The Other National Cinema in Bangladesh by Mahmudul Hossain argues that alternative cinema is the other and equally important side of the coin of cinema in Bangladesh. It portrays the collective dream of the people, explores the history of Bangladesh, and asks questions that are relevant to the society, its politics and philosophy.
The following are excerpts from the book.
1971 saw the formal struggle for achieving an alternate nationhood. ‘Joy Bangla’, although an overtly nationalistic slogan, was all-encompassing in spirit, and the people wanted to keep faith on it as the basis for an exploitation free all-inclusive society. ‘Stop Genocide’ (1971), the path breaking documentary by Zahir Raihan from this period, perhaps represents this spirit at its best. The film is universal in its appeal for stopping genocides all over the world. It puts the tragedy of genocide and displacement of the people of Bangladesh in parallel with such human tragedies elsewhere. It has a strong political bias for the emancipation of the downtrodden and disadvantaged people. Formally, it is very close to the works of the Latin American Third Cinema. Zahir Raihan made the film independently with the help from a Kolkata based organisation named Society for Aiding Bangladesh. The Indian government bought a print of the film for a worldwide campaign in favour of the freedom fight of Bangladesh. Meanwhile, the Bangladesh government, in exile, assigned Zahir Raihan to oversee the production of three other documentaries on different aspects of the liberation war. ‘Liberation Fighters’ (1971), ‘A State is Born’ (1971) and ‘Innocent Millions’ (1971) were directed by Alamgir Kabir, Zahir Raihan and Babul Chowdhury respectively under this project. Thus, film in Bangladesh debuted through such alternative images that were so different from the gazes that we have talked about at the beginning of this article!
The first government of the liberated Bangladesh decided to give a blanket protection to the local cinema industry. Import of foreign films was completely banned. This only gave rise to a black money induced pumped mainstream film industry. But there was no programme for creating a national cinema as part of the nation building process. During the liberation war a group of filmmakers under the leadership of Zahir Raihan had formulated a scheme for nationalisation of the film industry ‘with a view to ushering a new era, artistically and technically’ (Kader, 1993, p. 50). However, no such radical measure materialised. The efforts at creating art cinema remained as marginalised as ever. The harrowing experience of makers of few such films in the 1970s and early ’80s tell the story too well. ‘Titas Ekti Nadir Naam’(1973) by one of the great masters of Bengali film Ritwik Ghatak, ‘Charitraheen’(1975) by Baby Islam, ‘Surya Grahan’(1976) and ‘Shurjo Shongram’(1979) by Abdus Samad, ‘Megher Onek Rong’(1976) by Harunur Rashid, ‘Bashundhara’(1977) and ‘Dumorer Phool’(1978) by Subhash Dutta, ‘Suporvat’(1976) by Kabir Anwar, ‘Ghuddi’(1980) by Syed Salauddin Zaki, ‘Suruj Mia’(1984) by Kazal Arefin are films which can be broadly categorised as efforts to create the artistic cinematic image during the period. Almost all the films faced serious distribution issues and were commercial failures.
Alamgir Kabir was a film journalist and a film society activist in the 1960s. Prior to that, he was a journalist and had taken courses in film studies in the United Kingdom. He participated in the 1971 liberation war as a radio broadcaster and filmmaker. After Zahir Raihan had disappeared mysteriously on 30th January, 1972 and never to return, Alamgir Kabir became a full-time filmmaker. He made 6 full length feature films in the 1970s and ’80s. These films, along with the films mentioned above, were the first examples of chronological efforts to make films against the mainstream film trends and against a sea of odds. His films like ‘Dhire Bohe Meghna’ (1972), ‘Surjo Kanya’ (1976), ‘Shimana Periye’ (1977), ‘Rupali Saikate’ (1979) or ‘Mohona’(1982) tried relentlessly to connect with the great liberation war, anti-communalism, feminism and international struggle against imperialism. It may be argued that these films sowed the seeds of national cinema in Bangladesh. Ironically, these films, like the ones mentioned above, were not commercially successful and were thrown into the margin.
‘Surja Dighal Bari’(1979) was made by the film society activists Masihudddin Shaker and Sheikh Niamat Ali. Interestingly, this film received the national film grant once the process was introduced in 1978. Till date, this film remains one of the most powerful examples of filming the ‘other image’ in Bangladesh using the traditional filmmaking and distribution system. The fate this film had to endure was perhaps a whistle-blower for the next generation of alternative filmmakers to come and the path they decided to take. To discuss briefly about this iconic film, one notices that it is a strong feminist visual text. The film casts a brilliant glance at the changing hands of the baton of colonialism. At the same time, it presents a highly class-conscious cinema narrative. The makers of the film, initially, could not even find a cinema theatre in Dhaka to release the film. The film won the national award for the best film and some other important awards at International Film Festivals.
Beginning with Alamgir Kabir’s films of the 1970s, we shall see that the art cinema ventures in Bangladesh had become synonymous with national and alternate cinema efforts. Although there was no formal announcement from any quarter of the filmmaking community about a movement for national cinema, the textual tendency of the serious cinemas had a few attributes common in most of them which point at their commitment towards a nation building process. These include historicity, conscious efforts at promoting pro-people causes and depiction of cultural values that had deep ethnographic roots in this land. Art filmmakers considered themselves vanguards of a just society rather than individual artists. It may be argued that the absence of government patronization for a national cinema during the early days after liberation and the following repressive military regimes which suppressed the core values of the great liberation war forced filmmakers into such overt socio-political stance. As the films they made failed to reach the audience through mainstream exhibition networks, they decided to think in terms of alternatives.