Tahmina Shafique The Complete Portfolio


‘Even before I could speak I was humming’

This week Shimul Yousuff, the stage performer, is celebrating her fiftieth birthday and a career that has spanned forty-five years. She is renowned for her versatility as an actress and singer, and is famed for her appearances in plays such as Binodini, Moner Kalindi, and Shukhoni and for her screen performances in Ekatturer Jishu, Agami and Ghuddi. However, despite her numerous successes and awards, she tells me that it was the death of her brother-in-law, the music composer Altaf Mahmood in the Liberation War, that stands out as the most abiding and powerful memory of her life.

Shimul was nine when Altaf married her sister, and he immediately became more like a father to her, as well as a guru and a close friend. She was present when he was caught and tortured by the Pakistani army in 1971 and the incident has shaped the rest of her life. Although she has been left with permanent scarring of the soul, it also gave her the impetus to move on and become what she is today.

‘I still remember the look in his eyes – he had so much to tell me,’ says Shimul, fighting back the tears. ‘I was standing there in front of him when they started punching him and slashing up his skin; he was covered in blood.

He looked straight at me – the look seemed to last forever – and his eyes commanded me to promise him so many things – to make the most of my talents, to look after the family, especially his daughter, and to be strong and resolute in whatever I chose to do. I felt numb and didn’t move because, somehow, I think I knew that it was the last time I would see him, and that I had to come to terms with it’. Her voice trails off and she remains silent for a while.

Perhaps this is what gave her the determination to get so much out of her own life, achieving enormous popularity for her singing, composing and acting. In fact, it would appear, as I sit down in a cosy corner of her Dhaka apartment, that the entire nation were paying tribute to her cultural contributions; the sprawling drawing room is filled with bouquets of flowers and cards.

The sunlight is streaming through the window making her eyes look even more exotic than usual. Her face seems to exude more and more confidence with age, and she is beautiful in the way strong women are. She talks to me, excitedly, of her childhood and of her versatile career that started at the age of five.

‘I have been told that I was a natural born singer. Even before I could speak I used to hum nonsense,’ she laughs. She was born into a family where music was a part of everything. ‘My father had a powerful voice and I still remember the prayers that he used to sing. My mother also had a beautiful voice and I cherished the sound of her singing from the Qu’ran each morning.’ She and her five brothers and two sisters shared an idyllic childhood but when her father died, when Shimul was just four years old, everything changed.

The family suffered from severe financial problems. ‘I have known what it is like to be poor and I know the pains and struggles of growing up without a father,’ she says. There was no alternative but for two of her brothers to give up their education in order to work and support the family. ‘There were days when we could not even afford two meals, yet my mother’s determination that I continue my education and singing held firm, and she insisted that we keep my music teacher!’

In 1962, when Shimul was five, the radio programme Kochi Kachar Mela took notice of her recitals. ‘I was not formally involved, I was just one of the kids who were occasionally given the chance to sing at the end of the programme,’ she laughs. After a few recitals, Sufia Kamal encouraged her to participate in a live radio programme for children. ‘I couldn’t even read then so Sufia khala taught me, and I managed to do my job well.’

The following year, she was signed up as a singer with the radio programme and a year after that, she started singing on PTV. ‘I began to work harder and to contribute my income to my family,’ she recalls. ‘Although I was still only five, I understood the problems. As I was very close to my mother, I understood her pain and that probably made me grow up faster, and made me more understanding.’ However, it was a stressful job for a child of that age. ‘The worst bit was having to wake up when it

was my turn to sing or recite when all I

wanted to do was sleep,’ she smiles ruefully.

But her precocious talent gained her immense popularity and in 1965, she was awarded as the Best Child Singer in erstwhile combined Pakistan.

But everything leading up to her fourteenth birthday loses all significance in light of what happened on the night of August 30, 1971. The family was devastated when Altaf was killed. Remembered chiefly for composing the immortal song – Amar bhaier roktey rangano ekushey February, ami ki bhulite pari as well as his overall contribution to the war of independence, he will always be held warmly in the hearts of Bangladeshis, but none more so than his wife’s younger sister, Shimul.

‘My five brothers had also been captured but they were released when Altaf told the army that no-one in his family had been involved in anything that he had done. But my brothers had seen him before he died on the balcony of the factory in which he was imprisoned. He was tied up and his hands and legs had been broken into pieces. They had slashed his entire body; not a part was left untouched. When the soldiers walked past him, they would stub out their cigarettes on his skin.’ It is almost as if reiterating – reliving – the gruesome details stops her from forgetting the brutality with which he was killed. ‘I have not spoken to a Pakistani since, or been associated with them in any way – and I never will.’

In the years that followed Shimul admits that she suffered a crisis of faith. ‘I couldn’t trust anyone and had it not been for the Dhaka theatre, I would never have carried on in this career. It was the only place where I felt understood. I found that everyone there had a tale like mine, and I suddenly realised that I belonged,’ she says. Although life at the theatre was a struggle, Shimul has fond memories of her time there. ‘We didn’t have the money to travel, so the whole group would go everywhere on foot and get by without eating. I remember, when the bhaiyas used to bring us food, we would devour it in seconds.’

It was also there that Shimul first met Nasir Uddin Yusuf, the now acclaimed film and theatre director and who, after she completed her sociology degree from Dhaka University, would become her husband. ‘Like everything else, I knew I was sure about him – I could not have married anyone else because he is probably the only person who really understands me.’

The couple have two daughters – Shaon and Esha. When I meet her, Shaon tells me that Esha, who is studying Film and Television at MediaCom in Thailand, had come all the way back to Dhaka to surprise their mother on her birthday. It is not until much later that Shaon tells me that she is, in fact, Altaf’s daughter. ‘I promised him I would take care of her,’ says Shimul softly.

As more and more visitors pour in to wish her happy birthday, our interview comes to an end. That evening Shimul is appearing in the show Binodini. ‘What better way to celebrate my fiftieth?’ she laughs.

Her stage presence is mesmerising and flawless and she seems to have even more energy and passion than ever. ‘Of course I want to continue my work; I still have so much to learn, and the fact that audiences today seem to prefer talent over mere celebrity is encouraging,’ she adds.

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‘Please could you just do some magic and make me well again?’

When Rosy Afsari died last week, as a result of kidney failure, we lost one of the most versatile and talented actors our country has ever seen; she was sixty years old. Rosy had helped shape the golden age of Bangladeshi cinema, stepping into the spotlight for the first time at the age of sixteen, and going on to appear in over 200 films over the next forty years, many of which, such as Jibon Thekey Neya, Titas Ekti Nodir Nam, and Shurjo Shangram became classics.

Although Rosy had left the cinema years ago, she left an impression among fans that would last a lifetime. ‘No one can ever replace her,’ says Chashi Nazrul Islam, a director who has worked with Rosy in numerous films and who was also a good friend. ‘She had that rare gift –– the ability to fit into any character and make it breathe. As well as her acting and her dedication towards her work, it was her strong character that was really awe-inspiring.’

Rosy Afsari was born into a prominent family in Lakhipur on October 18, 1946 and was brought up in Purana Paltan. Her father, the eminent poet Oli Ullah inspired her to become an actress and she made her first screen appearance in 1963 in Aito Jibon. She also starred in Zahir Raihan’s Sangram, the first colour feature film in the then East Pakistan and won several national awards for her outstanding contribution to the film industry.

‘Back then we had to memorise all our lines; everything was done in one take, not like today when you can just do several cuts,’ Chashi recalls. ‘She was amazing; she never forgot her lines, and she performed perfectly every single time, making it seem effortless.’

Millions of hearts were won through the inimitable pairing of Rosy Afsari with Anwar Hossain and their mesmerising on-screen chemistry. But in the history of her career, Rosy became better known for her portrayal of mothers, sisters and bhabis. ‘She was probably the first actress in Bangladesh to make such an impact in supporting roles; her very presence touched each film with gold,’ says her husband, the film director Malik Afsari. ‘At 5’9’’, it was difficult for her to play the heroine because most of the actors were shorter than her.’

