New Wave

Bangladeshi Cinema is Coming of Age

Ishita Sengupta

When a driver of a refrigerated van in Dhaka finds a murdered female journalist in his vehicle, his life turns upside down. He soon receives a call from a stranger and gets entangled in a mess. By the time he navigates through it with his best friend, he loses more than he had bargained for.

“Taqdeer” (“Predestination”), an eight-episode thriller web series directed by Bangladeshi filmmaker Syed Ahmed Shawki and released in 2020 on the Bengali streaming service Hoichoi, became the first web series in the country to find both popular and critical reception. Social media was abuzz for weeks, and people were sharing fan theories on Facebook. Shawki was surprised when major media outlets published reviews, since film criticism has not been a thriving discipline in Bangladesh. Such a level of interest in a web series was unprecedented in a country where the primary mode of storytelling since the 1990s had been television.

Shawki returned in 2022 with “Karagar” (“Prison”), another web series, which centered on a mysterious mute convict who surfaces inside a prison cell that had been locked since 1971, the year that Bangladesh gained independence. The intrigue around the convict intensifies when he conveys through gestures that he was imprisoned for killing Mir Jafar, the erstwhile ruler of Bengal, who was known for betraying his people and aiding the British in the 18th century. As the show tied together three strands of history–pre-colonial India, the Liberation War and present-day Bangladesh–it provided something fresh to viewers and created a buzz.

In 2020, as people were confined in homes because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a seismic shift was taking place in Bangladeshi cinema. In September that year, Hoichoi, which operates out of India and has a considerable market in Bangladesh, announced 25 new titles from both sides of the border. Stories ranged from social dramas and spy thrillers to adaptations of popular Bangladeshi novels and Shakespeare plays. A year later, the streaming service Chorki was founded in Bangladesh, and several new shows and anthologies were released on the platform. A host of Bangladeshi films started making waves on the international film festival circuit, putting the country’s cinema on the world map. Until then, Bangladeshi cinema had been limited to a few theatrical releases every year and an abundance of television dramas that were either jaded romances or slapstick comedies.

Cinema in Bangladesh has been undergoing a change, but the process started some time ago, said Mahmudul Hossain, author of “The Other National: Cinema in Bangladesh.” He was referring to the small but numerous attempts filmmakers made in the last decade. It was not that Bangladesh did not have the talent, but it was missing the right infrastructure to support it.

In the last three years, streaming services have brought to the fore stories from Bangladesh that tackled pressing themes like sexual abuse, public dissatisfaction with political powers, everyday struggles, and middle-class aspirations. Anindo Banerjee, who is the head of content at Chorki but was with Hoichoi till last year and greenlighted several of these shows, said that whenever a filmmaker pitched him a show, he always asked if it could be set anywhere else other than Bangladesh. “If they say ‘yes,’ then my counterargument is why should we make it here. The more local you go, the more global you reach,” he said.

For instance, Mohammad Touqir Islam’s debut work “Shaaticup” (“Remain Hidden”), the eight-episode series revolving around a stolen drug shipment, made waves for exactly this reason. All the actors are from the city of Rajshahi, where the series is set, and speak the local dialect, which is unusual in mainstream Bangladeshi cinema. “Mohanagar” (“Metropolis”), directed by Ashfaque Nipun, portrayed a corrupt police officer as a protagonist–an on-screen first for Bangladesh. It prompted the police to summon Nipun, who had to spend hours explaining himself. “By the end, even the cops were tired because they had other important work,” the filmmaker told New Lines.

Streaming platforms provide opportunities to show social realities that are difficult to portray on television. For instance, the 2022 detective show “Kaiser” alluded only loosely to same-sex relationships as a subplot.

“On TV, there were a lot of constraints regarding the stories one can or cannot tell,” explained Shawki, “because the advertisers pay for the content.”

But since streaming is a subscription-based model, they had to keep audience interest in mind. He also took inspiration from shows made in the West. “If you look at their shows like ‘The Sopranos’ or ‘The Wire,’ both hinging on drug mafias, the narrative is from a perspective that [did not have] a place on television before. Suddenly the focus was on the outlaws. When I was making ‘Taqdeer,’ this was clear in my mind.”

