Cinema and the melodrama of nationalism
By Lotte Hoek
15 March 2017
Understanding the recent furore over Hindi cinema in Bangladesh.
(This is an essay from our September 2015 print quarterly, ‘The Bangladesh Paradox’. See more from the issue here.)
“Before destroying a country, they destroy its culture,” declared a man wearing a white bandana and black sunglasses in Dhaka in January 2015. “We know our country is free,” he continued before the gathered crowd, “but there are still dalals [middlemen] and rajakars [traitors] among us!” The crowd applauded and someone cheered ‘Joy Bangla!’ “If you want to destroy a nation, you start with its culture and its intellectuals!” he cried. “You have all seen this in the Liberation War!” The audience cheered and enthusiastically recorded the sight and sounds on their mobiles.
The man with the microphone was neither a politician nor an activist, but the hero of nearly every successful action film released in Bangladesh in recent years, Shakib Khan. He was not running for office or lending his support to a candidate, this address before the gathered press and fans was strictly film business. Yet he linked his address directly to the father of the nation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. “Bongobondhu [Sheikh Mujib] made a law, that no Subcontinental films could be released here.” He added, “Disobeying Bongobondhu, while his party is in power, through illegal means, on the black market, they are releasing these films!” His invocation of 1971, the political transformations wrought by Sheikh Mujib, and the destruction of culture and intellectual life, were all part of a fiery protest against the government’s decision to release a handful of Hindi films in Bangladeshi cinema halls.
Banned since the India-Pakistan war of 1965, no Southasian cinema can be screened in Bangladeshi theatres today without special permissions, effectively protecting the national film industry and guaranteeing its unrivalled run in cinema halls. A brief suspension of the ban in early 2010, proposed by the Ministry of Commerce to stall the decay of Bangladeshi cinema halls and perhaps improve trade relations with India, allowed the import of some Indian films. But within days the film industry forced the commerce minister to revert its decision. A lengthy legal tussle ensued and was eventually decided in favour of the importers.
Under the Ministry of Commerce’s Import Policy Order 2012-2015, equal numbers of films from South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) countries can be imported into the country as the number of Bangladeshi films being exported, provided the imported films have Bengali or English subtitles. This allowed Hindi films imported during the brief 2010 window to be brought before the Censor Board. By early 2015, four films were certified and ready for release. This was seen as a glimmer of hope for struggling film distributors and exhibitors, whose theatres had been shutting down at an alarming rate over the last decade.
The move to show these four films in theatres irked the Film Producers and Director’s Association and the Film Artists’ Association of Bangladesh at the Bangladesh Film Development Corporation (FDC). They organised themselves as the Bangladesh Cholochitro Oikkyajot (Bangladesh Cinema Collective). They led a movement, known as the FDC Andolon, calling to disallow any future imports of films from India and demanded the withdrawal of the censor certification of the four films. It was in this context that Shakib Khan donned the white bandana and styled himself after the political activists he sometimes plays on screen. Tempers ran high and the movement quickly degenerated into a spectacle. Posters for Wanted, an Indian film set for release, were burned and press conferences were held. Placards read: “Break and demolish the dark hand (kalo haath) of the importers of Hindi and Urdu film.”
But very little of what Khan said during the protest was accurate. The law against screening foreign cinema dates back to before the Liberation War, even though it was reaffirmed after it. Additionally, the exhibitors had not resorted to ‘illegal means’ to release these films but used existing legislation to receive the requisite certification from the Censor Board. The idea that anyone would import Urdu films (which many Bangladeshis equate with Pakistani films) into Bangladesh is highly unlikely, especially given the state of the Urdu movie industry in Pakistan. On top of this, given the circulation of Indian cinema in Bangladesh – via satellite television, DVDs/VCDs and the internet – there were few people left who had not already seen the films in question: Wanted, Taare Zameen Par, Don 2 and 3 Idiots.
Nonetheless, the fiery rhetoric and the spectacular protests achieved the goal. Stressing the threat to the national film industry, both in terms of a loss of jobs and a challenge to Bangladeshi culture, the film industry lobbied the government and used its extensive media apparatus to get the decision reversed. The exhibitors and importers emphasised the importance of Indian cinema for the revival of cinema halls and the film industry of Bangladesh, and repeated that they had acted within the bounds of the law and filed all the necessary paperwork, they lost the battle. Wanted was taken down by the cinema halls and the Information Ministry assured that, besides historical Bengali-language films, no other Indian films would be imported under the import policy . This surprising outcome raises the question of why there were such passionate contests over the release of these Hindi films.