‘She was a simple, unique woman and a wonderful wife,’ says Malik, fighting back the tears. ‘After our marriage, she guided me in everything, helping me to grow into a better person. She was very supportive and understanding and without her, I would never have learnt to live.’

Rosy had previously been married to the well-known camera man, Samar Selim but they had divorced after two years. ‘She wasn’t particularly expressive,’ says Malik. ‘She never shared her grief – she rather listened to others and supported them. She had had a lot of differences with her first husband but she never talked about them,’ says Malik.

As a young assistant director, Malik was a great fan of Rosy and they met for the first time in 1978 on the set of Bini Shutar Mala. ‘Just being able to work closely with her was a great experience,’ he says, and there is a strange twinkle in his eye when he speaks of their love story and marriage. ‘I still remember the time she twisted her ankle while acting and how I helped her. That is where it all began, and five years later I summoned up the courage to propose to her.’

They were married on October 18, 1983, and soon after, Rosy gave birth to a daughter and then a son. ‘Apart from when she was acting, she never really showed her emotions to anyone except me. I was the only one she was close to,’ says Malik.

I was 14 years younger than her, but we had a strange connection – a real understanding of one another, says Malik. ‘She was patient, supportive, caring and honest. I had always thought she would be different off-screen, but I discovered the same person – the same love and care, throughout the whole wonderful 28 years we shared.’

After Aasha Nirasha, Rosy’s health started to deteriorate and she cut back on her workload. ‘It wasn’t only her health; she had also grown disillusioned with the cinema, owing to the changes in fashion and the growing popularity of indecent movies and bad scripts,’ points out Chashi. ‘And Rosy did not want to compromise.’

‘It frustrated her and she distanced herself, entirely, from the film industry,’ says Malik. In 2003, when her kidney failed completely, she had lost all hope in restoring the face of Bangladeshi cinema. ‘She was also very disappointed that only a handful of people came to visit her when she was ill,’ her husband says. ‘Of course she never complained but I always sensed it. There were times when a reporter would sit for hours just to get a glimpse of her, but she refused to have her picture taken.’

It was with this deep sense of sadness that she spent her final three years in bed. ‘She had devoted so much to the film industry –– even the actors’ forum had been formed in her drawing room,’ says Malik. ‘The least they could have done was pay her a visit––but they didn’t even do that.’

‘Please could you just do some magic and make me well again?’ she would mutter over and over again in the hours leading up to her death. ‘She had suffered so much by then that it was difficult for her to take it anymore,’ says Malik, as he breaks into tears. ‘She thought I could change everything; she thought I was a magician.’

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When Ami Met Jenny

It is a sunny morning in early March, and I am sitting in the neat and stylishly decorated Dhaka apartment of the celebrity couple du jour – Amitabh Reza, the advertising visionary, and the gorgeous model, Jenny, who have been married for a few weeks. 

Their romance captured the hearts of TV-lovers throughout the nation, and as I talk to them, I begin to see just how different they really are from one another. 

But perhaps this contrast, combined with a willingness to embrace each other’s flaws is the secret of their successful marriage. I hear stories of struggle, of Amitabh’s perfectionism – of his obsession for film-making, and of Jenny’s longing to be welcomed back into her family.

Although their history is in many ways a textbook example of a Hollywood love-story – you can almost hear the voiceover on the cinema trailer: at first they weren’t attracted to one another but little by little they realised that opposites could attract, and despite the trials life threw at them, they stayed together. 

But they also came together through a shared passion for their work. Jenny became a household name and face following her appearance in adverts for Apollo Hospital, Aktel, Unilever Corporate, and Pond’s, in addition to her acting roles in serials such as Romijer Aaina. And Amitabh Reza is the man behind some of the most creative and memorable adverts that we have ever seen on our screens. 

Amitabh, who has directed over 400 television adverts and an upcoming feature film, feels his best work is yet to come. ‘It’s a combination of good scripts, clients, and the product itself that helps to make a good TV commercial,’ he says. For others, his advert for Banglalink, entitled ‘Oi din ki aar ache?’ was unbeatable. Through this, and numerous other masterpieces, such as his adverts for Grameen Phone, Apollo Hospital, Toshiba, and City Cell, he has become the maestro of the soulful tune, the meaningful story-line and the catchy one-liner. Simply put, his adverts touch the heart. 

As he gets up to serve the tea, I notice the fact that he is moving awkwardly. It is impossible to ignore the immense confidence with which he does everything despite the fact that he has severe ankylosing spondylitis, (a form of spinal arthritis). But he appears to take everything in his stride. When I tentatively ask him about his condition, aware that some might consider it to be a sensitive subject, he remains positive and self-assured. ‘It has not stopped me from doing what I wanted to do, in any way,’ he says, cheerfully. ‘In fact, it has turned everything into a challenge and perhaps even made things easier for me! I have always been treated with great importance wherever I go, because I have always been the odd one out. If I buy a ticket, people usher me to the front of the queue; if I want to say something in a crowd, all I have to do is stand up and people immediately take notice of me.’

As a child, he had not been able to play with many children of his own age, and as a result, he didn’t make many friends. ‘I couldn’t join in with the other kids, but that enabled me to stay at home and study, and, most importantly, to think and analyse things. Perhaps that is something that has helped me to become a better film-maker.’

Just as Amitabh starts speaking about his new film, Dhaka Metro, Jenny, looking as fresh-faced and lively as ever, walks in and greets me. She is dressed in a casual salwar kameez and her hair hangs loose at the back. She looks content – full of enthusiasm for life and she can’t seem to get her words out quickly enough. When I ask her about her new life, the happiness in her eyes is visible. ‘It’s a new home but my lifestyle has not changed in any way,’ she says. 

She speaks fondly about her childhood, about being pampered and always being expected to be the best at everything. ‘My parents wanted me to do everything – singing, dancing, painting, studying – even acting! But it was also stressful, at times, trying to live up to their expectations,’ she says. She made her début screen appearance at the age of three and for a period of seven years, she continued to perform on television, acting, singing and modelling

‘I took a break in 1995 because my parents wanted me to focus on my studies,’ she says. Having passed her ‘O’-Levels and ‘A’-Levels at Scholastica, she made her tele vision comeback in 2004. ‘My father was very good friends with Zakir and others at Asiatic’, she explains. ‘And when they invited me to work on their advert, he was thrilled.’ It was then that Jenny began to feel more passionate about her work, and, of course, that was when she first met Amitabh. 

She explodes into laughter: ‘back then, Amitabh was a nobody to me!’, she says, as Amitabh smiles lovingly. ‘I was very cautious of him. After being short-listed for the Unilever Corporate advert, I was sent to him for a screen-test, and he chose me. In many ways that was the first time I had felt completely comfortable in front of the camera, and I felt sure that this was my calling,’ and the advert proved an instant hit. 

As time went by, the two kept bumping into each other, everywhere they went, and they became friends. ‘We do not even know when we fell in love; it just happened so naturally,’ says Jenny. And they soon got to the point when they knew for sure that they wanted to get married. 

There is a sudden silence when I ask about their parents’ views on the marriage. ‘Of course, there were problems,’ says Amitabh calmly. After a pause, Jenny admits that her parents had not agreed to the match and that she had married against their will. ‘I had to make a choice and I knew the consequences,’ she tells me, quietly. She hasn’t seen them since. It is clear that she had to make a difficult decision. There is a deep sadness in her eyes when she speaks of her two-year-old sister. ‘I miss her so much and that’s how I understand what my parents must be feeling. I am so possessive over her that if she was in a similar situation, I am sure that I would react exactly the same way as they did. They loved me so much and always ensured that I got the best of everything. But I can’t go home now and although I miss it, and although I know my parents are not in the wrong, I also know that I am not in the wrong either.’ 

It’s a sensitive moment for both of them and to break the solemn atmosphere, Amitabh leaves the room, and returns with an invitation to their official wedding that is going to take place tonight. This immediately cheers Jenny up, and Amitabh starts speaking about his own childhood.

