a research blog by Lotte Hoek
The 25th death anniversary of filmmaker Alamgir Kabir (1938-1989) has been commemorated with a three-day program at Dhaka’s Shilpakala Academy. Jointly organised by different film societies in Dhaka, the events have featured lectures and films alongside remembrances.
By all accounts a charismatic teacher and profoundly engaged intellectual, Alamgir Kabir remains the doyen of the film society movement in Bangladesh. He is remembered not only for his films (including the documentary Liberation Fighter (1971), his collaboration with Zahir Raihan on Stop Genocide (1971), his fictions Suryakannya (1973) and Shimana Periye (1977), among others), but also for his apparently tireless efforts in the movement, including editing magazines, teaching film courses and being a driving force behind the Short Film Forum.
My engagement with Kabir, however, is largely through two of his books on the cinema: The Cinema in Pakistan (1969) and Film in Bangladesh (1979). These two volumes give great insight into the cinematic ideals of Kabir.
Less read, The Cinema in Pakistan is an extraordinary book, in part because of its anachronism. It narrates a cinematic space that no longer exists: the film industry straddling both East and West Pakistan (1947-1971). Unlike any other volume since, it produces an integrated account of the cinema across these two flanks. In The Cinema in Pakistan Kabir combines his writing as a film critic and journalist with his vision for the future of cinema in East and West Pakistan, steeped in the left-wing cultural activism that he practiced. His account from the 1960s presents historical details glossed over or forgotten in post-1971 Pakistan and Bangladesh film historiography. He provides clear evidence of the ways in which the industries on either side of the country were simultaneously integrated and separated.
In terms of his film criticism, Kabir’s evaluation of the state of Pakistani cinema partakes of tropes familiar from across South Asia. He writes with explicit discontent about popular film and is appreciative of particular forms of realism. Alamgir Kabir’s hope for Pakistani cinema was the emergence of an independent film-art that combined the qualities of realism with commercial success dependent on the education of an audience appreciative of such art cinema. For Kabir, cinema was a progressive force that, in the right hands, would be able to create greater enlightenment. This conviction underpins his despair at censorship and protectionism but also his disregard for more popular forms of film.
While these ideals clearly resonate with debates familiar from the ‘60s and ‘70s across South Asia, elsewhere The Cinema in Pakistan is surprisingly prescient. Kabir foreshadows many ongoing debates around the cinema in Pakistan and Bangladesh, including discussions about the effects of the protected market, the place of Hindi cinema, the nature of popular film and the relative respectability of television compared to cinema. If only for this reason, the book (if you can find a copy; try the British Library if you are in the UK) is an extraordinary read that continues to be important for understanding contemporary cinema in Bangladesh.