Already struggling to retain a customer base whose preferences are rapidly evolving, Bangladesh's cinema halls were hit particularly hard with the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.
An absence of the type of movies in the recent decades that can draw audiences to the theatres, followed by the emergence of streaming platforms made the future of big-screen entertainment appear truly bleak. And then the pandemic made everything even worse with restrictions on public gathering.
But few recent films have generated new waves in the seemingly dead waters of Bangladeshi cinema industry, making both the viewers and cinema hall owners hopeful about the future.
Sadid Rahman cannot remember getting excited about going to watch a Bangladeshi movie at the cinema since Shyamol Chhaya in 2015. He ventured a risk to watch Most Welcome 2 and walked out at the intermission. That was the last time he went to watch a movie in a cinema hall, until the recent release of Hawa.
And Sadid is not alone by any means. A significant number of people took notice of the new kind of Bangla cinema arriving in the theatres. The result is a new surge of audiences coming to see these films.
Rehana Maryam Noor (2021), premiered at Cannes Film Festival, won hearts when it was locally released. Hawa currently boasts a staggering 8.1 rating on IMDb and is now thriving in the US, coming at 27th among the top 30 films in US box office, grossing around $2,20,000 so far. Poran attained a 7.7 rating on IMDb. Both the films are drawing former cinema goers out to the theatre after a long time.
A desolate ground to build up on
The conventional quasi-action cum romantic cum musical cum sob-story films, filed in decades-old technology (that would sometimes make the blue sky appear red), coupled with unwatchable over-the-top acting, slowly shooed people away.
According to Iftekhar Uddin Nawshad, the second generation owner of Modhumita Cinema Hall and Modhumita movies, the number of cinema halls in the country has gone down from 1,500 in the 80s to around 70 currently.
During the 80s the film industry could release at least one, sometimes two films, every week, accumulating to around 100 or even 150 films per year.
Number of film production further dwindled owing to the fact that joint venture films with India were stopped to help the domestic market.
Gautam Ghosh's Padma Nadir Majhi and Moner Manush, adapted on the screen from two timeless pieces of literature, were examples of how the two industries could benefit each other. But the ban killed that opportunity.
"The original owners of most cinema halls have aged or passed away. Eventually the business was neglected and most owners passed the halls down to booking agents. Then the lack of films made the situation even worse. A majority of the halls have been closed down. The famous Sony cinema hall in Mirpur has been turned into a Star Cineplex outlet," said Nawshad, the Modhumita owner.
"Purabi, Asia, Parbat, Balaka, Abhisar, Jamuna, Chitra Mahal halls have all been shut down. Azad cinema hall barely qualifies as a hall anymore as it lacks most facilities offered by modern theatres. Rajmoni hall was demolished. On the whole, there is a lack of both halls and films," Nawshad said.
With OTT platforms becoming easily available because of increasing internet accessibility, movie audiences got drawn to films and serieses on these platforms. The first video streaming platform in Bangladesh, Bongo, came as early as in 2013. Other examples of some commonly used OTT platforms in Bangladesh include Chorki, Hoichoi, Bioscope, Banglafilx, Cinespot, Binge, Addatimes.
"Stuck at home in the pandemic, people were kind of left with watching Netflix or YouTube. The halls were closed and we were still required to bear fixed costs, in spite of doing no business. The future was looking uncertain but I hung on through all the losses incurred," said Mahboob Rahman Ruhel, the founder Chairman of ShowMotion Limited which owns the Star Cineplex movie theatres.
"OTT platforms not only took business away from us, people watching them were slowly developing a different taste in movies and serieses. They were not going to go back to cinemas unless we could cater to their new taste," he added.
Possibility of a revival
Good films are not a new phenomenon in the Bangladeshi film industry. Movies like Sareng Bou (1978), Surja Dighal Bari (1979) in the 70s, and then Matir Moyna (2002), Monpura (2009), Moner Manush (2010), Aynabaji (2016) in the 2000s and 2010s were critically acclaimed and very popular with the cinema viewers.
Recent releases like Hawa and Poran are seemingly reviving that kind of popularity of Bangladeshi cinema.
The reception Hawa and Poran got from the masses are indicative of the fact that if up-and-coming filmmakers can cater to what the audiences are looking for, the film industry in Bangladesh can bounce back again.
More screens, as ShowMotion's chairman Ruhel sees it, will bring in more profit for not only the theatres but also for the films. The producers of Hawa have already made four times the money they initially invested and that is encouraging them greatly to come up with more scripts and stories.
"We had three screens when Star Cineplex was first introduced. One good Bangla film – like Monpura by Giasuddin Selim, Debi by Anam Biswas, Aynabaji by Amitabh Reza Chowdhury for example – would arrive after considerable break between them. Luckily, we could screen Hollywood films, Top Gun: Maverick for instance, at the same time to keep the audience coming," said Ruhel.
"Now we have 16 screens and multiplexes in many major cities and districts in Bangladesh. We are planning to set up 100 screens. Since we could screen Hawa, Poran and even Din The Day simultaneously at Star Cineplex, the audience had a variety of films to choose from, and almost every screening is getting a full house," he added.
Audiences are now looking for movies that are not tacky regurgitated love stories. Even in Bollywood, films like these are on the decline.
"Hawa and Poran have created records against all the odds. We have not seen this in the past decade. If films like these keep coming out, we will again see people flocking to see movies at the cinema halls," said Nawshad.