Born in 1976, Amitabh was always expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a businessman. He studied at the BAF Shahin School and College and did his economics degree at Poona University, in Pune. Although film-making had captivated him since fifth grade, it was at Pune that it became an integral part of his life; he spent all his spare time learning the ins and outs of the industry, watching movies, and speaking to film makers.

‘Back then there was very little scope for people like me, who had the passion and creativity but not the means to take it up as a profession’, he says. ‘The chance came some time around 2002.’ 

‘It has not been easy,’ he says: ‘finance problems, the lack of post-production facilities and technical equipment, and the need to send films abroad for editing, have combined to make our job very difficult.’

He was the first to introduce the idea of using timeless songs in commercials and he won many hearts with the soundtracks to Shareng Bou — ‘Orey Neel Doria’. The commercial ‘Oi din ki arr ache?’ has been nominated for a Global Mobile Award this year under the category of Making a Difference in People’s Life. 

Does he like the competition in advertising? ‘I just love it!’ he exclaims. ‘It’s great to work in a climate with brilliant people like Farooki, Jishnu, Tareq, and Shuvro, who are also good friends.’

He admits that film making is his one true love and his ultimate goal. ‘I will let go of everything for a good film. I think that I would rather be a bad human being and a good film-maker than the other way round,’ he adds, conspiratorially. ‘Now that I am married, I have much less time alone, to think, but I know that Jenny understands, and puts up with my obsession. It is essential that I maintain my honesty and passion about what I do.’ 

I ask if he is easy to live with. Jenny smiles affectionately: ‘he might not be the perfect husband, but he is a wonderful, very understanding human being. I know how much films mean to him and I know he doesn’t have much time for the family but we have a good understanding.’ It is apparent that their nine-year age difference has not been an obstacle in any way and they appear to complement one another in their differences – one talks and the other listens. ‘I am incredibly short-tempered and he is excessively patient,’ she says, beaming, before exclaiming, all of a sudden: ‘Amitabh, you need to cut your hair; it has got so long!’ I catch Amitabh blushing. 

It is only when Jenny goes to fetch the phone that Amitabh says what a wonderful companion she is. At first he appears rather serious and it is clear that he doesn’t find it easy to express the emotions he feels for his wife or for film. ‘She is honest and always smiles, no matter what. She also understands and appreciates film.’

‘I know that my excessive passion for work sometimes means that I don’t pay her enough attention and I even went for a film-shoot the day after our marriage but she accepts all that.’ As if to illustrate his argument, his mobile phone starts to ring, reminding him about a meeting at the Film Development Corporation (FDC). I bid them farewell, leaving them in the doorway, lovingly holding each other.

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‘The question of human dignity involves entire communities’

In the US Department of State’s 2004 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, Bangladesh was put into the lowest bracket – Tier 3. Many felt that this would push Bangladesh to take dramatic action, for the benefit of the country, but you were among the critics of the decision. Why was that?

It was a unilateral decision by the US Department of State. And it challenged our dignity. Why should we be pushed down and judged in order to improve? It should be something that we do ourselves, not a diktat. Moreover, the larger question remains as to why such strict actions were not taken earlier. A large number of people have now been caught for trafficking offences in just three months, when earlier it was almost impossible to trace them.

The sanction has also people’s freedom of movement. Bangladesh is known as a ‘sending state’, but it should be renamed as a victim state because it falls victim to both sides. It has restricted women from moving abroad to work, or for any other purposes. Globalisation and particularly demand-driven forces run by international syndicates are generating people trafficking but at the same time, international organisations, donor agencies and particularly the US Department of State, pursue their anti-immigration policies under the pretext of anti-trafficking measures. This is a dangerous move and works against the people of Bangladesh.

But most importantly, is the fact that the decision to lump Bangladesh in ‘Tier 3’ was made on the basis of unreliable statistics.

To what extent do you believe migration has been restricted as a result of anti-trafficking measures?

Freedom of movement is a fundamental human right and the role of the state is to ensure the security of that movement. Severe immigration policies will undoubtedly not affect multi-billion dollar trade but they certainly undermine human rights.

There is a huge difference between migration, undocumented movement and trafficking. Trafficking is a criminal offence, whether you take people out of the country or to an area within the same country, through deception, or against their will. Therefore, we must assist people in cases of genuine migration. The problem of trafficking must be tackled at the roots and traffickers should be harshly punished.

What about the anticipated Memorandum of Understanding between Bangladesh and India? Will it make things better?

A bilateral agreement is signed between two equal countries. In this case it will be a unilateral agreement because India is the dominant country and Bangladesh is the victim country. Therefore, all those Bangladeshis who currently live in India will be threatened and restrictions of movement may be imposed at any time in the name of trafficking!

I believe that an agreement of this sort will victimize our country and compromise our right to movement.

I also wonder if we need such a bilateral agreement; we should be strengthening our existing SAARC regional convention to combat trafficking.

What are the important issues that we need to consider with regard to combating trafficking?

People often argue that poverty is the root cause of trafficking. But I believe we will never be able to prevent it unless social attitudes change.

I remember the case of a woman I met in Chilmari in 2003, whose daughter had been missing for seven years. This woman testified in the South Asia Court of Women on trafficking.

She was among only a handful of women who agreed to speak about the issue openly and her testimony reflected the experiences of many others who had lost their children. In the villages, people are shy about talking of their missing children. It is as though they would rather talk about dead children than those who had been trafficked. A huge problem is also that even if these children somehow manage to come home, they are rarely accepted back into the community. Will they be respected or retain their dignity? Often the answer is no.

In many ways, the problem lies with us. We cannot imagine the eradication of trafficking while demand continues to boom – for young girls in sex industries, for slave labour in the capitalist production system, for live human organs in the medical profession, and for small boys to be tied around the necks of camels in the name of sport.

Our experiences in Chilmari among other places show that the question of human dignity cannot be resolved at the individual level alone; it involves entire communities.

Most anti-trafficking measures are preventative rather than curative. In fact we need to examine the pressures on those who live with permanent feelings of insecurity and indignity.

Therefore, it is essential to strengthen networks to improve security of food, environment and social relationships to protect the most vulnerable groups.

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Lives for sale

Nurjahan Khatun stands, distraught before the barbed wire at the Benapole border in Jessore – her face contorted with grief and guilt. She looks through the wire and repeatedly calls for her two daughters, Rehana, 22, and Reshma, 18. ‘They were so beautiful,’ she whispers, as if talking to herself. ‘Why did I let my little birds fly away?’

Nurjahan, however, is unaware that her daughters have been back in Bangladesh for a month. The two missing girls are among the group of eleven Bangladeshi girls who, according to reports that emerged in February, recently retuned home, having been trafficked to India – some of whom may have been there for up to four years. The Indian police had reportedly caught them, kept them in safe custody and, finally, with the help of border guards, handed them back to the Bangladesh immigration authorities at Benapole land port.

‘It has been over two years,’ says her husband, Jinnah Hossain, who is a farmer in the border area. He leans against the wall of their dingy, ramshackle hut in Beri-Narayanpur, and is silent for a while. Caring for his wife, three daughters and two sons was not easy. ‘There were days when we could afford one meal and there was never any money left over for doctors or help’, he says. ‘Many people like us, trusted the advice of a man called Shafi, who provided jobs in India for people in this area.’

Shafi had apparently built up a very good relationship with Nurjahan. ‘He called her bhabi and often spoke to her about his wife in Mumbai and how he helped young people get jobs there,’ recalls Jinnah. Jinnah had always been against the idea of his daughters leaving the country for work but Nurjahan, who was preoccupied by their financial problems, felt that it might be the family’s only chance of survival.

‘I let them go’, she says, weeping aloud. ‘It was all my fault.’ She remembers the day Shafi came to their house with a group of six girls and boys, and told her about the jobs he had found for her daughters. He took Tk 2,700 from her, which she had earned by selling her bangles. ‘When she saw that a group of young people were going with him, she was convinced Rehana and Reshma would be safe,’ says Jinnah.

