In 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic saw difficulties and losses for many people in Bangladesh. However, things began looking up as the months went by. Near the end of the year, the coronavirus situation in the country did not seem as menacing to the relief of all who had endured a long, brutal pandemic and the consequent lockdown.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in March 2020, the people of Bangladesh, like those of other countries, began adjusting to new ways of doing things. A new habit developed during the pandemic was people’s increased dependence on online communication. Schools and universities held classes online, seminars usually held in-person were replaced by webinars. During lockdown, people became far more dependent on internet-based communication to stay in touch for both information and entertainment.
As cinemas closed, over-the-top (OTT) platforms allowed people access to movies made in different countries. Drama series released on these platforms also grew in popularity in Bangladesh. Instead of going to the theatre, many people now watch films through streaming services.
Under these circumstances, it would be interesting to examine the following questions:
Does this new habit of watching films, web series, and dramas from home online encourage audiences to develop an interest in watching thought-provoking, socially-meaningful art?
Do the contents of contemporary films and dramas on various video streaming platforms condition the audience to watch cultural productions only focused on entertainment?
What types of films and dramas are in vogue in Bangladesh these days, and what could be their effect on their audiences?
The answers to these questions will help us understand the characteristic features of contemporary Bangladeshi films, television dramas, and web series and how they mould the taste of many people in Bangladesh.
In the 1960s, Bangladesh’s cinemas screened many famous western films. State-run Bangladesh Television also held weekly showings of famous western films until the 1990s. In those days, there was no way to watch movies easily via the internet, yet film audiences in Bangladesh were exposed to the work of famous actors like Marlon Brando, Alec Guinness, Clark Gable, Gregory Peck, Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren, Doris Day, Gina Lollobrigida, Rock Hudson, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman and others.
Certain film societies also organised screenings of essential films made by European, Latin American, African, and Asian filmmakers. But, nowadays, such screenings are rarely organised in Dhaka city or any other major cities.
On Bangladeshi television channels and newspapers, we rarely see programmes or articles that introduce the audience to famous filmmakers such as Vittorio De Sica, Akira Kurosawa, Alfred Hitchcock, and Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Yasujiro Ozu, Ousmane Sembene, Tomas Gutierrez Alea and others. Due to the absence of screenings and discussions, even more highly educated contemporary Bangladeshis are unfamiliar with many profound, thought-provoking masterpieces of world cinema, such as The Bicycle Thief by Vittorio De Sica, Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa, The Battle of Algiers by Gillo Pontecorvo, and La Dolce Vita by Federico Fellini.
There is also a lack of content that raises awareness of the strengths and importance of the films made by internationally-acclaimed Bengali directors such as Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. These three directors made socially-conscious films replete with innovative film techniques. Their work received a great deal of critical attention both at home and abroad. They inspired many filmmakers in other regions of India to make socially-responsible films that deployed unorthodox cinematic techniques.
In the past 50 years, few attempts have been made in Bangladesh to make films unconventional in both form and content. Most such attempts were made in the 1970s and the 1980s, when some of our most important films were made. Zahir Raihan and Alamgir Kabir made a few documentaries when they went into exile to India during the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971. Zahir Raihan made Jiban Theke Neya, a politically-committed film, just a year before the war began. In the movie, drawing on an allegorical narrative, the director strongly denounced the dictatorial rule of then East Pakistan.
In the 1970s, Alamgir Kabir broke with tradition and made a few formally innovative films. He used new film techniques that were not commonplace in Bangladeshi cinema then. His movies did not rattle the audience by portraying the bitter harshness of social injustices but still provided relevant critiques of society.
