On a late winter morning in 2001, Maruf Hossain, a higher secondary student, proposed to one of his classmates, Shaila Islam. Back then, the Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol pair were a big hit in Bollywood.
Maruf presented his beloved with three view cards picturing Shah Rukh and a nice diary, a popular token of love in those days. Two days later, Shaila gave Maruf some pin-ups of Kajol and a notebook.
"There was a nicely decorated showroom of Azad Products at Khulna New Market and I was a regular customer," said Maruf, now a 38-year-old man looking back on those days.
"In those days, I never missed a chance to give Shaila greeting cards on special occasions and festivals like Eid and Puja."
Before the arrival of computers and smartphones in the country, diaries, pin-ups, posters, and greeting cards were very popular among the younger generation. Azad Products Private Limited cashed in on the trend and saw rapid growth.
But modern communication technologies like computers and smartphones forced Azad Products as well as the whole printed product industry into a tight corner over the last two decades.
Now the landscape has completely changed. Young people have smartphones in their hands, and they greet their loved ones with texts. They also share their thoughts and feelings using WhatsApp, Facebook messenger and so on.
Nowadays, they show little interest in buying greeting cards, diaries, notebooks, and calendars, causing the printed product industry to incur losses.
How Azad Products began and expanded
Born in Chandpur and raised in Shariatpur, Abul Kalam Azad came to Dhaka in 1973 with the hope of becoming a businessman. First, he became a lodging tutor to make a living. Alongside, he visited different areas in the city and observed how people did business with a small amount of capital.
Azad began his business in Dhaka in 1982. He bought posters from Jahangir Glass House in Old Dhaka for Tk45. He began selling posters as a street vendor at the gate of Mohammedan Sporting Club, which was adjacent to the Baitul Mukarram mosque back then.
The country's only television station, Bangladesh Television, began airing foreign television series, including The Bionic Woman and Man from Atlantis, at that time. People watched those series and loved the characters.
"There was a huge demand for pin-ups of The Bionic Woman. Especially young girls would buy pin-ups and posters of the series," recalled Azad, chairman and managing director of Azad Products, which is credited with the development of the printed product industry in the country.
He would import pin-ups of legendary footballer Maradona, musical group Boney M, and Swedish pop group ABBA from Singapore.
"Within three months, my capital reached around Tk70,000," said Azad, adding he had done that business for several years.
In the 1980s, Bangladesh Television would air English mega series Dallas and Dynasty. Their characters were modern, cunning, and full of complexities. People loved those characters, and Azad used to sell pin-ups and posters of those series.
At the time, the printed product market in the country was mainly dependent on imported posters, pin-ups, and other greeting cards. Azad played a pioneering role in rolling out posters featuring local celebrities in the country.
Also, in the 1980s, Bangladesh Television would air Bangla drama series Sakal Sandha. It became popular soon. Pijush Bandyopadhyay and Afroza Banu played the roles of Sahed and Shimu.
"One day I had this idea. What if I made posters and view cards of local celebrities seen on the television screen?" said Azad.
However, for a street vendor to contact celebrities was not that easy.
"One day I noticed an issue of Tarokalok magazine featuring Pijush and Afroza in the cover photo," said Azad. He found it interesting to made a poster of them.
That drama series was so popular that lots of people bought pin-ups of the actors. Then Azad made more and more pin-ups featuring local celebrities. The business began to expand with diversified products.
"We made a huge profit in the past. As a result, we could build the 20-storey building, Azad Centre, in Paltan," Azad added.
The current state
Azad, also the president of Bangladesh Printing Product Association, said the industry once saw huge growth but most businesses are now incurring losses.
The business of view cards, greeting cards and posters for personal use fell to a great extent in the past years. Now, every year, calendar and diary sales are also falling.
Azad said during the Bengali New Year in the past, his company used to sell Bengali calendars worth Tk20-25 lakh. However, in the last Pahela Baishakh, his company sold calendars worth Tk3-4 lakh only.
"On average, every year, there is a demand for 30-35 lakh English calendars of different sizes and 50,000-60,000 diaries. This year, I have got an order of printing only 10,000 diaries," said Azad.
"My last year's sale was Tk2 crore. I am not sure whether this year sales will cross Tk50 lakh," he added.
Of the 10 Azad Products showrooms across the country, he has already shuttered five in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Business is now dependent on corporate customers and wedding cards. Also, the government as well as private companies order calendars and diaries for their clients and customers.
"On the one hand, our business is bad. On the other, we are in the midst of a pandemic. In one word, we are on the verge of extinction," said Azad, sitting at his desk at Azad Centre.
"We had greeting cards for kids, young people, and adults. We had corporate greeting cards too. But in the middle of the pandemic, corporate cards are gone," he said.
Azad, who has beaten the odds for the last 40 years to make his business a huge success, predicted a bleak future for his company.
"I have already shut down the first showroom of Azad Products in Paltan. I rented the space to a biriyani restaurant entrepreneur."
He said he had recently told his employees to learn the use of technology.
"Now my business is running with rental income from Azad Centre," he said, adding that Azad Products is a losing concern.
"But once I was a king," he added.