The steamers from Dhaka arrive in Barisal just before the sun rises over the Kirtonkhola River. Connected to the capital by water, the picturesque city is intersected by smaller canals and ponds. Just beside the Bibir Pukur, the large pond that marks the centre of the town stands the Obhiruchi cinema hall. This old-fashioned single-screen theatre sits comfortably among the two-and three-storey buildings of the main drag of the riverside town.
One afternoon in late 2013, while waiting for the evening ferry to take us back to Dhaka, my friends and I were lured into the theatre for some ‘time-pass’. The film playing at Obhiruchi was Inchi, Inchi Prem by Raju Chowdhury with Bappi Chowdhury in the lead. The story combines action with romance. The format it follows is the familiar campus love story: a boy and a girl enrolled in a private college in Dhaka resist romance but inevitably fall in love as they try to help their less glamorous friends get together. Since this is popular Bangladeshi action cinema, the romantic end is not achieved without vanquishing evil uncles and warring captains of industry, while also facing the dangers of violent student politics that racks most Bangladeshi campuses. An early scene in Inchi sets the tone for the gender and class conflicts at the heart of most popular Bangladeshi action films: the heroine says that it is because of lazy students who involve themselves in student politics that the exam schedule is compromised. The dashing hero responds that politics is the difficult business that poor students have to get involved in to make it in college. This early exchange sets up the remainder of the film’s plot.
For a Tuesday afternoon, the house did not feel too empty. There were more patrons than I expected. All the back rows of the balcony were filled and included a number of young women. Sitting in the middle of the balcony, we heard the laughter and whistling of those behind us, as they got into the narrative. What drew particular enthusiasm were the song sequences. Normally a time for viewers to take a quick break, wandering in and out of the hall for refreshments and fresh air, at Obhiruchi the song and dance scene were a big hit. More than the choreography and the modern beats in the movie, it was the special light effects installed in the theatre that enthralled the spectators. Whenever a song came on, the projectionist sent a flurry of green and red dots dancing across the screen and the walls of the auditorium. Adding festivity to the songs, it also drew the spectator’s attention to each other’s presence in the cinema hall.
“It’s something special we added here,” said the hall owner when I talked to him afterwards. I was taken up to the projection room to see the new digital projection installation. The long-standing, permanently employed projectionist, dressed in a lungi and white vest, sat beside his idle carbon-lit machine. On the other side of him, keeping an eye on his own equipment, stood his much younger colleague, clean shaven and dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. The younger man had travelled from Dhaka with the digital projector that had been rented by Obhiruchi to screen Inchi, Inchi Prem. But the light effect, also digital, was Obhiruchi’s own. “The audience likes it,” said the owner.
The transition to digital projection was not yet permanent in Obhiruchi. Second-or third-run celluloid was still screened through its own older projectors. But with more films being made digitally in Dhaka, Obhiruchi has had to rent a digital projector and an accompanying projectionist to screen the newest releases. It was an attempt to avoid being shut down, the fate of many cinema halls in Bangladesh. Ten years ago, there were more than 1000 halls. By 2015, the numbers had more than halved. Film producers were now focused on consolidating their digital production skills which allowed them to release many more digital copies of a movie than would be possible on prohibitively expensive in celluloid, even in the numerically few remaining cinema halls. But exhibitors had been under great strain to remain in business, especially when they lost audiences to other formats and were financially unable to transition to digital screening.
Bangladesh’s film industry has been in flux, facing a bumpy transition to digital production and projection, which reached deep into the small-town distribution circuits that have for long been the beating heart of the industry. Transitioning to digital projection is one way to entice the dwindling audiences back into theatres. With the rapid expansion of personal screens, propelled by the easy availability of cheap Chinese smartphones to TVs in tea-stalls, Bangladeshi and international audio-visual content is now available everywhere, including along the ghats of the Kirtankhola River. Cinema halls such as Obhiruchi have had to work harder to retain its patrons. The light and sound show was one weapon in the larger battle for the attention of the Bangladeshi film viewer, of which the FDC Andolon against the Hindi movies was also a part. Both were a response to the economic transformation of the film industry and a fight for livelihoods in cinema. Digitalisation was an attempt to save the cinema halls from closure and the FDC Andolon aimed to keep film-industry personnel in the business that could be lost if popular Indian cinema were to compete for the attention of Bangladeshi viewers. It partially explains the great agitation and public displays of January 2015. But it isn’t the entire story.
