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9/27/2006

Cinemas in Bangladesh, Pakistan squeezed by Bollywood

Filed under: bangladesh — admin @ 6:25 am

DHAKA/ISLAMABAD –

The traditional family trip to the local cinema has become little more than a nostalgic memory in Bangladesh and Pakistan, where locals prefer to stay home and watch banned Bollywood films on their television sets.

The fall from grace of local movie theatres, which are being converted into shopping malls both in Dhaka and Islamabad, is a testament to politics and piracy in the two traditional Muslim countries that border India from the East and the West.

India’s Hindi-language films, many of them slickly produced song-and-dance extravaganzas, are wildly popular in Pakistan and Bangladesh where Hindi is easily understood.

But they have been banned from the big screen in both countries due to government concern that scenes of actresses being romanced by men and dancing in somewhat revealing costumes might permeate their Muslim cultures in which female modesty is prized and intermingling among the sexes is taboo.

They (Indian films) simply go against our religion, culture and taste, said Abdur Rashid, a political scientist in Bangladesh. If we allow them to be watched freely then these films will pollute our society, he added.

India’s Hindi-language film industry in Mumbai, widely known as Bollywood, churns out hundreds of blockbuster films a year which are wildly popular in India and in neighboring countries where Bollywood stars are household names.

In contrast, the films made by the Bangladeshi and Pakistani movie industries and screened at local cinemas are seen as amateurish and dull compared to glamorous Bollywood.

The Big Screen:

The Kohsar cinema in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, is a lonely place. The city’s last surviving movie theatre — a cavernous 700-seat auditorium — is virtually deserted.

It’s weird sitting here with just 11 people in such a big hall watching the movie, said Jahanzeb, a Pakistani driver who came to the cinema to watch a film with a friend on his day off.

Owner Mohammed Iqbal Mian is waiting for city hall approval to shut the Kohsar down and turn it into a shopping mall.

It’s like a white elephant for me. But since it’s my property and I am not pressed for money, I’m allowing it to go on because it provides employment for my workers, he said.

In Dhaka, housewife Shiri Akhtar’s childhood memories are filled with tragedy, comedy and drama from movies she grew up watching at her local movie cinema.

I almost never missed any new film that came to town, said Akhtar, 35.

But these days, the few cinemas that still operate in Dhaka are largely empty of clientele except for shady characters drawn by illicit screenings of Western films late at night showing banned scenes of couples kissing.

No one with good taste comes to cinema halls now. The young generation of Bangladeshis are increasingly turning to videos and satellite channels, said former cinema owner Abdul Halim.

In the past decade, some 500 cinemas out of an estimated 1,200 in Bangladesh have closed down. The situation is similar in Pakistan where fewer than 200 movie theatres are still operating compared to about 700 three decades ago.

Bangladeshi authorities banned Indian films at movie theatres in 1972, complaining that scenes of women singing and dancing were erotic and violated Islamic and Bengali traditions.

In Pakistan, Indian films were banned following a war between the neighbors in the mid-1960s.

Things got worse when military dictator Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq ushered in an era of Islamic conservatism and movie censorship after seizing power in a 1977 coup.

It was during Haq’s 11-year rule that the pirated film industry took off with smuggled Indian films coming in on video cassettes. These days they are smuggled in on even smaller DVDs.

Pirated Films, Cable TV:

The Pakistani government allowed the screening of Mughal-e-Azam and Taj Mahal, two historical Bollywood films, in an effort to boost cultural ties with India.

But the ban on Indian films in cinemas remains, although they are shown on cable television and pirated copies are easily available.

The biggest joke is that we have had this ban since the 60s but the latest Bollywood and Hollywood hits are freely available on fine-quality pirated prints, said Nadeem Mandviwalla, a cinema operator in Pakistan’s biggest city, Karachi.

The only future for dying movie theatres in both countries might be multiplex cinemas for affluent audiences.

The development of such complexes revived the movie theatre industries in India and Indonesia which went through a decline as audiences stayed away from decaying cinemas, sometimes infested by rats, preferring to stay home and watch TV.

A night out at the movies is popular again in both countries where modern multiplexes have sprung up to pamper movie goers with digital sound, air conditioning and soft, padded chairs.

But steep ticket prices at these complexes mean that a trip to the movies is unaffordable for many of the poor who used to pack the large, squalid cinemas for cheap outings.

As cinemas shut down in Bangladesh and Pakistan, the poor have nowhere to go for affordable entertainment and those that made their livings working in cinemas have no jobs.

The once-rich cinema owners are still rich because they reinvested their money carefully, said Abdul Barek, who used to sell tickets at a movie theatre in Dhaka. [But] I am unemployed and can hardly afford a meal a day.

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