In 2016, Abdullah Mohammad Saad was one of the few filmmakers to put Bangladeshi cinema on the world map when his debut film “Live from Dhaka”–which centered on an emotionally troubled man wanting to leave the country–won awards for best director and best performance at the Singapore International Film Festival.

In the last few years, the number has only risen. There is a burgeoning presence of Bangladeshi filmmakers across international festivals like Cannes, Rotterdam and Busan who are asserting their individuality with culturally rooted stories. Their participation at these events is not limited to showcasing their work; they are also bringing home multiple awards.

This recent streak started in 2020, when RezwanShahriarSumit’s debut work, “NonajolerKabbo” (“The Salt in Our Waters”), screened at the BFI London Film Festival and was later nominated for the prestigious Ingmar Bergman Award at Sweden’s Gothenburg Film Festival. The film followed a young sculptor’s move to a coastal village in Bangladesh, where the locals interpret his art as a form of idolatry, creating tension between the two.

In 2021, “Rehana Maryam Noor,” Saad’s second film–which focused on a woman doctor’s single-minded focus to seek justice for a sexual abuse survivor–was selected for the prestigious Un Certain Regard section at Cannes. A year later, NuhashHumayun’s short horror film “Moshari” became the first Bangladeshi film to qualify for the Oscars. A dystopian take on climate change, it followed two sisters protecting themselves from a blood-sucking creature with a mosquito net.

The success of the film led to Jordan Peele and Riz Ahmed attaching their names as executive producers to the project, resulting in the filmmaker receiving a lot of streaming offers. But Humayun decided instead to release it free on YouTube. “I did not make ‘Moshari’ to make money out of it,” he told New Lines. Humayun’s recent works “Pett Kata Shaw,” a four-episode anthology based on South Asian ghost stories and short film “Foreigners Only,” which again used horror to make a point about colourism, also caught global attention.

As with the rest of South Asia, films have played a key role in imparting a sense of belonging and identity to Bangladeshis, who have been subjected to two waves of identity displacement–first during the 1947-Partition, when Bengal was divided to form East Pakistan, and then in 1971, when East Pakistan emerged as independent Bangladesh.

.The Bangladesh Film Development Corporation (BFDC), established in 1959 as the East Pakistan Film Development Corporation, became the biggest government-owned studio in the country and offered infrastructural and managerial assistance to filmmakers. But its technique was poor and the films were unprofessionally made.

In the 1980s, the quality of the films further deteriorated. Barring a few exceptions like Alamgir Kabir and Chashi Nazrul Islam, most commercial filmmakers freely plagiarised Hindi films from India. ChashiNazrul Islam leaned on literary texts and made original works like “Devdas” (1982) and “Parineeta” (1986), respectively (both novels written by Bengali novelist Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay).

As videocassette recorders (VCRs) allowed people to watch Hindi and foreign films at home and action films with pornographic clips (via a notorious practice known as “cut piece”) were being made in Bangladesh, a large number of women and middle-class audiences lost interest in those movies. The number of cinemas fell from 1,235 in 1988 to 120 in the following two decades, and to about 60 during the pandemic.

During the 1980s, a few filmmakers including Tanvir Mokammel, Morshedul Islam and Tareque Masud were working outside the BFDC and making experimental short films on the War for Liberation in 1971, for which they became known as the first generation of independent filmmakers in Bangladesh. (Masud’s 2002 feature film “MatirMoina” (“The Clay Bird”), set against the growing tension in East Pakistan, was the first Bangladeshi film to win the FIPRESCI prize in the Directors’ Fortnight section at Cannes.)

In the 1990s, the declining popularity of the silver screen coincided with the rise of television. The educated middle class disillusioned with the hyper-real and plagiarised commercial films, found solace in TV, where finite dramas with a run time of 40 minutes or longer played on satellite channels. A prominent name that emerged during that time was the novelist, playwright and filmmaker Humayun Ahmed (Nuhash’s father), whose works portrayed the middle class with faultless emotional acuity.

