Bangladeshi filmmaker Mostofa S. Farooki’s Television received a warm response when it screened as the closing film of the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) last week.
The film follows a well-meaning, if slightly misguided, village elder who has banned all moving images, including television, as un-Islamic. When the villagers rebel, the horrified elder embarks on the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. But unable to complete his journey, he discovers that television may not be so bad after all.
While avoiding clichés about poverty and rural life, the Bengali-language film explores the clash between generations with their different attitudes towards technology and religion. The film is typical of a new generation of Bangladeshi filmmakers who orbit around Farooki’s Dhaka-based production house Chabial.
Produced by Chabial and Star Cineplex Bangladesh, with Germany’s Mogador Film on board as co-producer, Television received support from BIFF’s Asian Cinema Fund and the Goteborg film fund.
How did you get started as a filmmaker?
I made my first film Bachelor in 2002. I regard my first two films as an education process, as I’d never been to any university or assisted any director. At that time I had no video monitor, and couldn’t really see anything, so it was difficult for me to understand the medium. But content and story-wise, Bachelor created a huge stir amongst the youth audience.
I consider Third Person Singular Number, which I made in 2009, as my first real film. It had a kind of discomforting subject for the Bangladesh audience as it’s about a spirited, independent young woman, who lives with her boyfriend without being married. It had more than one million admissions to the theatres. We have a big population.
What’s the current state of the Bangladeshi film industry?
Traditionally, the Bangladeshi industry used to produce about 80 films a year, but it’s now around 40 and most are really bad Bollywood copies. When satellite TV came to Bangladesh in ‘99, we aspiring young filmmakers decided to start making short telefilms on digital for really low budgets.
Our telefilms were aired in prime-time on satellite and immediately created a huge stir in the market. Bangladesh has an evolving economy, so there’s a booming middle class, and our young audience started watching those telefilms and buying our DVDs and VCDs. One production used to sell around 300,000 copies. This really helped us create the audience base for a new kind of cinema.
All over the world it happened that television killed cinema, but in Bangladesh, television helped give birth to a new cinema.
So where is this industry headed next?
We badly need government policy because we don’t have digital projection systems yet. We’ve met with the finance minister and the government is already trying to formulate policy to give tax rebates for installing digital cinema systems.
We also need local producers for this kind of new cinema - so what we need to do is draw in businessmen to fund us. Right now there’s so much energy bubbling in the TV industry and we need to channel that to the big screen. To channel it we need producers, so we’re mulling over two options - attracting young businessmen to the industry and formulating some process to use bank loans to finance films.
Has there been any collaboration between the Dhaka and Kolkata (Calcutta) film industries, as they both serve a Bengali-speaking audience?
Unfortunately not, but there should have been. Bengali-speaking people all around world should have access to another Bengali movie, no matter whether made its made in Kolkata, Dhaka or New York.
I really hope and wish our films could be released in Kolkata and I also want to see some of the brilliant films made in Kolkata in Bangladesh. There are some regulatory problems but the time has come for a rethink.
Aren’t you afraid of being swamped by Bollywood if Bangladesh is opened to Indian films?
Two years ago I wrote a piece against the unconditional import of Indian movie but my logic wasn’t nationalistic. I would love to see more challenging Indian movies come to Bangladesh, but I still don’t think we’re ready to compete with the big star-driven Indian films.
Now it’s all about creating our own style and syntax, and that is going to take some time. If you place a brick on a small plant it won’t grow. Just look at Korea - they restricted Hollywood movies for so long. If you give the audience space to develop a taste for their own cinema, then eventually they’ll watch Hollywood, but they’ll also miss something they can only get in their own films.
Are young Bangladeshi filmmakers aiming for the international market?
We are looking at every single option to reach the international market. But we don’t want to fall into the trap of making simplistic or lifeless propaganda movies. We want to explore life with all its complexities without thinking too much about what the market wants.
But yes, we need to broaden our horizons. The first thing we need to do is broaden the market for Bengali cinema by ensuring Bengali movies are released without hindrance in Dhaka, Kolkata, New York, London and the Middle East no matter where they are made.
At the same time, we also want our films to be seen by other Asian, European and American audiences. I believe we don’t need to compromise on content, style, cultural context or treatment of the film in order to achieve that. I assume Western audiences are also tired of stereotypes. They also want to see good stories told in a unique style.