It took more than 15 years for the movie city of Bombay to see the release of its first-ever 'moving picture' or movie in 1913 after Hiralal Sen's venture. Sen was a resident of the Dhaka district. The silent film Raja Harishchandra, made in Bombay, was directed by Dadasaheb Phalke. In Dhaka's Manikganj, a silent short film was produced by Hiralal Sen, an enterprising photographer. The film was duly screened at private shows. The year was 1898, only three years after the invention of cinema by Lumiere Brothers in France. Later, many called Hiralal Sen the pioneer of cinema in the Sub-continent. On some counts, Sen's passion for the new medium was directly provoked by its inventors, who showed their marvellous invention to wonder-struck viewers in the far-away French capital.
The landmark event of the screening of Sen's movie Flower of Persia was recalled on October 28 in Dhaka during the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the release of the first full-length film in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. The movie, made in 1956, was Mookh O Mukhosh, directed by Abdul Jabbar Khan, originally a man of stage. The film opened at Roopmahal theatre in the then main town, now old Dhaka. In those days, the small number of cinema halls existing in Dhaka and the other cities of the then province used to show chiefly Indian Hindi and Bangla, and (West) Pakistani Urdu movies.
The Indian movie industry began coming of age fast after the release of its first sound film Alam Ara (1931). By the 1950s, India's Bombay and Madras movie hubs were producing around 200 feature films a year. A pretty good number of Urdu and Punjabi films were also being produced in Pakistan's Lahore.
Had not the highly innovative and intrepid youth Hiralal Sen ventured into movie making, to be followed by some others making short-duration amateur films, Bangladesh might have to wait for a couple of decades to have its pioneer director Abdul Jabbar Khan. Culturally a backwater compared to Kolkata and Bombay, Dhaka had been fortunate enough to have its path made by amateur movie productions. Apart from the 1898 film made by Hiralal Sen, there were Sukumari and The Last Kiss. Those two productions came from the Nawab family of Dhaka in 1927. On these counts, Dhaka later found itself comfortably placed in the age of cinema.
The country's pioneering movie director Abdul Jabbar Khan did not pursue a movie-directing career. However, the camaraderie that he had formed centring Mookh O Mukhosh emerged as the core group of torch-bearers of Dhaka cinema in its formative days. Fully dedicated, learned and creative, the directors belonging to this generation in fact laid the foundation of Bangladesh cinema.
In spite of the wholesale dominance of so-called commercial movies in Bangladesh in the later decades, the filmdom's start was highly impressive. After Mookh O Mukhosh, a number of gifted creative persons came forward to direct cinema in the late 1950s and early sixties. They included Salah Uddin (Dharapat), Kafi Khan (Matir Pahar), Fateh Lohani (Asia), Mohiuddin (Raja Elo Shohorey) et al. Sadeq Khan directed Nodi O Nari in 1965. But the most talented of film-makers the land had produced for many years from then on was Zahir Raihan. The director was later considered the trailblazer of feature and documentary movies in the country using pure 'cinema language'. There are potent reasons for Bangladesh cinema to feel indebted to this great director, who 'disappeared' in the post-Liberation War Bangladesh in 1972 in a country still infested with elements opposed to independence. But the director will be ever remembered for his outstanding films like Kokhono Asheni, Kancher Deyal and Jibon Thekey Neya, the last a figuratively narrated socio-political movie made and released in 1970. Despite the countrywide mass upsurge for independence, the then East Pakistan was still under autocratic rule. The country was then passing through its most critical time; the movie played a catalytic role in the intensification of the political movement led by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The movement eventually took the form of the Liberation War of Bangladesh.
With the setting up of the Film Development Corporation (FDC) in Dhaka in 1959, a complete movie-making infrastructure, local production of cinema witnessed a full-scale launch. Earlier, post-shooting phases of production would take producers and directors to either Kolkata or Lahore. After the establishment of FDC, Dhaka-based producers and directors were able to taste the benefits of a film production facility of their own. They also realised the importance of freedom in dealing with the technical aspects of cinema. From that time on, Dhaka did not have to worry about behind-the-scenes works of movie making. A large audience of cinema had already been there. So were the movie theatres. What the then province and its capital lacked was investor-producers and competent directors. After a short gap following the making of over a dozen remarkable movies, including the Urdu-language Jago Hua Savera (directed by AJ Kardar), the Dhaka filmdom eventually became flooded with new locally directed films. With a few notable exceptions, these films comprised chiefly staples for the urban middle class. West Pakistani Urdu 'action films' also enjoyed popularity among certain classes. However, with the awakening of a political consciousness triggered by movements based on Bengali nationalism, the deluge of Urdu cinema started thinning out. The onrush virtually stopped in 1969-70.
The Bangladesh film industry after independence in 1971 has featured lots of developments not seen in the past. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the country witnessed big-budget multi-starrers. Mostly made crudely after Bombay's box office hits, these crass commercial flicks contributed to a deterioration in the general movie-goers' taste. The vanguard and activists of the film society movement of the past East Pakistan did not sit idle in those times of pervasive rot. They put up resistance by mustering whatever resources and strength they had at that time. Apart from regular screenings of foreign movies, they arranged film retrospectives, and discussions and workshops on better cinema.
In mid-1975, Bangladesh Film Society arranged a month-long film appreciation course, which was conducted by Satish Bahadur, Indian film critic and teacher. Thanks to this historic event, the Dhaka film scenario could later welcome a group of talented young movie directors. They included Mashiuddin Shaker, Sheikh Niamat Ali, Tanvir Mokammel et al. Comparatively younger by age, directors like Morshedul Islam, Tareq Masud or Mostofa Sarwar Faooki emerged from varied backgrounds. Prior to his premature death in 1989, the highly acclaimed film critic Alamgir Kabir directed a number of short and feature films. Coming to the list of the directors of serious films in Dhaka, the names of Syed Salahuddin Zaki, Badal Rahman, Guerilla-famed Nasiruddin Yusuff and Fakhrul Alam-Rebecca duo deserve to be mentioned specially. Alam-Rebecca's Bindu Theke Britto and Joy Bangla, made in the late 1960s, were critically acclaimed as two pleasant breaks in the long list of Dhaka's hackneyed Bangla films.
As we celebrate the 60th anniversary of Mookh O Mukosh, the movie theatres brace for virtual closure. Owing mainly to low-quality entertainers, outshone by glitzy Indian pirated movies reaching viewers through online channels, the cinema audiences have long been disappearing. As a result, production of films started passing through a critical time --- with the cinema people switching over to other profitable entertainment outlets like TV.
The recent video piracy of the commercially successful movie, Ainabaji, a rare occurrence in the present context, comes as great shock to the local movie industry. The debacle comes as a bolt from the blue. Until now Bangladesh has largely been free of the menace of piracy of its successful movies. The Ainabaji episode, many fear, will have a great dampening impact on the lately revived movie-making efforts.
The last 60-year time-span was an eventful one for Bangladesh cinema. It had its periods of spontaneous creativity in movie-making coupled with artistic commitment. But phases of substandard productions also marred its journey. However, it prevailed. For the film industry has thrived on a glorious past. Unfortunately, adversities have deprived it of its due rewards.