Since that day, they have heard nothing from their daughters or from Shafi, who has similarly disappeared. ‘There was no way of knowing how they were, until one day a lady called Rekha from the Bangladesh National Women’s Lawyers’ Association came to us and said that they had received reports from India that our daughters had been caught by the police,’ Jinnah explains. Rekha now visits them from time to time and has promised to inform them as soon as they have rescued the girls.

Unfortunately, about four weeks have passed and Nurjahan and Jinnah, among other worried parents, have had no update from the association. Despite repeated attempts, New Age has been denied access to and information on the victims. ‘We cannot grant anyone access to them right now because they are traumatised,’ explained Towhida Khondker, a member of the association. ‘We will inform you about them soon,’ she added.

Some experts have expressed surprise that the association has not yet spoken to the media. ‘We have informed the association that if it is proven that these girls are victims of trafficking, we will give them our full support, from psychosocial stimulation to financial aid, says Mizanur Rahman, a national programme officer with The International Organisation for Migration (IOM). But there has so far been no response to the proposal. Mizan also heads the counter-trafficking programme that is run by the organisation. Because migration is closely related to trafficking, over the years the IOM has worked closely with the Ministry of Home Affairs to build new policies to combat trafficking.

‘Female victims are often lured by promises of good jobs,’ he explains. ‘Common results include fake marriages, sale by parents, auctions to brothel owners or farmers, or kidnappings. In some cases, brokers marry girls, go abroad and sell them to brothels. Trafficked children are mostly put to hard labour in factories and often their internal organs are sold. Most trafficked women are sold to brothels.’

People Trading

After arms and drugs trafficking, the trading of human lives is now the most lucrative activity of organised crime groups in the world, and the least punished. The main source of the problem is poverty and as the disparity of wealth continues to grow across the globe, the demand for and supply of cheap labour will, necessarily, also increase.

Whereas ‘smuggling’ involves the illegal assistance of someone to cross a border for a fee, human trafficking is the coercive trading of people in exchange for free or cheap labour – i.e. with the intention to exploit. Therefore, although many victims of trafficking voluntarily accept initial offers of migrant work for economic reasons, most are deceived as to the nature or working conditions of that employment, and, once someone has been sold, it is very difficult for them to extricate themselves from the bondage, due to debt, confiscation of papers, and restrictions on movement. However, many existing laws currently do not distinguish between the two, and, in fact, frequently favour the perpetrators rather than the victims of trafficking. All too often the problem is treated, in law, as an immigration problem rather than as a violation of human rights.

Many victims also risk being treated as criminals by the State. When a brothel is raided, sex workers are often taken into safe police custody. Because there are no government-run shelters, victims of trafficking are put in prison with criminals. This leads to possibilities of further trauma or abuse by prisoners, guards or police.

At present it is difficult to repatriate trafficked people without re-trafficking them home, because they frequently have no identification documents and there are, at present, no extradition agreements between India and Bangladesh with which to prosecute the perpetrators. In 2002 a Memorandum of Understanding was drafted but it fell through. However, a further MOU has been drafted to combat the problem of child trafficking between Bangladesh and India and if it is successful, it will prove to be the first example of two South Asian countries coming to such an agreement.

Additional problems can arise even when victims are successfully repatriated. The Bangladesh women lawyers’ association has a shelter home where even now a number of former child camel jockeys remain, having been rescued from the UAE in 2005. It is because the NGO has no record of the children’s identity and has therefore been unable to trace their families. Lack of formal evidence in such cases has become a huge obstacle. Victims rarely have any form of written documentation from traffickers promising them overseas employment.

Likewise, even when victims and their families do have the opportunity to speak out, they frequently refuse to cooperate which makes it very difficult to ascertain the nature of victims’ experiences in order to raise awareness and protect potential new victims. Many are bribed to stay silent and, in the case of women and children sold into sex slavery, many choose not to speak out because of cultural taboos and shame. In addition, given the troublesome and often hypocritical treatment of prostitution in almost every society, it is difficult to estimate the number of sex workers in each country or the number of people who visit those sex workers. A recent study conducted by Dr Motiur Rahman from ICDDR-B, in association with Save the Children, showed that 46% of the young Bangladeshi men surveyed, had lost their virginity to a sex worker.

One of the fundamental problems facing awareness and prevention strategies is that trafficking is almost impossible to quantify because of the underground nature and illegality of the trade. The UN estimates that 4 million people worldwide are trafficked every year – mainly women and children, and that the number is rising. A recent United States Government report estimated that between 700,000 and two million women and children are trafficked across borders each year, the majority of whom are sold into sex or domestic slavery. But this figure does not include those who are trafficked within a country.

Although, as of yet, we have no concrete statistics on the scale of trafficking in Bangladesh, various assessments collectively suggest that although victims are trafficked to countries in the Middle East, Africa and Europe, it is India, which shares a 4,222-kilometre border with Bangladesh, covering 28 districts, which is by a wide margin, the main country of transit and destination. UNICEF estimates that up to 300,000 children might be trafficked to India each year, most of whom end up in brothels, and that at least 90% of trafficked Bangladeshi children at least pass through India. The Association for Community Development (ACD), a Rajshahi-based NGO, estimates that although a high number of Bangladeshi women and children – between 200 and 400 – are trafficked to Pakistan every month, approximately 10-15,000 per year end up in India.

Bangladesh under the International


In 2002, the SAARC Convention to Combat Trafficking in Women and Children was established. Although the convention needs improvement, it reflects a positive attitude among South Asian governments to deal with the crime. The South Asian Court of Women on Trafficking and HIV/AIDS was also organised by the Asian Women’s Human Rights Council in Bangladesh.

In 2003, trafficking in Bangladesh came under the international spotlight. The Bangladesh National Women’s Lawyers’ Association released a report estimating that a total of 200,000 persons were being trafficked out of Bangladesh. This, in addition to a number of similar reports put Bangladesh under an international spotlight.

‘The issue of trafficking became a “numbers game”; the figures of trafficking cases were exaggerated – projected in such a way to a guarantee a continuous inflow of funds from donors,’ commented a Human Rights expert under conditions of anonymity.

‘It started around 1992, when a study, done by researchers hired by UNICEF, showed high levels of trafficking in Bangladesh,’ explains Adilur Rahman Khan, the Deputy Attorney General of Bangladesh. On the basis of these figures different organisations were tempted to follow, also reporting high figures.’ As a result of such reports, in their 2004 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, the US state department accused Bangladesh of making ‘no effort’ to curb international sex trafficking, and included it in a list of ten blacklisted countries with the warning that if they failed to improve their record by October 2004, they might face trade sanctions.

‘The basis of blacklisting countries for making “no effort” was a unilateral judgement by the US. There had been no prior consultations with relevant groups and the decision was based exclusively on information from NGOs funded by USAID,’ argues Farida Akhter, a founding-member of the Resistance Network, a member of the Asian Women’s Human Rights Council, the SAARC Peoples’ Forum and also the executive director of UBINIG (Policy Research for Development Alternatives).

Adilur Rahman Khan explains that the US state department classified countries according to governmental efforts taken to tackle trafficking. ‘Tier 1 included countries which had the best legal and administrative practices against trafficking and Tier 2 included countries which had enjoyed medium success in combating trafficking with a separate list called the ‘watch-list’ for weak practices’, he says. ‘Bangladesh was put in Tier 3, with other governments who were accused of having made no efforts in the fight against trafficking, and it was threatened with US sanctions in the future’.

This caused enormous controversy within the Bangladeshi government and across NGOs. Whereas some believed the threat of sanctions had given Bangladesh the impetus to tackle the problem of trafficking, others felt it was just another way of punishing the country.

‘It is a serious question why the US state department, which has nothing to do with women’s development, funds women’s organisations in developing countries, particularly in Bangladesh, on issues of trafficking,’ says Farida Akhter.

‘It means that women will be restricted from going abroad for employment or any other purpose’, she believes. ‘Globalisation is generating increased human trafficking but at the same time, international organisations, donor agencies and particularly the US Department of State are using trafficking as a pretext for the pursuit of their own anti-immigration policies,’ she argues.