Pleasure and pain
Bangladesh is not the only place where the relationship to Hindi film is ambivalent. In Nepal, Bhutan and Pakistan too, as well as in certain regions within India, the omnipresence of Hindi cinema and its deep insertion into everyday life has created repeated anxieties, both private and public. From Maoist bans in Manipur to selective releases in Pakistan, across Southasia, the intimate presence of the Hindi cinema has produced delight and despair.
In Bangladesh, the legal contortions around the access of Indian films to its cinema halls go back decades. After Partition, with the film studios of Bengal now in India, the films screened in East Pakistani cinema halls were Indian, British and American, as well as from West Pakistan. Soon, tensions in the western wing of the country over the availability of Indian films in West Pakistan spilled out into East Pakistan. When the Indian film Jaal, licensed to screen in East Pakistan only, appeared on the screens of West Pakistan it sparked the ‘Jaal Movement’ in 1954 among West Pakistani filmmakers who called for the banning of Indian cinema. Subsequently the import of Indian films was further regulated and differentiated for East Pakistan. By the war of 1965, Indian cinema was banned from Pakistani screens (East and the West) altogether. After the War of Independence in 1971, the regulation remained in place in newly liberated Bangladesh. Since then, special permission has been required to screen foreign cinema in the theatres of Bangladesh.
Of course, such legislation has done little to stem the flow of Indian cinema into the country. Whether through screenings of art films at the Indian High Commission, the circulation of VHS tapes through wealthy households and video clubs or, more recently, diffusion through the many Indian satellite television channels, mobile phone downloads and other digital mediums, Indian cinema has never really been absent in Bangladesh. Fluid borders and new media technologies have combined with the ancillary industries of a globalised Bollywood since the late 1990s to fuel a consistent desire to watch Indian films, hear and sing and dance to its songs, emulate its stars or consume the products they endorse. Even those who are disinterested or reluctant cannot possibly insulate themselves from the overwhelming presence of the Hindi cinema in contemporary Bangladesh.
The formal legislation that keeps Indian cinema out of Bangladeshi cinema halls and the informal acceptance of this cinema as a central feature of the country’s media landscape appears as somewhat of a paradox. Why did the certification of the four Hindi films, featuring widely beloved stars Salman Khan and Amir Khan, create such a noisy and successful movement? The dismay of producers, directors and artists dependent on box office revenue can be easily understood. But what of those who are not directly involved in producing or distributing movies, and had no direct economic stake in the outcome of the battle? How were they mobilised against films they had most likely already seen, perhaps in bits, whether actively sought out or imbibed through cultural osmosis?
The worst movie ever
According to the international movie database IMDb, for a period of time in 2014, ‘the worst movie ever made’ was an Indian film called Gunday (Ali Abbas Zafar, 2014). Set in the 1970s in Kolkata, the Yash Raj production had attracted the wrath of many young, media savvy and vocal Bangladeshis. In the opening minutes of the film, reference is made to the 1971 War of Independence as a war between India and Pakistan, arguably diminishing the role of the longer history of the movement for independence within East Pakistan and the war efforts there. While this was almost certainly an effect of ignorance, disinterest and incompetence on the part of the producers (Indian cinema is rarely interested in Bangladesh, and besides the opening few minutes, Gunday isn’t either), it galvanised a movement against this misrepresentation of the history of Bangladesh in Hindi cinema. After social media was mobilised to raise awareness, thousands (presumably Bangladeshis) took to the IMDb website to vote on the film and that ensured Gunday ended up at the bottom of the global movie pile.
The activists targeting Gunday (which was eventually taken up by the Foreign Minister of Bangladesh) were of the Gonojagoron Moncho (Stage for People’s Uprising). Emerging out of the Shahbag protests in 2013, which had coalesced around the demand to sentence to death war criminals from the 1971 Liberation War, this broad collective of activists had subsequently developed into a country wide nationalist movement. Whatever else the Shahbag movement and the nation-wide organisation of Moncho accomplished, unfolding alongside and through it was the consolidation of a narrowing nationalist rhetoric about 1971. A longstanding concern of the intelligentsia – and for obvious reasons alive within the domain of Awami League politics – the Shahbag moment can be seen as a potent gathering point for the public articulation of the Liberation War as a set of ideals and ideas expressed through the tropes of 1971.
