Dhallywood: Capturing the Turmoil of Bangladeshi History

Photo of Anya Kordecki
2 December 2016

The tumultuous modern history of Bangladesh has meant that its film industry has been hindered in its attempts at development. However several notable ‘Dhallywood’ films have appeared in recent decades, both conventional Bollywood type films and others which seek to interpret the conflict and disaster which has dominated Bangladeshi history.

Feature films were made as early as 1919 in Bangladesh, although most of the production was done in Calcutta. Since 1956 the Bangladeshi film industry has been based in Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, and it is sometimes referred to as Dhallywood.

Mukh O Mukhosh (The Face and the Mask, 1956) was the first Bengali language feature film to be made in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan). The film was based on director Abdul Jabbar Khan’s play, Dakaat (Robbers). Production started in 1953 but was slowed down by the lack of resources in East Pakistan at that time. The actors had no prior experience of acting in films and worked for free. Also the negatives of the film had to be taken to Lahore for developing, as there were no local production studios. The film was released on 3 August 1956 and was a great success as audiences rushed to see the first film to be made in the region.

During the Bangladesh Liberation War, Bangladeshi novelist, writer and filmmaker, Zahir Raihan filmed his best-known work, Stop Genocide (1971). Raihan was a refugee himself while making this film. He wanted to use the 20-minute documentary to show the world the brutal actions of the Pakistan Army. It was very successful and upon viewing the film the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi used her influence to distribute it internationally. Stop Genocide won awards at Tashkent Film Festival in 1972 and at the Delhi Film Festival in 1975.

Zahir Raihan was a well-recognised film director by this time. His first film, Kakhono Asheni, was released in 1961. He then produced more than nine successful feature and documentary films. He began filming his last feature Let There Be Light, but it was left incomplete due to the war of liberation. Zahir Raihan disappeared in January 1972 while trying to find his brother, Shahidullah Kaiser, who was captured and killed by the Pakistan army in the last days of the war.

One of Zahir Raihan’s most successful feature films, Jibon Theke Neya (1970), starred Khan Ataur Rahman who was also an important contributor to the Bangladeshi film industry. Khan Ataur Rahman was born on December 11, 1928. He originally intended to become a doctor but then tried to leave home and pursue film. He had little money and was soon caught and sent back. Although after leaving Dhaka University in 1949, he ran away for the second time. He slept on the streets of Bombay until he met people who could help him realise his ambition. He later became an actor, director, producer, screenplay writer, music composer, and singer. He made his first film as director, Onek Diner Chena, in 1963 and then continued with many significant films like Nawab Sirajuddaula (1967), Saat Vai Champa (1968), Arun Barun Kironmala (1968), Abar Tora Manush Ho (1973), Sujon Sokhi (1976) and Ekhono Onek Raat (1997).

The number of films produced in Bangladesh increased after it gained its independence in December 1971. The film industry grew and since 2004 it has been responsible for about 50 films a year. Director Ritwik Ghatak made one of the first films produced in Bangladesh after independence, based on a novel by Advaita Malla Burman. The film, Titash Ekti Nadir Naam (A River Called Titas, 1973) follows the difficult lives of fishermen on the bank of the Titas River in Brahmanbaria. The characters each face unsettling events with the acceptance of those who are used to a hard life.

In 1984 the film Agami, started a short film revolution in Bangladesh, which later became known as the ‘Alternate Film Movement’. Morshedul Islam created Agami while he was a student. Later his feature films were shown in more than 40 international film festivals. His most recent film, My Friend Rashed (Amar Bondhu Rashed, 2011), shows the effect of war through the eyes of a young boy, based on the well-known novel by Muhammad Zafar Iqbal. One of the main characters is a nameless boy who appears at a school and is named Rashed by his teacher and students. The enigmatic Rashed befriends the other boys and uses his knowledge of politics to share his unique views with them. This becomes more dramatic as the Pakistan army eventually reaches the small town.

Another significant Bangladeshi film based on the war of liberation is Aguner Parashmoni (1995) by Human Ahmed, which was his debut as a director. It won awards at the National Film Awards in eight categories, including Best Picture and Best Director. The film effectively displayed the horror of the time, particularly the scenes of execution. Ahmed explored the film industry as both director and screenwriter, basing his films on his own experiences of the war including memories of his father’s execution. Ahmed’s film Shyamal Chhaya (The Land of Peace, 2004) was Bangladesh’s official submission to the 2006 Academy Awards. This film portrayed a very realistic picture of the liberation war and revolves around the anguish of the war-ravaged people of Bangladesh.

Humayun Ahmed was not the only important Bangladeshi director to draw from his own life. Tareque Masud’s highly successful film Matir Moina (The Clay Bird, 2002) was based on his childhood in a madrasa (Muslim school) in rural East Pakistan during the chaotic 1960s. This was his first feature length film after a career of documentaries and short films. It is filmed in a documentary style with a realistic depiction of life and it allows viewers to make up their own mind on things. This was one of the first Bangladeshi films to be widely circulated winning the International Critic’s Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2002.

He followed this work with another documentary A Kind of Childhood (2002), which followed the lives and struggles of working children in Dhaka city over the course of six years. Tareque Masud was killed in a road accident in August 2011 after visiting a shooting location for the uncompleted Kagojer Phool (The Paper Flower).

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