Progress and the future

In response to the damning 2004 TIP report and the threat of sanctions, the Ministry of Home Affairs took immediate action. ‘An inter-ministerial anti-trafficking committee was set up to oversee national efforts to combat trafficking, and a national anti-trafficking police monitoring unit was established in each district,’ explains Adilur Rahman Khan.

A wide-scale television and radio campaign in addition to training programmes proved successful in raising public awareness and the Ministry of Social Welfare also provided anti-trafficking information to micro-credit borrowers, reaching over 400,000 at-risk women. Entry-level diplomats and over 20,000 border guards were also given specialised anti-trafficking training.

The activity of the new monitoring forces led to an increased number of trafficking-related prosecutions. In the report from the police headquarters’ monitoring cell, it was revealed that disposal of cases had increased dramatically between 2004 and 2006, due to effective monitoring. In 2006 alone, 116 cases were recorded; 391 people were accused and 221 convicted.

The ministry with the help of the monitoring cells also started monitoring details of rescued persons at different borders and airports. The Bangladesh Rifles and the police have been ordered to take strong action against traffickers and NGOs are also active in border areas.

As a result, Bangladesh was rewarded in the 2006 TIP report. The country was lifted into Tier 2 and was named the best country at practising anti-trafficking measures. ‘There is a possibility that we may be elevated to tier 1 if we continue our efforts,’ says Arfan Uddin Khan, a specialist public prosecutor.

However, problems remain. ‘Significant steps have been taken by the ministry and by police monitoring cells, but then again, crossing the border has become more difficult for those with genuine passports who are going abroad for visits or meetings’, Farida points out. ‘The movement of young women, without a “proper guardian”, has become extremely difficult. Every woman is seen as a potential victim of trafficking. Immediately, the attitude of the relevant authorities change and either they become too protective or become suspicious. Both these attitudes challenge women’s dignity,’ she adds.

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And still the shackles remain, strong as ever (with Sanam Amin)

When fourteen-year-old Yasmeen Akhter’s attackers were hanged on September 1, 2004, it looked as if a milestone had been passed in the history of women’s justice. It had been, however, almost a decade since she had been violently raped and murdered by three police officers in Dinajpur – a chilling example of how our law-enforcers sometimes abuse their authority to exploit the very people they purport to protect.

In 1995 Yasmeen had been on her way home to her mother when she was reportedly picked up by a group of police officers, promising to drop her off safely. Later that evening, her dead body was found, dumped on the roadside. Days later, the corpse was buried – the autopsy report denying that there had been any sign of sexual assault. In response, the entire district of Dinajpur rose up against the police and local administration, forcing the government to pay attention. And finally, in 1997, following a hard-hitting judicial inquiry and police investigation, the three police officers were arrested and convicted of the rape and murder of the young girl. Two of the convicts – assistant sub-inspector Moinul Haque and Constable Abdus Sattar – were later hanged in Rangpur Jail, their last appeal for life – the presidential clemency – having been rejected.

Women in this country struggle every day for their basic needs – their social, economic and legal rights come second. There is no doubt that women’s rights organisations are putting up a fight; the question is whether the results of their struggle will be seen any time soon. When a woman in Bangladesh is deprived of simple, civilised prerogatives such as privacy in personal decision making, it is rather a tall order to try to achieve bigger goals like property or political rights straightaway.

According to data collected by Odhikar, around 5,816 women and children were raped in Bangladesh between January 1, 2001 and February 28, 2007. Of this number, 636 were subsequently murdered, and a further 69 committed suicide after being raped. In the same period, an estimated 1,024 women were victims of acid violence, and 1884 suffered dowry-related violence, of whom 1,241 were subsequently murdered, and a further 95 committed suicide. Although these statistics paint a shocking picture of the situation for women in our country, owing to the shame that often surrounds sexual violence, and violence against women, it is highly likely that the actual figures are higher.

‘Ten years ago, when we were handling Yasmeen’s case, it was the first time that a rape case was covered so extensively by the media,’ says advocate Alena Khan, executive director of the Bangladesh Society for the Enforcement of Human Rights (BSEHR). ‘The case provided a platform for other people and groups to express their views.’

Alena feels that the enormous attention that incidents of rape and violence against women have received in the media has helped precipitate the positive changes that we are seeing today. Over time, indeed, it would appear that various cases have helped increase the awareness and the accountability of law enforcers.

Violence against women has, historically, been a focal point of the feminist movement. Violent crimes against countless women and girls like Yasmeen has fuelled determination and faith in the international women’s movement that came into prominence at the beginning of the twentieth century with political activism of the Suffragettes.

According to Human Development in South Asia 1999, Bangladesh has the worst record of rape in South Asia, with one in every thousand women having been raped. Cultural backwardness and severe poverty are cited as contributing factors.

‘Yasmeen was one of countless similar cases,’ says UM Habibun Nessa, a human rights campaigner at the Dhaka-based NGO Nari Pokkho and a lawyer at the Supreme Court. ‘The fact that it got so much attention around the country just made the police more cautious, not more aware,’ she argues. ‘To my knowledge, awareness means that a basic level of understanding has been reached. That has not happened as of yet, whether from the point of view of the law-enforcers, or of the public.’

‘The problem is that the system in our country is slow and ineffective, and hindered by the State’s vested interests,’ says Habibun.

‘Since the early ’80s, every government has been trigger-happy and keen to pass laws to get maximum political leverage, with only minimal efforts to pursue issues concerning women and children, who, incidentally, are always unhelpfully bundled together’ says Dr Faustina Pereira, a lawyer at the Supreme Court and director of Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK).

So how far has the women’s movement come in Bangladesh? The unanimous response from the women that we interviewed was ‘not very far.’ According to Nessa, ‘in comparison to how much the women’s movement has grown globally, Bangladesh has done very poorly indeed.’

Last year, on July 20, thirteen-year-old, Bijli Akhter Swapna, hanged herself. According to reports, a group of young boys from the local Juba League (a youth front of the Awami League), headed by their leader, Tunda Mujibor, had been taunting and verbally abusing her every day on her way to school. Over the months the teasing had grown more and more intolerable until Swapna believed she could no longer cope. According to her family, she had even been threatened with rape.

Swapna’s suicide brings the ‘eve-teasing’ death toll to a staggering 29 in four years. ‘Eve-teasing or, non-euphemistically, sexual harassment or molestation in public places is something that women are supposed to either just tolerate or are sometimes even accused of bringing upon themselves. But eve teasing is a public nuisance that has been widely condemned, and which is also punishable’, says Alena.

‘There is no specific law concerning eve teasing,’ Habibun points out. She believes that it is a social and cultural problem which the law alone cannot redress and that it is wrong to assume that such problems can be simply resolved by the law. ‘Although several victims of eve-teasing have committed suicide, it is still a rare occurrence. Suicide happens when victims of systematic abuse have no support or outcome for their frustration’, she clarifies. ‘But of course we should scrutinise those rare examples when people do commit suicide especially carefully, and the perpetrators should be duly punished,’ she adds.

Habibun also points out that despite the changes and progressive action taken in such cases, still too little has been done for the victims. ‘We don’t have such concepts as reparation,’ she argues. ‘Although much has been done for women and their rights, has anything been done for the victims?’ she asks.

Contrary to appearances, the role of women in politics has also been limited. Although the previous three governments have been headed by female prime ministers, in the 2001 elections, only 6 of the 300 elected members of Parliament were female. This was dramatically worse than the previous Parliament in which women had held 30 seats.

‘There has been so much scope for the empowerment of women and change at the grassroots level,’ says Selima Rahman, a former minister and joint secretary general of the BNP. ‘When we speak of women’s rights, we must keep in mind that ensuring these basic rights is not the responsibility of just one specific party. It is a common interest.’

Selima also believes that women’s political involvement has been hindered by lack of education and finance. ‘Even though women have proved to be effective politicians without such benefits,’ she argues, ‘it is something that has held them back for a long time.’

