How film societies influence cinema

Shihab Sarkar | Published: May 30, 2019 21:45:22 | Updated: May 30, 2019 21:49:23

Muhammad Khasru (1946 - February 19, 2019)

Notwithstanding the spontaneous tributes to Muhammad Khasru after his death on last February 19 at 73, the younger generation appeared to be a little confused. They had deep respect for him, heard of his dedication to better cinema movement and many also became his disciples. Through Khasru they could watch scores of classic movies and take part in film workshops and discussions. Despite exceptions, film society movement does not necessarily groom makers. Its chief tasks include refining the movie viewers' taste and help them tell 'better films' from crass entertainers.

Muhammad Khasru was quite aware of the role film societies have been playing for a century across the world in the launch of a better cinema watching platform.  In fact, people involved in this movement know it well today that it has come a long way since its launch in the early 20th century. Of them, a few have emerged as movie makers. The rest remained satisfied with watching non-commercial films at exclusive screenings. The movement for watching off-the-track cinema started simultaneously in New York, Paris and London in 1917. Later the movement termed their films 'alternative movies' in reaction to the global flooding by sloppily made sentimentalised films. The world's first-ever film society emerged from the International Film Arts Guild, based in New York, in 1925. In spite of being dubbed by the mainstream cinema people a movement led by dilettantes and snobbish aesthetes, the film society movement gained a strong footing among the city-based culturally enlightened youths. In the sub-continent, the first film society was established in Mumbai in 1940. It was followed by Kolkata Film Society, with the directorial aspirant Satyajit Ray at the helm, formed in 1947.  

Despite its birth in the West, the film society movement eventually demonstrated its relevance to the countries where cinema had just found a strong place in their cultural landscape. People like Muhammad Khasru, a professional photographer and self-taught cine-aesthete, and some like-minded people felt what a critical role such a movement could play in the development of the erstwhile East Pakistan's own cinema. Khasru soon realised his exact place in the Bangladesh movie world. His cinema-loving seniors had watched him carve a niche in the Bangladesh film society movement since the 1960s. Muhammad Khasru became a pioneer of the better film watching movement alongside the figures like Kabir Chowdhury, Alamgir Kabir, Mahbub Jamil, Sadeq Khan et al. That was the period when the theatres of the then East Pakistan remained flooded with Mumbai-style 'masala' Urdu films and Bangla B-movies made in both Kolkata and Dhaka. Zahir Raihan, Salahuddin et al fought for better cinema in their individual ways -- by making movies. At the same time, despite their being deeply involved with the film society movement, Khasru and a few others had at one time begun dreaming of directing movies as better-cinema activists.

Meanwhile, the activities of Muhammad Khasru as an energetic member of the Bangladesh Film Society (BFS), which spearheaded the movement, gained pace as years wore on, with the number of new members increasing without break. Regular watching of old and modern movie classics generated in many young members the urge to pick the vocation of film making. Although a few of them later proved themselves to be brilliant directors, cameramen and editors, luck was not in favour of Khasru. Unlike others, he could not arrange the government finance. Many blame his outspokenness and the aversion for compromise for his not getting the government's financial backing.

The film society movement in Bangladesh had its heyday until the early 1980s. During its prime time, the better film watching platform organised a number of film appreciation courses, including two with Pune Film Institute's teacher Satish Bahadur. Eventually, owing to its members' mundane engagements, the movement began fizzling out. It later got merged with the Federation of the Film Societies of Bangladesh comprising 40 film societies. According to many, the federation lacked the vigour and enthusiasm of BFS.

The federation in the last couple of decades could not show itself as being engaged in serious movie-related activities. Its record of organising film appreciation courses, movie screenings, sessions, retrospectives etc is yet to be viewed as impressive. A lot of film enthusiasts single out some major reasons for this lackadaisical performance of the Federation. Prominent of those are the general viewers' declining interest in cinema itself, let alone watching films at cinema halls -- considered a prerequisite for smooth development of films in an independent country.  This had worked as a damper in the creation of a vibrant movie culture in Bangladesh. The younger film buffs now prefer watching movies online to avoid taking the trouble of visiting a cinema. There are now a number of movie sites online, where one can watch the latest Western and regional films. This trend of watching movies in a private and family atmosphere has led to the closure of a large number of cinema halls across the country. The few halls which have been able to survive the decadence pervading the Bangladesh movie industry have had to undergo massive renovation. As a result, Dhaka has witnessed the construction of a handful of multiplexes. These multiplexes are theatres in essence, with state-of-the-art devices and facilities for watching movies.

Although the changed atmosphere in movie watching plays little role in increasing the mass appeal of the film society movements, it carries the prospects for the emergence of a movie-making campaign in the country. This is a feature befitting the new times. The reality is movies made by young directors have never had smooth access to the mainstream filmdom. It aptly applies to the sub-continental scenario including Dhaka. Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen emerged directly from the Kolkata-based film society movement. One of its patrons was Chidananda Dasgupta, father of director-artiste Aparna Sen. In spite of Kolkata's strong film society movement, the early films by Ray and Sen fared badly at theatres. These cinema halls are used to exhibiting commercial flicks. Both Ray and Sen, and also Ritwik Ghatak, were deprived of the opportunities to screen their movies at premier theatres in their early careers. In fact, no matter how forceful a film society movement is the works made by individual directors normally receive lukewarm response from the film industry and the average audience, especially in the Third World countries. The scene in the economically and culturally advanced countries is not radically different. It's also true that the developed countries' directors are normally groomed at their film schools and colleges. These institutes are fully equipped with indoor and outdoor shooting floors, cameras, editing and projection facilities etc.

Despite pressure mounted by the film society activists, the government has yet to establish a full-fledged film institute in Bangladesh. The gap has largely been filled by an institute set up under private initiative in Dhaka. A batch of film society activists, later film makers, puts in the best of their efforts to turn the institute into a regionally important one. Besides this, a film archive has been in operation in the capital for nearly three decades. In order to see a film industry producing movies rich with 'film language', better film movement activists always put emphasis on film schools as a prerequisite. Bangladesh has been no exception. From the seventies onwards, the film society people have been demanding the establishment of a government film institute. People vocal with the demand included Alamgir Kabir, Badal Rahman, Syed Salahuddin Zaki, Moshiuddin Shaker, Sheikh Niamat Ali --- and, of course, Muhammad Khasru.

With the film society movement on the wane and better films discouraged by the exhibitors, the online movies, web series etc dominate the scenario. In a country which saw the emergence of dozens of brilliant young directors in the last three decades, this confusing situation hurts the real movie lovers. It looks as if the once-vibrant film society movement in the country has lost its way in a labyrinth. It should not have been so. The film society movement could at least generate the feeling in Bangladesh that movies are a vital component of the modern arts. Its role can in no way be belittled.



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