A few other Bangladeshi films, such as Ghuddi by Syed Salahuddin Zaki, Surjo Dighal Bari by Masihuddin Shaker and Sheikh Niamat Ali, and Matir Moina by Tareque Masud, stood out for tackling significant social issues through the use of innovative cinematic techniques. Tareque Masud’s maiden full-length feature, Matir Moina, was strongly critical of religious bigotry and the political use of religion. Inhumane acts caused by religious intolerance and extremism often afflict Bangladesh’s people, yet criticisms of religious discrimination are rare in Bangladeshi films. Films may be reluctant to deal with this long-standing problem, fearing that the subject matter may offend people. In this context, Tareque Masud’s attempt to confront this problem was brave as he used cinema as a social tool to raise awareness of the ills of a significant social issue.
Severe social and political problems such as political corruption, lack of accountability, abuse of power by privileged individuals and groups, religious extremism and intolerance, lack of historical consciousness, conformism and sycophancy persist in Bangladesh. Yet, few contemporary Bangladeshi films confront these pressing issues. A few movies portray certain unjust acts, but the blame is placed on a few petty wrongdoers, and the leading causes of these problems are not depicted.
Formal experimentation is also absent in almost all contemporary Bangladeshi films. The absence of complicated and innovative cinematic techniques and devices in Bangladeshi alternative films produced in the past 15 years makes us wonder if current directors are aware of the importance of using unconventional film styles. Even when the subject matter of certain films differs from the usual cliché-ridden entertainment, the lack of unorthodox techniques results in these movies failing to make an impression. Why has this important idea - that innovative cinematic language is crucial to films - been neglected in our current media landscape?
This may be because older films, especially the classics of world cinema, are rarely shown. If people are not shown well-made films, and if cinema devoid of innovative cinematic language and critical social messages is frequently extolled and eulogised in the media, people will mistake poorly-made films for good ones. Satyajit Ray’s Pratidwandi, Mrinal Sen’s Calcutta 71, Ritwik Ghatak’s Jukti, Takko aar Gappo, Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment, Ousmane Sembene’s Xala and many other films reject the conventions of commercially-motivated cinema and provide trenchant criticisms of social and political problems while using innovative and unorthodox film techniques.
In Bangladesh, Alamgir Kabir’s Rupali Shaikate, Syed Salahuddin Zaki’s Ghuddi, Tareque Masud’s Matir Moina incorporate unconventional film techniques such as documentary footage, flashbacks, or drawing attention to the filmmaking process by showing the camera or the shooting of a film, the use of symbols, or voice-over narration. In these films, the dialogue is also thought-provoking and conveys the political statements of the directors.
Such serious films made at home and abroad are rarely discussed in contemporary Bangladeshi society. Many film viewers today are unaware of these important films. On the contrary, viewers are constantly fed shallow entertainment. Young characters often appear in contemporary movies and television dramas and talk on mobile phones, visit restaurants and holiday resorts, and drive expensive cars. Most of the time, the focus is on their personal issues or romantic relationships. But such characters are not shown reading books and newspapers, nor are they seen discussing critical historical events or the country’s issues.
These films and television dramas divert people’s attention from social and political realities by providing them with escapist entertainment. These media productions do not help the audience cultivate their aesthetic taste and social consciousness. The preferences of many people in Bangladesh are conditioned by a regular diet of films and television dramas that emphasise light entertainment. As such, many do not demonstrate a strong interest in watching serious movies. Instead of conscious efforts to develop interest in serious cultural creations, these productions race to appease the lowest common denominator and cater to the mass market.
Russian playwright Anton Chekhov once said about the eminent Russian dramatist and novelist Nikolai Gogol: “You must not lower Gogol to the people, but raise the people to the level of Gogol.”
In Bangladesh, we need to see proper initiatives to create an environment that would help people appreciate and develop a predilection for artistically-innovative, socially-conscious films and television dramas.
By producing and disseminating thought-provoking films and television dramas, it is possible to enlighten audiences and educate them on the importance of artistic subtlety and social consciousness in creative works. When more people in Bangladesh want to watch serious, socially-responsible productions, we will witness a growing interest in making films and television dramas where artistic merit and social commitment precede superficiality, flamboyance and financial gain.
Dr Naadir Junaid is Professor, Department of Mass Communication and Journalism, University of Dhaka.