Cinema halls occupied the largest segment of the recreational outlets in the Dhaka of early 1960s. By the time this writer mustered enough courage to watch movies with school friends Dhaka already had a number of cinemas. Most of them were located in the older part of Dhaka, the now-dismantled Gulistan-Naz standing on the border between the old and the new cities. To the south there was a cluster of 'halls' numbering about 13. The oldest of them was 'Nishath', later 'Manoshi', located in Bangshal area. On the furthest southern point was 'Rupmahal', on the bank of the Buriganga. This cinema had already found a place in the history of Bangladesh cinema. For the first ever full-length Bangla movie made in the then East Pakistan was released at this hall, in 1956. The film called 'Mookh O Mukhosh' was directed by Abdul Jabbar Khan.
On the northern part of Dhaka there were no cinemas, except Balaka at Nilkhet. Nearly one-and-half decades later, the halls Beauty at Mirpur, Shyamoli; Ananda at Farmgate began catering to the viewers. With the opening of Balaka in the mid-1960s, the 'new Dhaka' movie-goers were largely spared the hassles of going to the 'old town' to watch movies --- mostly Indian Bangla and Hindi ones. After the 1965 Indo-Pak war, Indian films were prohibited from being screened anywhere in East Pakistan. It, however, didn't take long for the cinema hall owners to replenish the gap. By that time, the East Pakistani Bangla cinema industry gained a firm footing in the land. However, Lahore-made Urdu movies, mostly crude copies of banned Hindi films, eventually posed a threat to the growth of a Dhaka-based Bangla cinema industry.
Thanks to the emergence of a batch of committed Bengalee film directors and producers, the making of Bangla films found new directions. The new-generation air-conditioned and spacious theatres offered a screening platform to the Dhaka-made Bangla movies. The Balaka cinema opened with 'Dui Digonto', directed by Obaidul Haq. The new-age movie theatres began emerging in full swing in different parts of the 'new Dhaka' from the late 1960s and early 1970s. The most remarkable of these cinema halls after Balaka was Modhumita at Motijheel Commercial Area. The theatre opened in 1967, with the global box-office hit film 'Cleopatra'. Modhumita drew audiences in droves, since it had the largest movie screen at that time. State-of-the-art movie houses began opening one after another throughout the 1970s and 1980s. At one point of time, Dhaka and its suburbs boasted of over 100 movie theatres --- all of them air-conditioned.
Like in any country, cinema halls played a critical role in the growth of Bangladesh cinema industry. Although the trend in Bangladesh has later witnessed considerable decline, the movie houses have not lost all their inherent appeal. The upper middle class people have long switched over to the online movie channels; but the classes below them still turn to cinema for passing two to three hours detached from their mundane realities.
In such a scenario, the reopening of a few Dhaka movie houses after six months should have created a stir among the average cinema fans. But things were far from that. To the amazement of the hall authorities, only a handful of people turned up on the first day. The following days didn't show much improvement. The hall owners found themselves in a baffled condition. It's because they took all anti-corona transmission measures before declaring the halls open. They reportedly followed health guidelines, like arranging viewers' accommodation at half the halls' capacity. Those were aimed at ensuring the mandatory physical distance.
According to many, due to initial misgivings a lot of the prospective viewers may have preferred to maintain a wait-and-see policy. But the turnout of such a negligible number of putative film buffs stunned hall owners. The above one was the case of a few traditionally operated cinema houses. A lot of people acquainted with the tastes and trends of Dhaka movie-goers might feel like applying the case to the other halls as well. It's undeniable that there have been radical shifts in the habit of movie watching in Bangladesh in the last two decades. The pandemic transmission fear has just aggravated the whole spectacle. The question that arises at this point is if the lower-middle class starts showing an about-face to its long-favourite entertainment, which are the ones they can finally take resort to? It can safely be said that their income has not soared so high overnight that these people can enjoy movies at the upscale cineplexes.
After the announcement of reopening the Dhaka cinema halls, the city dwellers thought of the views offered by the shopping malls. The malls also witnessed cautious and a little jittery visitors. The cinema-hall views resembled that of the malls in the post-Eid holiday atmosphere --- sparse crowds yet a few rushing from shop to shop to buy some urgent things. In a few days, the malls would be filled with shoppers. The spectacles that the Dhaka cinema houses have offered after their reopening seemed so unusual that they bordered on the eerie. Many feel the very decision to reopen the halls was premature. A modern cinema hall is a place closed on all sides. Unlike an open-air marketplace, people come here to keep their eyes and mind fixed on the screen. Except short verbal exchanges with an acquaintance sitting next to one, there are little scopes for lengthy conversations. In short, the atmosphere is not comparable to others. On being seated in the darkness of a hall, the leftover of a deadly pandemic floating still in the air, a section of the audience might feel panicked after the start of a movie. This presumed experience might scare many a prospective movie lover for some more time.
Viewing the spectacle at the reopened Dhaka movie houses, a historical phenomenon keeps unfolding. Movie viewers in Dhaka and other cities of the country have been turning away from cinema for quite some time. It's the online cinema reaching the viewers through PCs, laptops etc, and even smart phones, which has made a dent in the number of compulsive movie buffs. In short, the alternative and privately utilised movie mediums at one point of time began overwhelming the mainstream cinemas.
Apart from the encroachment on the conventional movie screening techniques, the 21st century viewers discovered in the cinema halls the signs of decadence. Even setting up of high-end cineplexes couldn't draw the expected number of spectators. In reality, the very trend of watching movies in dark enclosures emerged as representative of a moribund culture --- one which proved anachronistic to many. What is both distressing and characteristic of an unpredictable future is newer movie viewing outlets keep opening without pause.
These radical changes stand in stark contrast with the traditionally jovial mood that used to prevail not long ago in watching movies. Going to the cinema had normally been viewed as a family fun. To the average middle-class people, movie watching once began emerging as a collective entertainment. Barring the discerning movie-goers, enjoying movies at Sunday (the weekly holiday in the country till the mid-1980s) matinee or evening shows once meant a marvellous pastime. This culture promoting clean middle-class recreation began being spoilt by a section of producers and exhibitors. They continued to churn out B-films, or inept copies of Hindi blockbusters, which were rejected by even the layman viewers. It didn't take long for a process of decadence in the Bangladesh cinema to set in. A dark phase swooped on the Dhaka film world in the late sixties with the short-lived deluge being unleashed on it by the then East Pakistan-based Urdu cinema producers.
With their pre-corona days already beset with existential problems, the post-corona cinema halls may not see the audience resurgence anytime soon. The shutdown has left sobering effects on almost all the sectors. Cinema cannot keep itself apart.