There was a time when many people in our country thronged to cinema halls to watch new films and the appearances of big stars. In those days, lots of films were produced every year and going to the cinemas was an enjoyable social activity. There were ample heroes and heroines who were different from each other due to their unique personalities and acting attributes.
English-language movies, especially the well-made productions of Hollywood, were also shown in certain cinemas. Educated sections of the society became familiar with renowned Western actors and actresses such as: Alec Guinness, Gregory Peck, Clark Gable, Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor, Doris Day, Ava Gardner, Audrey Hepburn, Omar Sharif, and others. Bangla films made in West Bengal starring the legendary duo Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen were also shown in our cinemas. Naturally, the movie theatres in our country did a roaring business in the past.
But gone are those days. In the past twenty years, more than one thousand cinema halls in our country had to roll down their shutters. Nowadays, several major cities do not even have a movie theatre. In the past ten years, 90% of cinema hall employees had to switch jobs as they experienced difficulty making a good living in this profession. Due to the very low turnout of viewers, the owners of the movie halls are now struggling to meet maintenance expenses, let alone make a profit. As a result, many movie halls of the country have been changed into markets or multi-storey business centers.
Only a handful of cinemas exist in Dhaka city at the moment. One of these halls has a seating capacity of 1,400. Recently, in that hall, only 28 viewers were present during a screening of a 2017 film starring Shakib Khan, the most popular film star of the country today. It has been reported that even fewer than five viewers are sometimes seen during shows in cinema halls these days. As the hall owners have lost business, many of these cinemas now look shabby. Unless the essential repair work is made it is unlikely that the viewers will be interested in visiting these halls.
A few multiplex movie theatres have recently been established in Dhaka city. They have modern film-viewing facilities and their interiors are clean and neat. But, these theatres are usually frequented by well-off audiences. The majority of the movie viewers of the country cannot afford the expensive tickets of multiplex cinemas. Even people who have a good income are unwilling to visit these theatres regularly because of the high cost of the tickets.
As it has now become very easy to watch films, drama serials, and other entertainment-based programs on television, many low-income earners seem to be reluctant to spend even a little amount of money on purchasing cinema hall tickets.
The habit of visiting movie halls started to wane with the inception of video cassette recorders and cable television. Later, the emergence of the Internet and mobile phones provided viewers with the opportunity to watch films anytime from any location via online video-sharing platforms such as YouTube. The Internet also enabled them to download their desired films. Nowadays, people can access plenty of newly-made films and web series via various over-the-top (OTT) services.
Viewers' dependence on the Internet for watching movies, therefore, has become much deeper today. As technological innovations tend to help people gain a great deal of entertainment-based content quite easily, it is not surprising that people will hardly make an effort to visit cinemas in order to watch films.
With that said, there is no denying the fact that the pleasure of watching a film on a mobile phone or on a laptop is no match for the pleasure the viewers derive by watching a film on the big screen sitting in a dark movie theatre. The film viewers are aware of this difference. Still, the cinemas witness low turnouts because films offering socially significant subject matter and innovative style have become a rarity in our country. The absence of superstars in the contemporary film industry also contributes to the growing lack of interest of the common people in watching our films.
In different decades in the past, thousands of film viewers flocked to the cinemas to watch the superstar performers such as: Razzaq, Bobita, Shabana, Faruk, Kabari, Jafar Iqbal, Sucharita, Alamgir, Champa, Sohel Rana, Ilyas Kanchan, Anju, Manna, Salman Shah, Moushumi, and others. The presence of outstanding character actors – such as Golam Mustafa, Anwar Hossain, Khan Ataur Rahman, Syed Hasan Imam, Amjad Hossain, Rowshan Jamil, Dolly Anwar, Bulbul Ahmed, Humayun Faridi, and others – also added to the quality of the films to a tremendous extent.
Many film viewers were passionately fond of the brilliant comedians such as: Telly Samad, Ashish Kumar Louho, Khan Joinul, Rabiul Alam, Anis, Farid Ali, Black Anwar et al. Nowadays we rarely see actors and actresses with the same flair and distinction possessed by the performers of the past mentioned above. Consequently, contemporary films of our country have little success in attracting large audiences.
