Is Bangladeshi cinema turning a corner? There are some signs of hope, but don't uncork the champagne yet.
I recently saw Mostofa Sarwar Farooki's Doob and Dipankar Dipon's Dhaka Attack, and here are my own impressions.
Cinema is challenging. In Bangladesh, is it possible for this most modern and prohibitively expensive art form to do justice to aesthetic standards without breaking the bank?
There was a time when Bangladesh's cinema seemed a lost cause, whether as an art form or as an industry. Few films reached a level of excellence to pique the interest of the cognoscenti. Cinemas were closing, films failed to draw the masses.
In recent years, things appear to be looking up. I think Amitabh Reza Choudhury's Aynabaji really made people sit up and take notice. What's even better, the film did well at the cinema – and started a fledgling market abroad drawing expatriate Bangladeshis.
But do Bangladeshi films have what it takes? Let me start by a thumbnail review of the two films.
Doob, to belabour the obvious, created considerable controversy – never a bad thing commercially – as a thinly-veiled story of the extramarital romance of a Bangladeshi author.
Now I happen to be one of very few Bangladeshis on earth who did not follow every detail of the actual love story. I was aware that the film was loosely inspired by the real-life story. However, given my unfamiliarity with the nitty-gritty of the writer's saga, I had the opportunity to view Doob on its merits. I saw it the same way I saw Rituparno Ghosh's Abohoman – a film which had its own share of controversy after being accused of depicting Satyajit Ray's alleged affair with Madhabi Chattopaddhay.
I loved Abohoman – it mattered little to me exactly how much it borrowed from Ray's real-life experience. It was a sensitive inquiry into how an extramarital affair tears apart a family, and leaves the other woman, if you will, also in considerable pain.
Doob captures this pain remarkably well, too. Much to its credit, the film avoids the more salacious elements, and focuses on the relationships that are torn apart by the protagonist's infidelity. The protagonist is a hugely successful filmmaker, and his affair and subsequent marriage leaves pretty much everyone in harrowing pain – his now ex-wife, his daughter and his current wife. The filmmaker himself is not spared either.
Overall production values are excellent, with special credit for photography. The acting for the most part is quite good.
Yet the film has serious flaws. The choice of Irrfan Khan doesn't work– his delivery of Bengali dialogues is particularly jarring. (Farooki ought to have taken a page out of Ghosh's Bariwali – Ghosh had non-Bengali speaker Kirron Kher's dialogues dubbed.)
The lifestyle is too affluent. No film director has that kind of money. Film producers, maybe. A film director building a new apartment in Gulshan while having another retreat and a studio? Come on!
The interior decoration is too artsy – this is the stuff of the fantasy la-la land of ad films and daytime soaps. For all its filmmaking power, the film does not seem quite real.
Then there is the staccato editing. Just how much of it was the director's choice and how much enforced by a lawsuit I cannot tell, but the end product is a very slipshod, chopped up film which leaves too many narrative holes.
However, I do not share the griping of many aficionados of the said writer on which the film is loosely based upon about how the film did or did not hew to the real-life story. I think on its own merit, the film, while flawed, is a sensitive and artistically promising effort.
Dipon's Dhaka Attack is a completely different kettle of fish. Its artistic pretensions are few. Its technical values are much better than commercial Bengali cinema, but then that's a really low bar. The filmmaker's goals are more modest – it's an attempt to make an entertaining police procedural.
By Bangladeshi standards, its achievements are impressive. It is fast-moving and packed with action. This is a police force complete with state-of-the-art lab, SWAT teams and police officers who can hold their own with anything in the West.
On a very superficial level, it works well. No wonder crowds are thronging the cinemas.
But look a little more carefully, and the warts begin to show. I'll grant you that judging a commercial film by too exacting a standard is a fool's errand, but credulity has its limits.
The crime lab is a joke – just why a police officer should brood on computers that spew out chemical formulae in large print is one mystery the film refuses to solve. The SWAT team commander's English commands are as contrived as they are silly. It's clear that Dipon has been inspired by U.S. television police procedurals, but he has failed to do the homework to make his police procedures convincing. Some masala elements are expected – the song-and-dance routine is standard for South Asian cinema, but one marriage song – “Tikatulir Moray”- with its gauche dancing and gaudy folk singing - is so awful to sit through that I would not wish it upon my worst enemy.
On the basis of watching these films, my own assessment is blunt: Bangladeshi cinema has taken some impressive steps, but it has a long, long way to go. If Bangladeshi filmmakers want to tap (almost wholly Bangladeshi expatriate) audiences abroad, they'll have to step up their game a notch.
In fact, I saw Doob in Atlanta, where Seba Bangla Library, an organisation I am associated with, organised the screening. I'm sorry, but I could not, in good conscience, support a screening of Dhaka Attack (others are doing it in other cities), because in this age of Netflix and Hulu, viewers are too sophisticated to accept a film like this.
Bangladeshi filmmakers aren't there yet. But they've made a start, and I give them credit for that.
The writer is a contributing editor for Siliconeer, a monthly periodical for South Asians in the United States.