Acclaimed filmmakers like Mostofa Sarwar Farooki, Amitabh Reza Chowdhury and Nurul Alam Atique continued the practice of rendering urban themes on TV through the 2000s. Their craft was sophisticated, thematically engaging and technically superior. Since most of them made money from producing commercials on the side, they did not have to churn out content for TV programmes and could be selective with their projects, which helped retain the quality of the shows. One of Farooki’s most famous television works, “Choruivati” (“The Picnic,” 2002), which followed an engineering student caught in a love triangle, became a sensation, endearing him to a young audience struggling for validation.

Even though the filmmakers were able to make a name through TV, it was an abiding dream to make a feature film. Due to an unwritten rule at BFDC, which necessitated presence of a big star for a project to be greenlighted, it was hard for them to find funding. Farooki was among the first of his contemporaries to make a feature film–“Bachelor” in 2003–but he had to find producers elsewhere.

Farooki spent years showcasing his work at international film festivals, paving the way for the current generation to establish their own global presence. His 2009 film, “Third Person Singular Number,” about a young girl struggling to find accommodation after her live-in partner ends up in jail, premiered at Rotterdam, and “Television”–a wry satire on religious extremism–was Bangladesh’s official entry in the Oscars in 2012.
Farooki’s success on the big screen and his modernist style emboldened an entire generation of young filmmakers. “Farooki was the first to break the barrier and arrive at a new language of filmmaking which was colloquial. He was telling stories which belonged to everyone. That was the inspiration for us,” Nipun said.

Movie clubs in Bangladesh set up by film activists in the 1960s played an instrumental role in exposing young filmmakers to world cinema. “[Film clubs] became ambassadors for a resistance against formulaic film culture in the ’80s,” wrote the filmmaker and scholar Imran Firdaus.

Exposure to the works of auteurs like Krzysztof Kieslowski and Jean-Luc Godard at these clubs left an indelible imprint on Nipun. “We wanted to make films like that,” Nipun said. This also intersected with the internet boom in the 2000s, which made world cinema easily accessible through piracy.

As the current generation leaves its mark on the cultural legacy of the nation, film theorists have different ways of acknowledging it. FahmidulHaq, a visiting professor at Bard College in New York, calls them the third generation of independent filmmakers who have come after the likes of Masud and Farooki. “Masud extensively depicted the Liberation War, but Farooki looked at the modern problems of Bangladesh. The present crop is looking at both,” he shared.

For instance, in shows like “Karagar” and “JaagoBahey,” the Liberation War forms an easy subtext. But storytellers are also looking at the present as a casualty of the past. Yet in “Refugee,” a thriller series created by Adnan Habib, Imtiaz Hossain and Saad, the non-Bengali speaking Bihari-Muslim minority in Bangladesh is given centre stage. This community migrated to East Pakistan from the Indian states of Bihar and West Bengal during the 1947-Partition and many of them maintained a pro-Pakistan stance during the War for Liberation. The contemporary show outlined their fringe existence (they only received citizenship in 2008) and the scars they accrued with time.

The Bangladesh film industry has always been close-knit. The second generation of filmmakers provides steadfast support to the new generation. Shawki said that whenever he stumbles, he reaches out to seniors like Farooki or Chowdhury: “They read my scripts, offer suggestions and never take credit.” Shawki has opened a production house in 2020 with fellow directors to extend support to budding filmmakers.

With challenges on the way, the streaming platforms might offer a higher budget than television but, in the global context, where they have to compete with giants like Netflix and Amazon Prime, it remains meagre. New draft legislation aims to bring streaming platforms under the scope of the Digital Security Act. It proposes a ban on content perceived as critical of the Bangladesh Liberation War and the country’s cultural and social values.

It is not yet known how this will unfold, but in the evolving cultural history of Bangladesh, it fits a pattern in which artists have always been pitted against an unsympathetic system–except, this time, the filmmakers have formed a collective and feel stronger. “Streaming platforms have made us braver filmmakers. There is no way to go back now,” Nipun said.

[Ishita Sengupta is an independent film critic and culture writer based in India. The article was first published in New Lines Magazine, on January 30, 2024). This is an abridged version of the article.]

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Vol 56, No. 38, Mar 17 - 23, 2024