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Battling Bollywood

Bangladesh’s Seduction by Celluloid

by BINOY KAMPMARK

Since 1972, Bangladesh has been firm about the films of the monster that we all know as Bollywood, a beast so prolific it disgorges some thousand films a year.  No viewings of Bollywood films have been permitted in Bangladesh’s cinemas – till now.

The power of money has spoken without reserve.  The decision was first made in 2010, when the Bangladesh ministry of commerce gazetted the notification.   ‘The new order,’ explained Film Censor Board chief Surat Kumar Sarker, ‘scraps the ban and allows the screening of Indian and other South Asian films in local cinemas provided they have English subtitles’.  Bangladesh’s Commerce Minister Faruk Khan offers a rationale for the decision.  ‘We lifted the bank to boost the cinema industry.’

Owners of cinema theatres expressed similar enthusiasm – although they are lessening in number.  From a figure of 1,600 in 2000, the country has lost almost a thousand.  To capture revenue, the Indians, claim the owners, must be allowed a presence.  Hollywood films are proving too expensive to import, and the local industry is beset by a stale flavour.  Besides, Bollywood stars such as Shah Rukh Khan and Kareena Kapoor are better known than the locals, living illicitly in the local imagination through pirated DVDs and CDs.

A rearguard action was fought in 2010 by local actors and directors that saw a reinstatement of the ban.  The calamity for the Bangladeshi film industry, they argued, would be enormous – the loss of 25,000 jobs, the gutting of an industry.  Their Cassandra-like refrain won the support of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.  This was only temporary, and the Indian intrusion is now imminent.  Last month, the Bangladeshi High Court lifted the ban.  Producer Mukesh Bhatt greeted the decision with enthusiasm, seeing a vision of cooperation between little Bangladesh and mammoth India he terms ‘mutual coordination’.  Three Indian Bangla movies – Jour, Badla and Sangram – are in the hands of the Bangladesh Film Censor Board.  Nine others have also been added to the list.

The battle against the monopolisers, be it in culture or economics, doesn’t stop or start at Bollywood. For decades, European countries have been attempting to adjust to the dominance of Hollywood, a beast of production that might be said to have seduced Europe, (though Alexander Cockburn’s account highlights strongarm US tactics that scarcely had much of “seduction” in them.)  The French film publication Cine-Journal in September 1911 wrote of American cinema’s ‘photogenic perfection – absolute fixity – sensational scenarios – natural acting – interpretation of performers of the first rank’.  With the end of World War I, European film production shrank dramatically.  With the victory of the United States in World War II came such sweeteners as the Marshall Plan (otherwise termed the European Recovery Program), and with that, the triumph of celluloid.

Such cinematic hegemony comes at a cost – the mass producer, the prolific giant, lumbers, ceases to be supple, aware.  Taylorist principles of mass production end up being assimilated in the making of film.  Variety, paradoxically, shrinks before mass opportunity.  From exploited economies of scale come economies of kitsch.  Even if it can be good kitsch, bright with the trimmings, it never loses its identity.

Europe, observed the New York critic William Philips in his essay ‘The Portrait of an Artist as an American’ (Horizon, Oct 1947), was open to both economic dominance and cultural seduction by the US, but the price to pay was, at least in the cultural department, high.  In beating back and insulating Western Europe from Stalinism, ‘the United States might well become the greatest exporter of kitsch the world has ever seen.’

There is much to be said for the view that the US would have been the first empire to have been won by cinema.  But the weapons and a craving for military domination had to come out eventually.  Culture remains one of the key battle grounds, and it is now up to the Bangladeshi film industry to strike back, to seek a means where they can tackle the Bollywood monster, possibly even tame its sheer enormity.  It is time for them to embrace the policy of seduction by celluloid.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com