What has been evident subsequent to the Shahbag protests is that speech drawing on 1971 as a rhetorical device have been rapidly transposed into an increasingly wide domain of social action. Erupting online as much as in the streets, talk about the Liberation War has progressively become a rhetorical device by which a range of issues can be understood and through which quick decisions about ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ can be made. It can be seen in different instances: from the flippant Minister for Social Welfare who blames his chain-smoking on the devastations of the liberation war to the systematic online patrolling by ‘CP gang’ members, an online group, about how 1971 or Sheikh Mujib are referred to and depicted. This multipurpose usage of 1971 as a coverall argument can be called the master discourse, in which the Liberation War functions as a central signifier that has gradually lost its particular meaning in favour a wider, more generalised usage. Within this larger field, the Liberation War can be inserted into myriad contexts to produce seemingly meaningful and undefeatable arguments. This is why the opening minutes of Gunday were not just factually inaccurate; they immediately sentenced the film to absolute abjection. The discursive scheme into which Gunday rapidly disappeared was the same as that used by Shakib during the FDC Andolon.
The master discourse
The master discourse of 1971 is a melodramatic form par excellence. It presents a simplified moral universe in the context of social transformations. It operates through highly conventionalised rhetoric and gestures that point to a Manichean order of right and wrong. It produces immediate ‘clarity’ and comfort in a complex world. The politics of the moment in Bangladesh, then, can be described as the melodrama of nationalism.
Shakib Khan’s speech against the certification of the four Indian films makes clear how the melodramatic discourse of 1971 can be utilised to create effective and efficacious political statements. An unlikely activist, his speeches during the movement seemed to draw directly on the many monologues of his on-screen career. Often cast as a dashing but struggling young man, who takes the law into his own hands to restore ‘moral order’ to a corrupt city and its wealthy inhabitants, speeches about ‘our’ honour, ‘their’ immorality, the presence of a ‘dark hand’, and the necessary fight to reclaim the pride and position of the ‘good’ and ‘just’ were not unfamiliar to Shakib Khan. His speeches in January 2015 were similarly marked by highly charged statements and animated gestures. His stylised mode of address drew equally on the political slogans and formulations of movements past as on the imaginary resource of the cinema’s presentation of the political activist. The facts were less relevant than the efficacy of the form. It was the emotive tug, the pull of lines already heard, clear gestures and the reassurance of a clear enemy that produced an immediate response in the audience. Now, the only response to the call ‘No More Hindi and Urdu Films’ could be ‘Joy Bangla!’. Never mind that Bangladeshi audiences across the country had already eagerly lapped up Taare Zameen Par and Wanted.
The FDC Andolon against the certification of old Hindi films fits seamlessly into the nationalist spectacle that has been so visible since the public eruptions around the Shahbag movement. The point here is not to undermine the importance of the arguments made during and subsequent to that movement. Rather, it is to note that a particular form of contemporary politics has become available to a variety of struggles, including the FDC Andolon. While this movement was ultimately an economic battle between film distributors and hall owners on the one hand, and producers, directors and artists on the other, the latter were now able to effectively rephrase their position regarding Indian cinema as organically linked to 1971 and its atrocities. When Shakib spoke against Indian film in terms of the War of Liberation, this was a meaningful and understandable way of approaching the issue.
What the FDC Andolon has in common with the popular Bangladeshi antipathy towards Gunday is the way it uses the language of the Liberation War to frame its complaints. Both cases show that the tropes of the Liberation War are increasingly becoming the key means for making any form of public demand that can be articulated, heard and understood.
A wide range of social conflicts has been streamlined by transcribing them into the central theme of the Liberation War. It seems as if there is not a problem or topic that cannot be articulated by framing it the terms of the Liberation War. The film industry has been able to use this imagination of 1971 as a set of undefeatable arguments against Indian cinema.
Given the fact that the conflict between producers and distributers was rephrased as a question of being for or against the Liberation War, the distributors were bound to lose. The inventive use of light effects at Obhiruchi illustrates the economic insecurities that form the backdrop to the distributors’ and exhibitors’ desire to expand what can be screened in Bangladeshi cinema halls. But the moment the FDC Andolon rephrased the issue in the terms of traitors and patriots – a battle between dark and light – this issue could only be settled in favour of the producers. With his white bandana tied tightly around his forehead, it was Shakib Khan who won the battle against the ‘dark hand’.
~Lotte Hoek is a media anthropologist. She is the author of Cut-Pieces: Celluloid Obscenity and Popular Cinema in Bangladesh. She is a senior lecturer of Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh.
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