Towards an Alternative Cinema

Alternative cinema, parallel cinema or second cinema, whatever one calls it, takes off differently in different countries. The differences lie in the scale of support from the government and non-government financial institutions, level of taste among the audience, state of demo-cratisation in the polity of a given society, availability of technical infrastructure, nature of censorship and so on and so forth. The condi-tions of none of these prere-quisites are congenial to develop an alternative cinema in contemporary Bangladesh.

During the 1960s, though there were some sincere endeavours towards realism in the feature filmdom, alternative cinema truly began in Bangladesh during our liberation war when during the 1971 war Zahir Raihan – Alamgir Kabir duo made “Stop Genocide” and “Liberation Fighters”. It is impressive to see that in such an arduous war situation and with such paucity of funds, the exiled government came forward to support serious films. It is a pity that successive governments after independence, though commanding over much more resources, totally discontinued that spirit.

The pity is more, as due to massive illiteracy (only 24% of our people being literate), the power of written words in Bangladesh is bound to be limited, where as film, television, video, or any format of life-image have immense potency. But unfortunately since independence, though the skyline of Dhaka has changed so conspicuously, so much water have flowed through the Padma and the Meghna during the last two decades, yet the mainstream cinema of this country has managed to remain as philistine as ever, if not, worse.

As said earlier, the days of social realism in celluloid during the ’60s are now gone. Gone are the days of—”Titas Ekti Nadir Nam” (1973) and “Palanka” (1977). “Surjo Dighal Bari” (1979) was perhaps the last of the Mohicans. In a poor third world country like ours, government being the most potent social organisation, the responsibility of this failure squares on much on the government. Government itself is actually a problem. With non-perceptive and non-sensitive bureaucrats at the helm, during the tenure of the last successive governments, cinema has often got tossed between the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Information. A native newcomer is often at loss under which Ministry cinema is now, by the way, honest, where is it now? Really?!

It is a pity that even after two decades of independence, a democratically elected government still lacks any clear policy guideline regarding promoting good cinema in Bangladesh. Ministers come and go! Talking about, no, not about Michaelangelo, but about—better films! But alas, nothing happens. Lack of an enlightened cultural policy, and almost as a convention, always the most cantankerous person of the cabinet being the Information Minister, and with the pot-bellied yes-minister bureaucrats ruling over there, the situation in the Ministry is simply—Kafkaesque.

Lack of vision, sense of complacency, corruption and due to the inherent inadequacy of any government body, Film Development Corporation (FDC) which churns out all those run-of-the mill commercial films, has now pathetically turned itself into a mere lumpen-dream-factory. Abhorrent violent films, branded as “social action” (!), “action” (!!) and “superaction” (!!!) with no reference to Bangladesh reality at all, regularly crop up from there.

Recently teen-age love has become the most lucrative theme, understandably, as in each decade a new generation of teen-agers appear and to cater them new teen-age love films turn out to be good money-spinners. Actually film-making business in the mainstream feature filmdom of Bangladesh has long been deteriorated into mere shady deals in legitimizing black money white. So no wonder why though around seventy full-length feature films are annually produced in such a resource-poor country as Bangladesh, none of these films is at all palatable. These films are made by the lumpen to satiate lumpen taste only. Due to the fatuous nature of these films and the aweful viewing atmosphere in the cine-halls, alienation of the sensitive people with the local film-industry has become complete. With the two equipollent alternatives, TV and video muscling up, one ponders the prospect of the very existence of our commercial filmdom. But our people being ardent film-lovers, and absence of other socially sanctioned entertainment alternatives, I suppose, as an entertainment medium, cinema has still some longevity in this country. A reason why this information does not surprise much that while in other parts of the world, cine-halls are simply running out of business, new exhibition halls are cropping up in Bangladesh townships, as well as, in the rural areas.

The Impediments and the Government

Documentary film-making can be a good breeding ground for the aspirant film-makers. Let us have a brief overview of the documentary scenario of Bangladesh. Each year government’s Department of Film and Publication (DFP) produces some crude propaganda “documentaries” (!), rather call them—footages. DFP is not something like the Film Division of our neighbouring India which has produced serious films of directors like Ray, Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Adoor or Moni Kaul. Neither it is like the West Bengal’s State Government’s Film Production Unit which even with its limited resources, has produced well-meaning documentaries as “Tomorrow is Too Late”, “Kabitar Ananta Jatrapathe”, “Meeting a Milestone”, “Scroll Painting of Birbhum” and so on.

