. Meanwhile the crowds have melted away to many homes and the TV sets are blaring away. The rain threatens to stop. A solitary kid with school-books under his arm has still not given up hope. He hangs around to watch the crew.
CUT TO AZC holding forth with great relish. “The cost of film-making is high here but it attracts a huge number of people because there is the promise of instant money and a few other things.”
What are these other things?
“Well, there is the glamour factor for one thing. And the proximity to stars, pretty women in general are rather heady inspirations for many, especially with some extra and sometimes unaccountable cash to spend.”
So how much does it cost to produce a movie? How many actually make a profit?
“The average cost of production is 1 crore [10 million] taka, that is over 200,000 dollars. About 30 percent of the films manage not to lose money but the rest are just break evens or lose some money.”
So why invest if it’s so insecure?
“It’s not insecure at all. About five to seven movies are mega hits every year. That means they make three to four times the investment. Another five-seven films return double the investment and generate more films. Say 10 films just make it. Of course half of the films made never make any money. But if you have the right stars, right amount of pre-release publicity and connections, you can be assured of 70 percent of your initial investment. And that will keep a lot of people coming in and those who enter rarely leave. You have to admit it’s got a narcotic effect. Filmmaking is an addiction.”
CUT TO the TV crew feeling more cheerful as the rain drifts away. Some kids who have probably not been allowed to watch the film on television edge closer. A few women step out to finish chores, but otherwise the village scene is deserted.
Do you watch movies?
The boys nod their head.
Whom do you like?
Villains. They smile happily as they answer. (Great intellectual debate ensues on the role of villains in movie history).
CUT TO Chinmoy Mutsuddi, editor of Binodon Bichitra, a cine magazine and author of a large volume on the history of Bangla film. A journalist who dabbles in development activities, he was close to Zahir Raihan, the man who made “art, commercial and polemical” movies with great success. The great icon of the tinsel world. He died in 1972.
He was killed when he went to look for his brother who had been abducted by Pakistani partisans holding out in a Dhaka suburb. “Zahir Raihan was the stuff with which legends are made. His commitment was not just to the art form but to the cause of people. His documentary Stop. Genocide on the plight of the people in 1971 is a classic and is still the best work on that period. In that film, created under great difficulties and limitations, he showed the talent he had.
“Had he survived, he would have been able to lead a new wave. He did leave behind a stream of followers like the late Alamgir Kabir who tried to make commercially valid quality films but the mainstream is very different from what can be national cinema. It is a market sensitive sector and caters to an audience which is interested in passing time. I believe such films will naturally be made but other types of movies should flourish as well.”
CUT TO AZC who nods his head. “To be honest the movies made here are mostly copies of Hindi films. There is no demand for original films…”
But cable TV allows them to see the real ones, why do they want to see reconstructions?
“Because it’s in Bangla and they can understand. Because the stars and locations are their own and they can identify with them. It’s the psychological frame of the mass culture, a subject I taught at the university for a period.”
JUMP CUT to the video crew now getting ready to start shooting. This time the crowd control effort is minimal but light is fading. Most of the crew members are earnest young people who are members of the Short Film Forum (SFF). They are driven by the adrenalin of youth and dreams. One day they all hope to make that definitive film which will leave a mark, will be in the grand tradition of Satyajit, Mrinal, Ritwick… Meanwhile, they lend shoulders to such efforts working without payment or for a meagre amount, happy to turn idealism into practice.
But members of the SFF haven’t done too badly. A number of their films have won awards. They are certainly very competent with documentaries. Tareqe Masud is a good example, whose Muktir Gaan is one of the best-known documentary films in the country, made by cutting a quarter-century old archive. Some others like Morshedul Islam (Chaka), Niyamat Ali and Mashiuddin Shaker (Surya Dighal Bari) and a few others have won prizes at home and abroad. Humayun Ahmed, the country’s leading TV playwright and best-selling novelist, has produced films which have won national awards and have collected money as well. And there is a growing list of films which are of the parallel variety. It’s always this way at the beginning. Their face brightens as the sun appears and the camera goes into action silently.
CUT TO AZC who is relaxing with the plot of a commercial he is planning to make. “You are right. The growth of the unofficial Bangladeshi film market in West Bengal is a strange but interesting scenario. It began with Beder Meye jotsna, the all-time greatest hit made in the mid-1980s. The story line is a folk tale which touches everyone. After it became a hit here, a producer there recognised the potential and remade the film with the heroine Anju Ghosh and it was a mega-hit there as well. And then came the deluge. Now Bangladeshi remakes are a serious growth industry there.”
But West Bengal film makers there are protesting about being swamped by cheap Bangla products. “Actually Tollywood was in serious trouble after the super growth of Hindi films. They were making only 15-20 films a year although it costs only about 40 lakhs at the most. And what they do now is remake Dhaka-made Bangladeshi remakes of the Hindi movies. The industry there simply can’t compete with Bollywood. The golden era of Uttam Kumar Suchitra Sen is long over.”
And we hear that many Bangladeshis have shifted there?
“Yes. Anju Ghosh and a few other actre-sses, Narayan Ghosh, Dilip Biswas, etcetera, are all working there full time. In fact,some have even migrated to India. Many already had their families there. They had connections from before.”
CUT TO Chinmoy Mutsuddi supervising the pasting of the centre-spread. It’s Ayesha Julkha, the Bollywood starlet who is acting in a Indo-Bangla joint production. She had said that Dhaka and Calcutta are miles behind Bombay in terms of production value.
“Calcutta cinema is also playground of people who have drawn the face of Indian cinema. Ray, Sen, Ghatak, Utpalendu and others including Buddhadeb who has made films with stars from Bangladesh.”
CUT TO the video crew walking back to their temporary shelter in some remote part of Bangladesh. Their dreams grow large as the night falls and they talk of the film they must make. Night falls. Insects blare. TVs blare. Dreams blare.