Reopening of cinemas --- hope and hurdles

Balaka cinema hall in Dhaka 	—Collected Photo Balaka cinema hall in Dhaka —Collected Photo

In the early 21st century, one-third of movie theatres across the country were declared shut. As years wore on, the total reached a figure of two-thirds. Many halls were dismantled, and replaced by shopping complexes and other profit-making establishments. The movie theatres were witnessing a sharp drop in the viewers' rush thanks to the local film industries' failure to come up to the middle-class taste. After the release of over a dozen well directed Bangla movies in the 1960s, Dhaka experienced a flood of sentimental and folktale-based films interspersed with a handful of fairly clean ones in the 1970s. The next two decades of the Dhaka cine-world remained overwhelmed by glitzy costume movies, along with those devoid of the basics of film-making. Around this time, as experts close to the local film-world view it, the Dhaka movie-making experienced the start of its decline. Besides, the bold and desperate attempts by a handful of directors and producers suddenly found themselves in the midst of an abysmal darkness. The mainstream movie industry engaged in weak attempts to stay afloat realised that its days were numbered. The exhibitors, i.e. the cinema hall owners, didn't fail to comprehend the adverse situation, which drove them to turn to newer sources of income.

Thus the highly promising movie industry in the independent country was made to join a process of decay. Unfortunately, a great price for the sudden decline of Bangladesh cinema had to be borne by the exhibitors. Most of them had been in the business for decades. Like the sudden blow taking the movie making off-balance, most of the hall owners also took up unexpected ventures. Like in the capital Dhaka, the new-generation entrepreneurs turned to building modern shopping complexes. Small movie theatres fitted with digitisation devices and latest amenities comprised a part of the malls located mainly in Dhaka.  That film making, based on fresh themes and modern cinematic techniques, was poised to stage a comeback became clear. Talented young producers, directors and artistes were emerging fast. In view of this, the long depressed audiences started feeling upbeat.

At the moment, the sections keenly watching the emergence of a new breed of movie makers are optimistic about a spectacular rebirth of the Bangladesh cinema. Based solely in capital Dhaka, the new movies have already started attracting the educated middle-class spectators. Several new movie-theatres adopted the digitised form of cinema screening. Taking cue from the words of Information and Broadcasting Minister Dr Hasan Mahmud as he spoke to a team comprising the key-persons of the country's different associations of film artistes, producers and directors, a conclusion can be drawn: people have started crowding the cinemas once again. The minister has cited a few relevant instances. According to him, due to the government's cooperation in the post-corona Bangladesh, a total of 214 cinemas are now operating in the country. There is a plan to open 100 more movie-theatres in coming one year. A total of 1400 cinema halls had been in operation in the country, the Information Minister said. During the corona pandemic, the number of cinemas dropped to mere 65.

Few countries in the world closed their movie-theatres down at such a pace as seen in Bangladesh. During the corona time, the theatres remained closed temporarily in compliance with the respective countries' health guidelines. Few cinema halls were declared non-functional permanently. In the case of Bangladesh, theatre-shutting trend began full-throttle over a decade ago. No fear of any pandemic distressed the country at that time. Social thinkers, while attempting to identify the possible reasons behind the permanent hall closures, point the finger at the thinning out of new releases alarmingly. Many hall owners say the increasing burden of taxes served as a disincentive for them in keeping the theatres open. There could be other reasons. Those include switching over to more profit-churning businesses other than cinema hall running, dearth of skilled and senior technical hands and the younger cine-goers getting hooked on online entertainments.

On being caught up in these adversities and looking forward to alternative businesses, the relatively youthful entrepreneurs in cinema business felt the pressure increasingly as time wore on. In course of time, video cassettes in the beginning, and YouTube and other digital platforms later, began invading the taste of the general viewers. Finding the cinema halls to be a financial burden, the practical way out proved to be getting rid of them: demolishing the 60/70 years to century-old movie-theatres. In the 1970s, capital Dhaka and the large cities stood witness to the opening of dozens of new cinemas. Apart from the central part of the city, the Dhaka suburbs and the satellite towns also witnessed cinemas coming up one after another.

A few of these suburban cinemas managed to be in place, thanks to their screening of old Bangladeshi movies. The new mainstream movies went to the so-called cineplexes and those remodelled with wide screens and the modern sound system. These new-generation halls are smaller, have sitting capacity for a limited number of spectators and are attached to large shopping complexes. Thanks to this architectural design, the theatres always remain 'houseful' --- thanks to their cozy and comfortable environment. However, it took several years and the managements' utmost efforts, to woo the new generation of cine-viewers. To cite an instance, they began exhibiting the globally released fresh movies spending exorbitant sums of money. As a consequence, the prices of tickets had to be increased 3 to 4-fold. The eventual rise in the viewers at these theatres cushioned the hall-owners' extra burdens of expenditure needed for ensuring that viewers enjoy their time there for two to three hours.

The shutting down or demolishing of cinema halls in the country had little to do with the corona pandemic. The trend of tearing down the veritably empty movie-theatres began much earlier. Many people attribute this demolition spree to a domino effect of the Dhaka cases. In Dhaka, the first case of cinema hall closures began with that of Rupmahal in Sadarghat, on the bank of the Buriganga. It was followed by Maya (later Star), Lion and a few others. No other cinema demolitions sparked so much shock waves like that triggered by Gulistan. In the over-70 years, the hall served both high-brow cinema aesthetes and middle-class fans of clean social dramas. The closure and mindless demolition of Gulistan dealt a great blow to the movie-watching culture in Dhaka in the early decade of the 21st century. The compulsive movie-watchers were in fact in love with Gulistan. On the other hand, the enlightened and culturally bent audiences began feeling orphaned at the disappearance of Gulistan and its twin, the smaller Naz which remained almost off-limits to the general movie watchers since its opening --- thanks to its screening of only Hollywood movies. That the older generation would miss greatly their tension-free, happier times spent at the two exclusive halls, Gulistan and Naz, was a foregone conclusion.  Gulistan eventually emerged as a premier venue for viewing the new Bangla movies made in Kolkata and those released in Dhaka in the sixties.  Gulistan/Naz and Star, Rupmahal, Manosi (name given by Rabindranath Tagore), Tajmahal, Mukul, Moon etc went through their demolishing phases almost at the same time. Rupmahal, credited with screening 'Mookh O Mukhosh', the very first movie made in East Bengal in 1959, received the blows of sledge hammers and shovels in the early 1980s.

It's worth mentioning that not all hall-owners gave in to the frenzy of demolishment of the once-bustling cinemas. The Information Minister at his view-exchange with Dhaka's film personalities told them about the government's desire to give the Bangladesh cinemas a new lease of life. As he said, the countrywide functional halls had lately declined to a little over 200. That a total of 100 renovated cinemas would be added to the number is quite heartening. But threats remain lurking. They might come in the form of on-demand streaming networks.


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