A good documentary can be a pure journalistic one, or it can elevate itself to a poetic level (who can forget the synchronisation of the superb rhythm of Auden’s poetry with the wheels of “Nightmail”!). But the quintessence of a documentary is, I think—truth and nothing but truth. Unfortunately the government-produced documentaries are hardly truthful in Bangladesh. Thousands of feet of official footages which DFP churns out each year, are mostly endeavours to picturise falsified images of the person at the top cuttting tapes or delivering speeches. But due to myopic sense of history of our rulers, all these “important” (!) footages of any previous government, soon become redundant during the tenure of the next government. Nobody bothers to take care to preserve the footages of the fallen gods !

Regarding other subject-oriented “documentaries” (!) that DFP occasionally produces, unholy alliances are often discernible between the DFP personnel and the commissioned film-makers. A film-maker’s qualification to obtain a DFP commissioned film-contract not necessarily depends on his competence as a film-maker, but on his linkage in the omnipotent Ministry. These films have merely turned into a source of left-hand earning of some failure feature film-makers. A good amount of the money gets siphoned off even before a project takes off. As a result the film suffers and the taxpayer’s money—gone with the wind!

Among other government-financed bodies, Shishu (Children) Academy sometimes venture some film-endeavours, but nothing worthwhile has so far come out from there.

Another impediment in the development of better-cinema in Bangladesh is our insular and anachronistic censor codes. All the existing censorship Acts of Bangladesh have basically emanated from the British India Cinematograph Act of 1918. Though the Raj days have long been fossilized into memory, yet whether the Film Rules of 1972, the Film Rules of 1977 or the New Codes introduced in 1985, all these prevailing censor codes of Bangladesh are as anti-democratic as the rules of the British days and brazenly exude colonial legacy.

With the state of things being like that, and with the complacent non-perceptive bureaucrats up in the Ministry, changes for a major breakthrough for a better cinema in Bangladesh seems bleak.

New Ideas New Concepts

Since 1984-85, when AGAMI-HOOLIYA paved the way, a couple of dozens short films have followed suit. Subsequently a new vista opened up in the alternative horizon of Bangladesh filmdom. Though still in an embryonic stage, these young film-makers have even succeeded to build up an alternative distribution channel of their own. From raising fund to run the projector by himself, an alternative film-maker in Bangladesh has to undergo the whole cycle from visualizing a film upto managing its proper distribution.

Generally these films are shot in 16 mm. The question of the choice between 35 mm. and 16 mm. has turned out not be not just a choice between two formats, but a choice between two approaches of film-making, two attitudes—two ideologies.

Among all arts, cinema has the least chance to be a product in a vacuum. Film is essentially a product of specific socio-economic realities, involving money and human labour. So the state of things of a given society is bound to be imprinted on the body of a film. In the case of our films, what naturally gets imprinted are the muddled realities of contemporary Bangladesh.

In some Third World countries a kind of technically slick ‘alternative’ films are made with some Western film festivals in mind. In Bangladesh, as the alternative films are made not eyeing some tacky Festivals (we hardly even know the name of these festivals!), these films though technically flawed and amateurish, but as they are aimed to our people, have succeeded to contain a touch of the soil. Actually some of these short-films hardly invite the audience to an aesthetic experience, but often the aim is to incite the audience, like the Agit-Prop films, towards a—particular attitude.

During the late ’60s and the ’70s a kind of alternative cinema emerged in Calcutta centering around a symbol, an angry youngman amidst decadence of middle class idealism—”Padatik”, “Interview”, “Pratidandi”, “Duratta”, “Dour”. In Dhaka, the symbol is often a youth amidst the decay of the values of the 1971 liberation war. It is curious to see that most of these short-film-makers began their career by venturing at least one film on the backdrop of 1971. The reason seems self-evident as during the 1971 war most of these young film-makers were in their boyhood, in their most sensitive and formative years. So the trauma they had experienced, resulted in 1971 war to appear again and again in their films, almost like a—leitmotif.