Women’s rights activists still argue that women are under-represented politically. While the latest announcement that fifty seats will be reserved for women is an improvement, these

seats will be allocated according to the overall representation of each party – no reservations will be made at party level.

Shirin Akhtar, joint general secretary of Kormojibi Nari said, ‘when we speak of women’s rights or of the women’s movement, it is not just about political power or the position women hold. It is about everything – the private as well as the public. In the context of the women’s movement worldwide, Bangladesh has not been keeping up. There are NGOs and other organisations that promote this but, in fact, there have been no changes in the law since 1997.’

‘Although we have gained a certain amount of power, the implementation has been tedious,’ she added. In a practical sense, we have not done anything significant. Khaleda Zia would have been able to make significant changes in terms of the role of women in parliament. The fight to provide basic rights to women should have been stronger under her five year rule.’

‘The most significant area covered by the last government was the education of women,’ opposes Rahman. ‘It increased awareness and made sure women could continue at least up to HSC level, which in itself was a significant step. We hope to reach the graduate level, as that is the only way we can ensure all women have a solid ground to stand on,’ she adds.

‘The law should be gender blind,’ says Pereira. ‘We know what it is and what it ought to be and there is a wide gap between the two, distorted under a patriarchal lens. One way to fill the gap is to chip away from the existing laws those which are discriminatory, and to bring out a jurisdiction that will allow appropriate laws to be neutral. Men, women –every citizen should be covered under one law.’

Without doubt, the current social norm is to blame the victim, whether it is a case of eve-teasing, rape or murder. Women are perpetually seen as asking for trouble, for redundant reasons such as being too modern, too outgoing, or for dressing indecently.

‘It is an ideological problem,’ agrees Habibun. ‘Women still hold a subordinate position in the family, society, everywhere. The common perception is that a woman is man’s


A look back at the case of Badhan – the girl who was attacked on the new year’s eve of 1999 is a case in point. She had gone out to celebrate the event at the Teachers’ and Students’ Centre (TSC) at Dhaka University, which she had believed to be a reasonably safe venue, but as the night wore on she was stripped and abused, in the presence of the police, who watched the scene for over half an hour before intervening.

Following the crowd’s protests, the police finally came forward to help her, by which point she was almost

naked. Following wide media coverage, a case was finally filed against the police which was accompanied by a spate of public blaming of the girl.

So where, exactly does the women’s movement stand, especially concerning sexual violence? As more cases are revealed every year, forcing the justice system to take action and as the spotlight falls more regularly on law enforcers, the tide is starting to change but enormous challenges remain – challenges which are growing more and more pressing and more and more difficult to conceal.

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Death knell for Dhaliwood

Khurshid, the absurdist anti-hero of the 2006 film Mad_e in Bangladesh, by Mostofa Sarwar Farooki, is a rare animal in Dhaliwood. Having lived in small-town Bangladesh all his life, he comes to Dhaka—the city of his dreams—to seek his fortune. But Dhaka turns out to be nightmare filled with fraud and deceit. While staying with an uncle, who robs him of every penny he has, he searches for a job desperately and gets to know the ways of the Dhaka life through a group of Kamalapur mastaans. He is broke and frustrated, and the gorgeous and flirtatious ‘boudi’ next door makes things even more confusing for him.
While the plot, till now, fits the Dhaliwood formula, the complexity of what happened next would never have made it to the silver-screen in the past. Khurshed strides into the bungalow of an unsuspecting government Deputy Commissioner and threatens him with a briefcase bomb. He asks him to call in influential bureaucrats in the police, political leaders, cultural activists and a group of people he holds responsible for his misfortunes. On their arrival, he holds them at gunpoint, and announces a simple demand. He wants parliament to pass new laws to curb corruption in the country.
Mad_e in Bangladesh has one other crucial difference with the rest of the local fare in Dhaka’s film industry. It premiered, not in cinema halls across the country, but on Channel-i, one of the country’s premier satellite channels.
The story as Farooki puts it is a satire on the current state of Bangladesh, and with Mad_e in Bangladesh he has shattered a long-time Dhaliwood myth. ‘It’s a myth in our country that a movie with the elements of glamour, romance and dance attracts the audience,’ says Farooki. ‘We have movies which didn’t include any romance or the attractive songs, but as long as something original and exceptional is produced and they can relate to it, young audiences will be interested.’ The audience have not been given the much needed ‘quality entertainment’ and it’s about time they bring out original ideas and compete in the international level, he says.
And in this, he is not alone. Farooki is just one out of the new breed of young and energetic artists, who have moved beyond the Dhaliwood formula of romance, action, dance and melodrama. They are at the forefront of a new trend in film making whose time has come, say critics. As Dhaliwood has managed to disintegrate, resorting to soft-porn and smut to keep audiences coming back, stifling creativity, originality and innovation, the genre of made-for-TV-movies is becoming increasingly popular, characterised by low-budgets and huge successes.