If we look at several Bangladeshi films produced outside the dominant film industry in past few years we observe that thematically and stylistically they bear striking resemblance to contemporary dramas of our country shown in television channels and via OTT platforms. Most of these dramas tend to place too much emphasis on entertainment and excitement rather than thought-provoking content. Sometimes such entertainment borders on sheer triviality and frivolousness.
One of the prime markers of these productions is the tendency to glamorise the lavish lifestyle of the privileged class in a consumerist, profit-driven society. If films fail to demonstrate imaginative use of cinematic language and do not include realistic, socially-aware themes, but instead resemble cliché-ridden television dramas marked by showiness, we cannot expect many people will visit either multiplex movie theatres or old-style cinema halls to watch such films. Television channels offer similar video productions often and such contents can also be seen via YouTube and OTT platforms.
In their entertainment pages, several national dailies of our country often publish reports and features raving about certain contemporary Bangladeshi films that draw heavily on the formula of using glamour and gaudiness to attract audiences. But rarely do we come across articles in our newspapers lamenting and denunciating the lack of interest in the present-day society in making socially-critical and aesthetically-innovative films like: Zahir Raihan's "Jiban Theke Neya" (1970), Alamgir Kabir's "Dheerey Bohe Meghna" (1973) and "Rupali Shaikat e" (1979), Masihuddin Shaker and Sheikh Niamat Ali's "Shurjo Dighal Bari" (1979), Syed Salahuddin Zaki's "Ghuddi" (1980), Tareuqe Masud's "Matir Moina" (2002) etc.
By consciously discarding standardised themes and unimaginative stylistic attributes these films became significantly different from most other films produced in our country, thereby making a huge and lasting impression on the audiences.
Attempts are also not seen to acquaint people with certain films made in the past which did not employ unorthodox cinematic means, but nevertheless conveyed socially-meaningful messages such as Khan Ataur Rahman's "Abar Tora Manush Haw" (1973), Abdullah Al-Mamun's "Shareng Bou" (1978), Amjad Hossain's "Golapi Akhon Train e" (1978), Shubhash Dutta's "Dumur er Phool" (1978), etc. When highlighting escapist entertainment appears to be commonplace in our contemporary films, can we encourage our filmmakers to jump on the bandwagon? Or is it not now necessary to inspire them to go against the grain in order to enhance the quality of our films?
Some opine that due to the decrease in the number of films produced every year, the viewers find no interest in visiting cinema halls to watch old films. But will things look up if a large number of films replete with trite storyline and glitzy components are produced on a regular basis? It can be argued with considerable certainty that the old custom of visiting the cinemas is dying because stylistically-innovative films deeply rooted in the social reality of Bangladesh are not produced often these days.
Films will cease to attract audiences eventually if the directors continue to use entertainment as the fundamental feature of their films. Our filmmakers have some stocktaking to do at the moment concerning the originality and social significance of their creations.
Some hall owners believe that the release of new films of West Bengal in our country may encourage the viewers to come to the cinemas again. Such an opinion is worthy of consideration. But, it is necessary to make sure that only quality films from Kolkata are shown in our movie houses. Artistic and socially-conscious films produced in other countries can also be shown in our movie halls at an affordable price in order to make middle-class audiences acquainted with world cinema.
The familiarity with well-made films of different countries is of crucial importance in creating a vibrant film culture in society. By watching first-rate films from abroad our viewers will understand the inclination of foreign directors to make their films artistically-innovative as well as socially purposive.
When our audiences are able to distinguish between a good film and an ordinary film, they will not remain satisfied with the constant production of run-of-the-mill films. It is, therefore, necessary to instill a cultivated aesthetic taste in viewers through regular screenings of thought-provoking films at movie theatres and through the publication of newspaper articles and reports stressing the importance of such films. All these efforts will serve to strengthen the film culture in our society. In the resultant situation, renewed enthusiasm will be seen for making high-quality films and for frequenting cinema halls.
Dr. Naadir Junaid is professor, Department of Mass Communication and Journalism, Dhaka University