It happens sometimes in our sub-continent that the financial guarantee of some avant-garde films are taken care of by the permissive erotic scenes (as the love-making sequence of Lohnia-Nogi in Nihalni’s “Aakrosh”, or Smita Patil’s bathing scene in Dharamraj’s “Chakra” and so on). In Bangladesh it is rather the sensation of challenging the existing political taboos which make these films popular. But these political nuances are so typical and topical of Bangladesh, that outsiders can hardly find out what are the exceptional points in these otherwise flawed and poorly made films. The audience of Bangladesh have also by now earned a tendency to transform any subversive element in a film which has escaped censorship, into a pleasurable entertainment. No wonder why these short-films are screened more during the months of December-March, the months of hectic political activism in Bangladesh. It seems it is our destiny that we grow with the political movement of our country (may be we also perish along with it (!)). Actually we know it pretty well that whether the Jatiyos or the Jatiyotabadis are in power, the ethos of Bangladesh statehood remains the same—communal, bureaucratic and philistine. So by becoming a film-activist each of us essentially ends up being a political activist too.

At the same time, we refuse to be marginalised and patronisingly patted as mere “short film-makers” by the establishment. We are independent film-makers, realistic film-makers, true film-makers, the rest are—businessmen.

Though we mostly work in 16 mm. film-format, we do appreciate the potency of the medium of video. I think any alternative film-maker of our time has to learn to work on and off with video as well. There should be no watertight compartments. Some film-makers might be working on both formats for different contexts and reasons. With digital effects, massive positive changes are taking place in the visual quality of video and new highly professional format of tapes are being researched upon for preservation of film. With these new technical developments and with more and more sure to come, video can, in certain aspects, uphold documentation much better in its pristine form, in what Grierson would like to call “creative treatment of actuality”. To ignore the present video-boom is to hide one’s face like the proverbial ostrich. Let us once forever grow out of the film versus video debate and learn to live with both.

Video has, willy-nilly performed one good subversive act, that is, it has rendered all the censor codes—redundant. A brief visit to any video-shop around the street corner will show you what I mean. An alternative film-maker has to learn to exploit this alternative possibility—politically.

Our movement is often compared with the Group Theatre Movement in Bangladesh which by now has come of age and has carved a niche in home and abroad. But I think the conditions between the two are organically different. Film is a much more an expensive and cumbersome medium than theatre. Besides, film is a technological medium, and in Bangladesh, the technology is monopoly-owned by a philistine government. But the most significant difference between the two lies in the fact that the theatre groups in this country, like alternative cinema, do not have to compete with any established commercial theatre, which is simply non-existing in Bangladesh. But alternative film-makers, in their every step, have to confront the enmity of a powerful and entrenched commercial film-establishment.

Multypronged Problems

With this backdrop, short-films are being made in Bangladesh. But the problems are of variegated nature.

Paucity of fund remains the most acute and endemic problem. Nothing moves without money, at least, not in cinema. Although our films are made in shoe-string budget, yet in Bangladesh, to raise even that small amount of money itself is a Herculean task. Not having support from any such bodies as NFDC or Doordarshan, like our neighbouring Indian alternative film-makers may have, fund-raising for well-meaning films in Bangladesh remains a labyrinthine process. The concept of government grant for better cinema is still a mirage to us. The joke goes around the city that if you find a youngman with a pathetic face moving around asking for loans from everyone he knows, be sure, he is a short film-maker !

Even if someone gets hold of the money, the production hassles make one handicapped due to lack of proper 16 mm. infrastructural facilities in this country. Scarcity of raw-material is another aspect, as availability of both 16 mm. negative and positive films, magnetic tapes, even a splicer may often become an acute problem. With FDC proceeding in snail’s pace towards materialising its long-pledged 16 mm. infrastructure, and the hackneyed machines of DFP deteriorating fast into mere junks, a film with technical perfection is still a dream for us. Look at the picture and sound qualities of our films! The prints are scratched or pin-holed, the images are muddy and the soundtracks are often inaudible. Regarding technical quality, sincerity alone is not enough and we the film-makers cannot disown our share of responsibility too. I think the days of amateurishness should be over by now, and the alternative film-makers should now show professionalism in handling their stuff.