If you build it, they will come
The ‘made-for-TV movie’ concept is not new. It was originally coined in the US in the early 60’s. This was an incentive for movie audiences to stay home and watch what they termed to be the same as a first-run theatrical motion picture. As the first movie See How They Run kicked off on US channel NBC in 1964, the instant success attracted some of the biggest studios towards the trend described variously as TV movies, telefilms or feature length dramas.
In Bangladesh the concept of made-for-television movies emerged through experiments and television serials, say industry insiders. In fact, it is a radical and direct response to the failure of Dhaliwood to produce quality entertainment.
‘The trend of made for TV movies did not pop up one fine day. Rather it went through various stages and emerged as a successful trend,’ points out emerging film-maker Samia Zaman, whose 2006 film Rani Kuthir Baki Itihash, though not a mega-hit was nonetheless seen as a long-awaited breath of fresh air for the commercial cinema industry. ‘Because it was something uncoventional and unheard of, it was a challenge for these talented and young innovators to set the trend firmly, and once they did, it reached out an international level,’ says Samia about her counterparts who make television movies.
In fact, believe it or not, the origins of the contemporary trend can be traced back to the early days of BTV. Bangladesh’s first television channel, the state-run BTV began its journey back in 1964, as part of the pilot project in the then East Pakistan. It was the 80’s that saw the dawn of the golden age of longer television dramas on BTV. ‘During the 70’s and 80’s some of the timeless dramas that aired on BTV were creative and unique in terms of content, style, and presentation,’ says film-maker Morshedul Islam, who earned acclaim for his non-commercial short-film Chaka (1993), and is a member of the Bangladesh Short Film Forum.
Indeed, dramas like Ektala Dotala (the first drama aired on BTV) written by martyred intellectual Munier Chowdhury, Shokal Shondhya written by actor Momtazuddin Ahmed, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot adapted by Abdullah Al Mamun, Mustafa Monwar’s adaptation of Tagore’s Raktokarobi and Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew laid the foundations for a new era of acting, directing, production and viewing: in short, the whole entertainment package that corresponded to the realities of those who would watch the dramas.
Morshed also points out that there has been much debate over the differences and concepts of drama, tele-film, and made-for-TV movies. ‘Often tele-films are branded as made-for-television movies, although they are just feature length dramas,’ he says. Made-for-television movies on the other hand, he adds, includes theatrical aspects, a broader focus and elements such as characterisations and locations that are wider in scope and scale. While we see various movies being premiered on television before being released in halls, there are longer length drama i.e. telefilms and mega serials that are also achieving success but must not be confused with cinema, says he. ‘Despite the success, we are yet to be able to make these movies according to the correct definition and format,’ adds Morshed
‘In terms of television movies, we have more liberties: a broader canvas, more character diversity and a more detailed plot,’ explains Shykh Seraj, a director of Channel-i and one of the founders of Impress Telefilms, one of the premier for-television production studios in Dhaka. ‘Tele-films on the other hand are longer length dramas that have been successfully running over the past few years,’ he opines.
The 90’s started the most significant movement in what insiders call ‘the television revolution’. ‘With the flux of commercial satellite television channels, viewers’ entertainment options increased exponentially and the impact of satellite TV culture began to transform the lifestyles of people,’ adds Morshed.
‘I would say what triggered the many ideas, be it in made-for-television movies or mega serials was the emergence of the Zee tv culture,’ admits Shykh Seraj.
Indeed, Zee TV soon turned out to be a threat to the Bangladesh television industry, as it introduced the concept of daily serials, longer dramas and most importantly television movies, into the homes of Bangladeshi viewers. ‘It was from there that we picked up the approach and hence started with new trends and ideas that had not been experimented with before,’ comments Shykh.
It was during this time that the first ever non-channel production house ‘Inframe’ was established by actor Afzal Hossain. Inframe introduced the concept of private production and the trend of the package-natok, which eventually led to channels commissioning more ambitious projects such as television movies or tele-films to private companies.
‘Inframe produced dramas and sold them to the channel. With Zee TV introducing day long television entertainment, we saw a rising need for expansion and hence began Impress telefilms around 1996,’ Shykh adds.
It was Impress Telefilms, founded by Shykh and Faridur Reza Sagar, that would go on to complete the revolution, pioneering a new concept of ‘made-for-TV movies’. Impress Telefilms has been responsible for such popular hits as Kokhono Megh Kokhono Brishti, Kitton Khola, Bachelor, Mad_e in Bangladesh, Joy Jatra and Lal Shobuj.
Be it through tele-film or made-for-TV movies, production houses followed the lead with fresh ideas and artistry, incorporating informal language in the script, natural acting, originality in characterisations, better camera work, location and set designs. ‘Before that television was all about formal language and conventional plots. It was the private production houses that made it possible to have more liberty,’ says actor Tariq Anam Khan.
‘More than anything else, the change brought the audience closer to the productions, as they could relate to the films they were watching,’ says director Tareque Masud, who is celebrated for the internationally acclaimed 2002 film Matir Moina . ‘Tanveer Moqammel, Mostafa Sarwar Farooki, Abu Sayeed and many others are among the new breed of directors who have introduced new trends,’ says Masud.
But it’s not just new ideas and originality that these film-makers are bringing to the table. There is also the crucial difference that they are making critically acclaimed films at less than half the cost of flop Dhaliwood productions. Where they face their biggest setback is in the post-production process i.e. editing, colour correction etc, for which most film-makers have to send their films to India because of a lack of technology locally.
‘Most often these movies which are shot in a single room or a location do not end up being low-budget, because for a quality editing and processing, most directors must send it abroad, most often India,’ confirms Tareque Masud.
‘It’s not that we do not have the equipments or the technical support in our country, but the corruption and ignorance of those who do have the technology does not allow these producers to come up with low budget movies,’ Tareque says.
The channel that changed it all, of course, was Ekushey, which in 2000 kicked off a new era in private television programming. ‘Ekushey paved the way for quality writers in television, bringing technical aspects of production up to speed with modern times,’ says Tareque.
‘It was ETV which gave us an international standard: a grand look, the richness and unique entertainment,’ says Ekushey veteran Samia Zaman who is still best remembered as the channel’s news anchor.
Despite, the inherent popularity of television cinema, critics, point towards the fact that they have also nearly ‘ruined the movie-going experience’. ‘Movies are made for the big screen and it is unfortunate if before a movie can reach the theatres, it is premiered on television,’ comments Tareque. ‘A country’s cultural richness includes the cinema culture: the experience of going to a cinema hall, which is now being completely ignored.’ In a sense he is right too. After all, it is in the cinema theatre that characters and their trial and triumphs truly come alive, an experience inevitably cheapened by the limitation of a 21-inch television screen.
Shykh on the other hand feels, it is because the movie-going experience has been ruined, that television has stepped in to fill the vacuum. ‘Why did we have to introduce these trends in the first place?’ he asks. ‘Because for one, Dhaliwood movies including ‘cut-piece culture’ (the increasingly common trend of splicing sometimes unrelated pornography between parts of local films) has not left the audience with the choice to visit these halls. Moreover, we must count in the people who cannot afford the time or money to go watch these movies in the halls. For them television is the only respite. We also market these movies; the fact that we premiered movies like Mad_e in Bangladesh did not decrease the audience, rather increased it.’
But writing off Dhaliwood entirely will result in a tremendous cultural loss for society say others. ‘Dhaliwood still has a scope of revival, given the opportunity and also the curbing of corruption within the system,’ adds Tareque. ‘Even though Dhaliwood has produced some of the worst possible movies, we still have at least have a handful of movies like Hajar Bochor Dhore that are successful and have been made with sincere effort.’
‘If you want the audience to go to cinema halls, then you need to facilitate the process. Make more halls available and provide the audience with the movies that they would like to watch,’ says Samia.
As for the actors of these movies, it’s a whole new exposure and experience. ‘I would have never been allowed to work in a movie, had it not been for the change in the trend,’ says actress Tinni who starred in Mad_e in Bangladesh.
‘The plot, the style and the whole look of it is itself and inspiring aspect of the new trend that has changed the face of television for good,’ adds Tariq Anam khan.

