a research blog by Lotte Hoek
When not on the set of a low budget Bangladeshi action film, junior assistant director Nazmul (pseud.) could regularly be found at Shilpakala, the National Academy of Fine and Performing Arts in Dhaka. Long adda over small cups of instant coffee would regularly turn to his directorial aspirations. Theatre, cinema, Kabuki, there was not a performing art form that Nazmul wasn’t interested in.
He had been introduced to drama at age 12, when a local drama group called ‘Bengal Talkies’ staged a play in a field. Growing up in a working class family in Demra, a former village now swallowed by the megacity Dhaka, Nazmul sought out the small theatre troupes that performed on the village field. He described his infatuation as an addiction (nesha), and became a regular participant in the local ‘moncho natok’ (stage drama).
More interested in theatre than in school, by his mid-thirties, Nazmul was undereducated, unemployed and living in the house of his married sister. With his greasy bearing, gauche language and polyester blend trousers, his entrance into the world of Dhaka’s sophisticated theatre scene was all but barred. In Dhaka slang, he was a mofo. Short for mofussil (provincial town or urban hinterland), the term is used to highlight someone’s lack of urban street smart and sophistication. It draws on the association of the mofussil with the ‘uneducated’ or uncivil.
Trying to find access to the urban world of Culture, Nazmul sought out a neighbourhood acquaintance who was successfully making low budget action films in the Bangladesh Film Development Corporation. This is where I met Nazmul, working the lowliest jobs on the sets of Shahadat Ali Shilpu (pseud.), a director notorious for producing low investment but high grossing action flicks laced with illegal pornographic inserts. Spending many months on set with him for my PhD research, he would regularly talk to me about his directorial aspirations, invite me to plays he was involved with and tell me to come visit him at his adda at Shilpakala.
I was always struck by Nazmul’s passionate commitment to the performing arts, especially mancho natok, stage drama. When he wasn’t at work for Shiplu, he rehearsed plays written in Kolkata, cheaply reprinted at Dhaka’s Nilkhet, with the actors he tried to gather around him. They included young male students waiting for the university session jams to end and middle-aged female jatra performers. He rehearsed with them in the communal spaces of the quarters of low ranking government officers. And when he had an evening off, he could be found at Shilpakala. Still living in Demra with his sister, it would take him hours to come in to the city and return to its fringes everyday. Nonetheless, he persisted.
What was it about Shilpakala that attracted Nazmul especially? While close to the financial heart of the film industry at Kakrail’s producers’ offices, there was also something about the atmosphere and charisma that Nazmul enjoyed. Synonymous with the good taste of decades past, sites such as Shilpakala, but also the National Library, are publically accessible. Here someone like Nazmul could inhabit a space of cultural distinction freely.
Places like Shilpakala and the government quarter have come to house the artistic expression of those marginalized from new spaces of artistic expression and leisure that have emerged in the city, such as cineplexes, private galleries, television stations and advertisement companies. While the sites once
designed to artistically serve the nation and cater to a national public that ideally embraced all (such as national museums, the Film Development Corporation and even public parks) the new spaces of artistic production and consumption are unabashedly closed to the general public. Instead, Nazmul finds footholds for cultural expression in the spaces once opened up by the state, like Shilpakala.
Nazmul’s love for Shilpakal suggests that while the private galleries and cineplexes are rapidly expanding in Dhaka, some of the older institutions of culture remain highly desirable sites for self-expression for some. The fervour with which its signs, forms and sites are embraced by urbanites associated with the rural hinterland or mofussil, suggests that their aesthetic surplus is up for grabs. It is here that the uncivil mofussil outside to urbane and progressive sophistication has become its inside.
To read about this argument in detail, see my article “Mofussil Metropolis: Civil sites, Uncivil Cinema and Provinciality in Dhaka City” in the journal Ethnography 13(1): 28-42. http://eth.sagepub.com/content/13/1/28.abstract