Due to the thumb rule of the requirement of permission from the local administration for off-cine-hall screenings, alternative film-makers often have to suffer from the bureaucratic hazards to exhibit their films.

It seems that lot of the problems of alternative cinema in Bangladesh are actually the problems of underdevelopment. But it has its other side of the coin too. Due to underdevelopment of capitalist relations in Bangladesh, we are still being able to maintain the ownership of our films. When the market-economy will become full-operative, it remains yet to be seen whether we will be able to own and exhibit our films according to our own free choice.

There are problems in the camp of short-filmdom too. With pure commerce in mind, some unscrupulous short film-makers, whose films are just short in length but contain all the saucy elements of the mainstream cinema, often sneak into our bandwagon. Beware of the intruders!

Some well-meaning short film-makers of today may gradually succumb to the more lucrative video-business of the NGO-world and may get carried away, as we have already lost some Pune-graduates to the money-spinning world of ad-films.

Actually our battle is multi-pronged. Cinema is a conglomeration of different art forms. Unless other forms of art burgeon in society, one should not expect much from film alone. What is the condition of our serious literature? Or classical music? Dance, painting and so on?

It is true that some films are being made and some of these films may have some finer points. Yet there are so much to be desired. Out of the couple of dozen films made so far, very, very few are at all presentable.

Besides, to compete with the 35 mm. mainstream cinema, we have to make 16 mm. full length films. Short films alone cannot provide the complete alternative.

Experience of Alternative Distribution

We are aware of the fact that cinema is an exceptional form of art, an art akin to an industry which requires not only artistic skills, but money, equipments, raw-materials and manpower. An independent film-maker, being the producer of his own film, has to be a good entrepreneur as well, at least have to have some entrepreneurial skill. One hopes that someday these young fledgeling film-activists will gradually turn into seasoned film-makers with social insight and consummate technical skill and will learn to work both within and without the FDC, both within and without the establishment, a tricky art that any alternative film-maker will have to master in order to survive and to get going.

Awareness of the fact that Zahir Raihan was pressed to compromise and Alamgir Kabir had to waver, has taught us the lesson to avoid the  establishment, i.e., the 35 mm. format. Due to productional low-budget and exhibition facility, the quintessence of our movement still remains 16 mm. Actually the very process of short-film making in 16 mm. has democratised both the processes of film-making and its distribution. It has also demystified the concept of cinema as a whole in our country. With the advent of video-technology this process of democratisation is achieving further and further momentum !

Some of our films are popular because people see in these films certain aspects of their lives which they do not normally see in the run-of-the-mill commercial productions. Even the severest critic would admit that these films at least try in earnest to uphold the pangs, pathos and aspirations of our people. One advantage in Bangladesh is the newness of our statehood. While in some parts of the world, film-society movement has long been fossilized, in Bangladesh, film-society movement is still a force to reckon with. The reason is perhaps, things are new in this country. Activism of film-society movement continues to provide a breeding ground of aspirant film-makers who are generally eager to embark on the alternative path.

Half a decade age we rightfully felt that the bond of good camaraderie among us has to be institutionalised, and hence, we are now an organised body. One success that this body can boast of is the alternative distribution network that we envisaged and though still in an embryonic form, has become quite operative now. Cultural organisations, student and youth organisations, trade unions, mass organisations in the districts and sub-districts have provided us an off-cine-hall parallel network. We were pushed to a corner, but have ended up learning a few tricks to outmaneouver a philistine censor board and the lethargic bureaucracy, perhaps in a little guerilla way (!). Then remember, during 1971, this was a land of gritty guerillas!

Although alternative cinema in Bangladesh is developing in the realm of the short film, yet there is no going back to the square one. The approach should be, from short-film to all kinds of films. Short film-making cannot be an end-in-itself. To be a full-bloomed alternative film movement, there has to be alternative full-length films. It is a welcome news that some underproduction films of longer length, “Chaka”, “Nadir Nam Madhumati” or “Ekattorer Jishu” are in near completion now. When these longer films in 16 mm. will be completed we have to creatively resolve the problematic of their distribution and have to find out means to get our money back. I firmly believe that the alternative film-makers in Bangladesh by now, have earned experience and expertise enough to achieve that.