State of Dhaliwood
But can there really be salvation for a film industry whose finest work involves scantily clad heroines gyrating their hips to raunchy tunes as garish comic-book heroes and villains thrash at each other from the sidelines? You needn’t even enter the cinema – the lurid, hand-painted film posters outside sum up the all too familiar tales of sex, violence, betrayal and revenge, which has become synonymous with our film industry.
‘Bengali films have all become the same – bulky actresses in skimpy clothes dancing wildly to tales of sibling rivalry, dirty politics or vendettas. It’s depressing,’ says film-buff and Dhaka-resident Syeda Kashfi, who remembers watching great films like Chhutir Ghonta and Dumurer Phool as a child. Those like Kashfi, who remember the golden age of Bangladeshi cinema cannot reconcile with how an industry that was built on artistry and class has now been reduced to producing cheap, raunchy vaudeville.
According to Dhaka-based Zakir Raju, a film historian, the earliest examples of public film screenings in Bangladesh date back to the film exhibitions of the late 1890’s and 1900’s, when silent films started to emerge throughout Asia. However, the first regular Bengali film showings took place between 1913 and 1914 in a small jute storage facility at Armanitola in Dhaka city. It was originally known as the Picture House, but was later renamed the New Picture House, and finally, Shabistan.
The nation’s first recorded feature film, Mukh O Mukhosh was directed by Abdul Jabbar Khan and released on August 3, 1956.
The movie took two years to complete; the actors and crew had little or no experience of working in film, with floods bringing shooting to a standstill more than once. Jabbar then took the film to be processed and edited in Lahore. Despite coming across difficulties in West Pakistan, Mukh O Mukhosh finally opened at cinema halls starring Purnima, Ali Mansoor, and Najma, the following year.
The industry developed rapidly and cinema halls sprung up throughout the country, heralding a golden age of cinema characterised by distinctive productions such as 13 No. Feku Ostagar Lane, Nawab Siraj-ud-Daula, Jibon Thekey Neya, Ora Egaro Jon, and Rangbaaz. However, this era was already coming to an end by the 1980’s when fashions indicated a movement towards more commercial movies that appeared vulgar and gratuitous in comparison. Dhaka’s tinsel town was about to lose its sparkle forever.
‘The Bangladeshi film industry is fighting for survival; it has shrunk to half its size, in terms of investment and revenue, in the last four years alone,’ says Saiful Islam, president of the Bangladesh Film Directors’ Association. Data collected from the Association reveals that a decade ago, the turnover of the film industry was Tk 200 crore - a figure which has fallen to Tk 25 crores today. Government revenue from cinemas fell by approximately 60 percent to 6.9 crore taka in the last fiscal year against Tk 16.9 crore during 2001-02. ‘The recession in the industry has reportedly caused over 200,000 people to lose their jobs, and many more are at risk of being laid off,’ adds Saiful.
The reasons are simple. Veteran film director, Chashi Nazrul Islam feels that ‘the scarcity of first-class filmmakers, actors, and above all a lack of interesting scripts have caused a rot in the Bangladesh film-making industry. ‘The cinemas have become too commercially oriented and have poor production quality.’
Most scripts are repetitive or uncreative and the smutty dialogue is lazy. The movies capitalise on the physical features of the actors and actresses rather than on their acting abilities. In addition, most scripts are almost directly copied from foreign films. There are thought to be around 500 filmmakers in Bangladesh, half of whom are said to have remained idle for some time, owing to the drop in the number of movie-goers.
‘If a film has a nice storyline and good music, people will go to see it,’ Nazrul points out. People do not only want to see art films. There is a huge demand for simple relaxed plots that are fun for the whole family. Surely it is not such a daunting task! Unfortunately, most films cannot deliver this. All we are offered at the moment, is blood, gore and tasteless nudity.’
A 21-member committee was recently formed to investigate the decline in cinema-goers, with representatives from numerous areas of the film industry; the committee blamed satellite TV for the decline. Manna, the Dhaliwood blockbuster megastar agrees: ‘In today’s culture of instant gratification, movies shown on the satellite channels have transformed homes into mini movie theatres for many people and the availability of good quality films in Bangla, Hindi, Urdu and English has enticed a wide variety of audiences.’
Manna feels that piracy has also played a significant role. ‘The wide, inexpensive range of DVDs offered in most outlets has exploded the entertainment opportunities for most cinema enthusiasts,’ argues Manna.
The cinemas themselves are also a deterrent. Out of a total 1,175 cinema halls in Bangladesh, only 900 are currently regularly showing films. Of the 46 show houses that used to operate in Dhaka, five have already closed down. ‘Most big cinema managers do not even expect a full-house on opening nights and a box-office hit has become a distant memory,’ commented S R Ahmed Joy, manager of Balaka Cinema Hall.
Many viewers are also reluctant to go to the cinema because of the unpleasant atmosphere. People who want to watch a film with their family think twice, due to poor seating, unclean toilets and unruly crowds. Some cinemas make ends meet by screening poor quality imported films interspersed with pornography. Many cinemas only open once or twice a week, and even then, they are only half full.
‘The atmosphere at most cinemas is not really acceptable for any decent individual, let alone a family,’ says actor Kabari Sarwar who is a veteran of the industry from its golden age. ‘The cinemas are usually smelly and the seats dirty. Fear of bomb attacks and other security threats have also contributed to the dwindling number of viewers especially after 15 people were killed and almost 300 injured when a series of bombs exploded in cinemas at the end of Ramadan a few years ago,’ she adds.
Kabari also believes that the lack of technological advancement and professionalism, and poor policies have also held the industry back. ‘We fall far behind in global standards of technology; a director may be a visionary but his or her innovation will be impeded by technological constraints.’
The number of Hollywood films shown in Bangladesh has been rising steadily over the past few years, with dramas and action movies (especially those with good special effects) proving most popular. Overall figures are not available but some cinema owners say that up to 20 percent of the films they show are made in Hollywood. ‘When we are showing films with fantastic special effects, such as The Matrix, how can our movie industry really compete?’ asks Kabari.
Tareque Masud identifies corruption as the main reason for the collapse of Bangladeshi cinema. ‘The industry is divided, and it is corrupt. There are a lot of people just trying to make a quick buck through commercial movies. The porn industry has also found a strong foothold in our cinema,’ he says.

The changing scene of Dhaliwood
Although some have detected the winds of change blowing through Dhaliwood and feel that the industry could be revived, most feel it’s more a gentle breeze that the industry will resist. Undoubtedly, there have been examples of feature films, directed and produced by competent directors and writers, that have drawn huge crowds back to the cinemas in recent years. In 1994, author Humayun Ahmed made his directorial debut with Aguner Poroshmoni, creating one of the most poignant narratives of Bangladesh’s War of Liberation. The cast consisted of seasoned TV actors, Abul Hayat, Dolly Zahur, Asaduzzaman Noor, and Bipasha Hayat who presented a gripping and convincing portrayal of a middle-class family, sheltering a freedom fighter in the war-torn Dhaka of 1971.
Humayun Ahmed’s second movie, Srabon Megher Din, released in 2000 had a similar effect. Telling the story of the relationships between a folk singer, his love interest, and his aristocratic family, the movie also incorporated some beautiful folk songs such as Amar Gaye Joto Dukhkho Shoy by Bari Siddiqui.
Then, in 2002, came Matir Moina directed by Tareque Masud which portrayed the political turmoil of the 1960s, religious extremism and prevalent superstitions through the eyes of a young madrassah student. Matir Moina became the first feature film from Bangladesh to be shown at the Cannes Film Festival, where it also won the International Critics’ Prize for best film in its category.
After years of distancing themselves from mainstream Bangla films, the educated urban youth headed to cinemas to see Mostofa Sarwar Farooki’s Bachelor. The film held a mirror to the lives of contemporary young city-dwellers. It featured popular actors such as Ferdaus, Shabnoor, and Aupi Karim, playing the central characters and the soundtrack, with contributions from Ayub Bachchu, SI Tutul, and Bappa Majumdar added to the appeal.
Actor Tauquir Ahmed made his directorial debut with Jaijatra in 2004. Set during the Liberation War, it narrated an amazing tale of human endurance and budding relationships between people of different classes and creeds in times of crisis and the film received international acclaim.
But can this breeze revive a rotting industry?
Veteran film producer and actor Alamgir argues that the only way to revive Dhaliwood is to allow more competition, particularly from Bollywood and Hollywood. There are no restrictions on importing English language films but a government ban applies to Hindi films from Bollywood and also Urdu films, to protect the local industry.
‘The lack of competition has stifled creativity,’ he argues. ‘Producers have known that people would have to watch whatever rubbish they produced, and that is why we are in this dreadful situation now. Increased competition will force filmmakers to strive to come up with good plots and good actors. It will also emphasise the importance of directorial dedication to the craft.’
Another veteran actor ATM Shamsuzzaman thinks the government has a big role to play in the industry’s revival. ‘Money may be a big constraint,’ he says. ‘But more than money, it’s the huge bureaucratic procedure that one has to go through to get a film made in Bangladesh. It is enough to put off 99 per cent of the budding filmmakers because it is a veritable obstacle course. You have to complete so much paperwork! Making a film should be much more straightforward. Even if you want to inject money into a film, it is complicated. You have to go through the whole FDC procedure and get permission from numerous places.’
The government entertainment tax is also a huge burden. ‘This should be lowered,’ says Shamsuzzaman. After the films have been shown in the cinemas and after all the government taxes have been paid, such a paltry amount is left for the producers that it is hardly surprising that people are not interested in making good films anymore. Everyone knows that it is impossible to make your money back.’
Ironically, one of the biggest hurdles to healthy filmmaking in Bangladesh is the country’s censor board, which is not only corrupt, but also views realistic portrayals of human sexuality as immoral.
So, while there are rape scenes aplenty in almost every Bangla cinema you can watch in the halls, they refuse to allow film-makers to portray physical relationships between men and women on grounds of morality. ‘After all, in their eyes, no self-respecting woman would ever have consensual sex with her partner or even her husband, but sex is a necessary ingredient in commercial cinema, so the mainstream filmmakers use rape as a replacement.’
Veteran actor of both TV and the silver screen Humayun Faridi believes greater public awareness through innovative marketing strategies might be the way to go. Humayun suggests that ‘people lack confidence in the industry these days. Therefore, most films that have done well recently have been more innovatively marketed to the public.’
Industry observers believe that it is possible for our cinemas to regain some of the glory they enjoyed in the past, provided the agencies concerned adopt bold and innovative measures to offset the challenges posed by satellite channels to the local industry. At the same time, however, the characteristic mismanagement, corruption and seedy associations need to be firmly stamped out.
But some, such as Tareque Masud, feel that the industry will find it very difficult to change. He says: ‘it will be very difficult to revive the industry because corrupt and illegal practices are rampant and are supported by powerful crime rings. Change will be extremely difficult, as the politics in the industry will hold the idealists back.’

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