a research blog by Lotte Hoek
Few cities are so densely populated and so fast-growing as Dhaka, Bangladesh’s burgeoning capital. Jammed into a mere 325 square kilometres are anywhere between 14 and 16 million people, depending on who you ask. With barely over 1 million people at independence in 1971, the city has expanded exponentially.
It has fallen to the popular cinema in Bangladesh to give an account of this rapidly growing city. The popular action narratives that pitch violent godfathers against handsome college boys with a surprise talent for hand-to-hand combat share the city backdrop with the sugar-coated romances that find ill-fated lovers defending their passions in the drawing rooms of their disgruntled parents. No other art form has so single-mindedly pursued the city. In many ways, it has fallen to popular cinema, rather than other art forms, to provide an imaginary for, and cohesive account of, the burgeoning city of Dhaka.
It is just unfortunate that Dhaka city itself has been such an unwilling collaborator in this pursuit. No film producer in their right mind thinks about shooting on the streets of the capital. As Mohamed Abdul Kayum, a prolific cameraman in the Bangladesh Film Development Corporation said to me: “In Dhaka city you can’t work anywhere” [Dhaka shohor-e kothao o kaj kora jay na]. Even though he said this to me before the slightly more mobile Red cameras recently replaced the Arriflex 2C’s Kayum regularly worked with, the statement still holds. Jammed roads and densely populated neighbourhoods make it difficult to shoot with large crews and cumbersome equipment.
However, the industry’s common-sense knowledge that “you can’t work in Dhaka city” has done nothing to deter the omnipresence of Dhaka city as both subject and object of popular Bangladeshi cinema. The paradox is resolved by a number of different means by which Dhaka can come into view.
First, the city’s fringes (Ashulia, Savar) are used for outdoor shooting. They come to stand in for Dhaka in the films, perhaps laying the imaginary groundwork for a time when Savar will be the heart of the ever-expanding capital. Second, sets built at the Film Development Corporation invoke generic ‘urbanness’, backdrops of bosti housing and skyscrapers forming the décor to gangster exchanges and romantic encounters. Third, endlessly repeated stock footage of a few key indicators of Dhaka, most often Motijheel’s Shapla, instantly mark any action as taking place in Dhaka without any further need for explanation or verisimilitude. Fourth, and most significantly, you go up. Rooftops, ‘overbridges’, penthouses and helipads have become the way in which a view of the city can be presented and crews can work in some peace. Not only popular films but also advertisement and TV serials use this bird’s eye view of Dhaka more and more. The result is the sedimentation of the image of Dhaka as a series of flat high-rise surfaces, its many windows glistening in the dusk.
Here is a beautiful example of an early instance of this ‘upward’ move in picturing Dhaka. It is a fantasy song sequence, about coming to Dhaka, from the otherwise black and white film Oshikkhitto (‘Uneducated’, Azizur Rahman, 1978). It combines street level views of the lights of the city with the marvel of the ‘overbridge’, a pedestrian crossing bridge in the Farmgate area. In the distance we see the Anando cinema hall.
Note that while the lyrics extol that the move to Dhaka is what will make one’s dreams come true (including trips to the cinema hall and a flat on the 7th floor), the fantasy is rudely ruptured by a traffic accident that concludes the song and breaks the dream of Dhaka. The city is a place of ambivalence, danger and wealth tightly rolled together, the perfect backdrop to the action film.