Dreams and Demands

With this scenario in mind, let us spell out some of our demands. One can only dream to have such benevolent institutions like the National Film Board of Canada or a NFDC like India in Bangladesh!

The government of Bangladesh annually earns around twenty-five crore Taka from revenue of film trade. We demand reintroduction of government grant for well-meaning films. Grant for ten short films and five full length films each year should not cost more than three crore takas which is a peanut for the government exchequer. I think the time is already overdue for the government to prove its pledged commitment to support good cinema in real terms.

According to the 1972 Cinematograph Act, cine-halls are in cumpulsion to allocate twenty-minutes for screening the government newsreels. The allocation of screening-time should be extended and instead of insipid government propaganda newsreels, good short-films should be screened.

It is one of our age old demand to establish a National Film Centre in Bangladesh. The idea is, the proposed National Film Centre will be a complex with a multi-gauge 1,500-seat auditorium, a smaller one of around 200 seater with video projection facilities, and a good reaserch library. The British Film Institute or Nandan of West Bengal provides perfect examples of what we demand. Creation of this film-complex is a long standing yearn of the cineastes of this country and if the government continues to pay no heed, we will establish it by ourselves, someday, Inshallah !

We also demand repeal of all black laws against the film society movement. Film society movement has to be strengthened which provided the launching pad, and also the much-coveted ideological bond among the alternative film-makers of this country.

Bangladesh television could be a good outlet of films by independent film makers. It is annoying that Bangladesh Television (BTV) which is run by the taxpayer’s money has turned merely into a government monopoly propaganda media. We cannot leave out such a powerful medium to the whims and unimaginativeness of some non-perceptive TV-bureaucrats. We want democratisation in the electronic medium as well. It is a pity that BTV has no coherent or accepted pattern in its film programming. It seems keen to show trash commercial films of FDC but never shows a well-meaning short-film made in this country. Besides, occasionally whenever BTV shows a documentary, it is shown merely as a filler between two programmes. Cannot BTV envisage a special program on non-fiction films with followed by a discussion ?

Being outmoded by CNN and cable TVs, BTV tends to escape more and more into those goody goody middle class soap operas which they call TV-serials. It is a pity that like the government’s another film-related body DFP, BTV has degraded itself to a position to be treated with derision, and justifiably so.

But experience shows that whenever we put forward these very reasonable demands of ours we are met with a Nelson’s eye or with a sphinx like silence.

But we still hope that the government policy-makers will not push us to the extreme, to conduct our filmic activities in ‘underground’. Any well-meaning government should realize that the voice of an independent film-maker is also the voice of democracy. We hope that both political and civil society leaders of Bangladesh will realize the potentiality of the film medium, will cognise cinema to be a vigil force to our nascent democracy. The reasoning becomes more imperative, as because, the way the pathological killers of 1971 now pretend good Samaritan in the parliament, and the way fundamentalists are muscling up wielding their swords, one may justifiably have the eerie feeling that democracy is still in a very vulnerable situation in Bangladesh.

Since independence, so many things in our polity and society have changed but the fatuous condition of our mainstream cinema has not changed at all. The condition of the Seventh Art, or as Bella Balazs would like to call it, the Tenth Muse remains simply—pathetic. The only ray of hope in the otherwise dark filmdom in this country is the endeavour of the short-film makers to make and distribute their films in the alternative channel. The wheel is still in spin. It is too early to prophesy the finale, but we believe that through these endeavours, a socially and artistically committed alternative cinema will emerge in Bangladesh. But we are also aware that we live in, and thrive along, with the democratic and progressive aspiration of our people. Let us never, never alienate our art from this bond, not in the name of pure art, nor of sophistication, nor of any other purpose whatsoever. That may lead us to few prizes in some tacky international festivals, but if the umblical chord with our people’s movements gets torn, the days of alternative film-movement in Bangladesh will be numbered.

Tanvir Mokammel

Noted film maker. Born on March 8, 1955, he made several films like, Chitra Nadir Pare (2002), Lal Salu (2003), Lalon (2004). All of his films participated in different international film festivals and received several awards. Based in Dhaka, Bangladesh.