Dhallywood dreams in the film industry in Bangladesh
Dhallywood dreams in the film industry in Bangladesh
Bangladesh’s film industry is struggling. Under a tree in the studios, women extras wait for work. They tell Sophie Hemery and Alice McCool their stories.
Bulu Bari always goes and waits at the Bangladesh Film Development Corporation - but there is not much work. Credit: Alice McCool
‘My mother loved acting and that passed to me,’ says Bulu Bari, an extra in Dhallywood, Bangladesh’s film industry in Dhaka. ‘I remember when I was five years old and I went to rehearsals with her in a rickshaw.’
Bulu is small and now elderly. She wears a bright orange, green, and purple sari and walks slowly. She has been going to Dhallywood since she was a child. Almost everyone at the Bangladesh Film Development Corporation (FDC) says hello to her. Bulu travels here most days, on a bus, which takes many hours. Here, extras like her sit under the big tree in the centre and talk while they wait for work. Mainly women, many have been working in the industry all their lives.
Dhallywood films and the Bangladeshi film industry has had an interestingc past. Bulu’s mother – Bilkis Bari – was in the first Bengali ‘talkie’ in 1956, The Face and the Mask. Then Bangladesh was East Pakistan. ‘The Bengali Muslim middle class thought foreign films were bad for Bengali culture,’ says Joyshri Bithi. Joyshri wrote a book about Dhallywood extras. ‘Then in 1957 the East Pakistan Film Development Corporation started here in Dhaka.’
After Bangladesh’s independence in 1971, they stopped cinemas from showing Indian films. The film industry did well and made successful films through the 1970s and 1980s. They made about100 films a year in the 1990s, too. Bithi says these years were ‘a golden time for Dhallywood’.
But in the 2000s they made fewer films and in 2019 Dhallywood made only 36 films. Bithi said they were ‘all low quality’. The main reason is that there are more foreign films on the internet. But some people in the film industry say it is also because of more film productions are used for money laundering and sex trafficking. ‘Once there were up to 1,200 cinema halls in Bangladesh,’ says Bithi. Today only 174 are active. Cinemas were once popular with the working classes, she says. But the remaining halls are cineplexes where ‘the ticket price is high, not for normal people like rickshaw drivers and daily wage labourers’.
There are fewer jobs now but many of the industry’s extras still come to the studios every day. FDC’s modern buildings look amazing, but many are abandoned. There is even the film set of a romantic garden, which now needs repairs with its dried-up pond and dangerous bridge.
Shanta says that as a teenager in late 1990s in Dhaka, she ‘did housework carrying a radio, listening to cinema songs all day’. She watched the big stars on television and, she says, ‘I felt that one day I would act with them’.
Shanta married young and her husband died when she was 17. An older friend took her to Dhallywood. Shanta began working as an extra to support herself and her daughter – sometimes with the stars she loved. ‘I came here to fulfil my dreams,’ she says, ‘I can’t leave now.’
Shanta’s friend Shefali came to Dhallywood at 18, alone and ‘in a situation where I had problems that I walked away from’. She passed a film set one day and she stopped to watch. ‘Suddenly someone came up to me and asked if I wanted to act,’ she says. Over the years, acting work has helped Shefali to support herself. Her husband has another wife, and she has to find her own money. She also looks after her disabled brother, her sisters-in-law, her nieces and nephews, and her parents. Working as an actor has also given Bulu Bari the possibility to live as a single woman and support her family in a conservative society where most women are not financially independent. But the film destroyed Bulu’s marriage, just as it did her mother’s before her. Her well-known actor mother was Bilkis Bari. Her husband looked down on her. Her profession is still associated with ‘immodesty’ and ‘promiscuity’. She went to auditions and rehearsals secretly behind his back. Bilkis’ husband didn’t like her freedom and he left her.
‘We struggled at the beginning,’ says Bulu. ‘My mother only had one blouse and a sari. She washed the sari at the end of each day and wore it the next day to go to rehearsals.’ Bilkis worked in films until the year of her death.
Bulu met her future husband on a filmset. He was playing ‘the bad man’. After marriage, her in-laws started saying they didn’t like her work as an actor. But she says her husband thought it was OK as ‘he was lazy and did not work’. Bulu’s husband beat her and did not support her financially. ‘I had to earn money to feed the children, to pay the rent.’ After her marriage ended, she went to live with and look after her mother. Even now, Bulu supports her adult children and her grandchildren through acting.
Posters outside a cinema hall in Dhaka. Credit: Alice McCool
Life in the shadows
‘As older women we have to fight for our place in the industry. They see us as glamour-less,’ says Bulu sadly. She says how much she has changed since her younger years when there was a lot of work and a community among the actors.
‘Women in the film industry, particularly from the lower classes, have a lot of problems,’ says Bithi. ‘Society doesn’t take them seriously, many are divorced and unemployed. Some decide to work outside of Dhaka in other kinds of jobs, like dancing for men,’ she says. She adds that some women don’t want this kind of work, ‘but they have to do it because it’s big money, which it is not possible to earn in films any more’.
But for older women this work isn’t possible. Bithi says sometimes women must beg to live. ‘They spend all day in the industry waiting for work that often doesn’t come. And they have to eat something, they have to pay their rent, and most are also looking after others.’
Ratri is another extra. She asks us to meet her outside the FDC at a café. She is small with jet-black hair and she is wearing a lot of make-up. ‘In the film industry, everybody needs women, everybody gets women, and everybody uses women,’ she says. She says that middlemen in Dhallywood ‘use’ younger women and girls, who are often from rural and working-class communities.
‘The men bring them into the film industry from the village, and then they leave them. These women have to go into sex work,’ she says and it is very common to give women acting roles in exchange for sex. ‘It’s an exchange they have to make, because they have to go on.’ Her own story is not just love for the film industry, but for a famous actor. She met him in her late teens. ‘I was very beautiful when I came into the film industry. We were working on the same film and came together,’ she says that it was a ‘romantic relationship’, lasting about three years.
But when Ratri fell pregnant, he left her. ‘He refused to take any responsibility or give me any support to help raise my child,’ she says, with tears running down her face. This was 16 years ago and Ratri says that he still uses his power in Dhallywood to stop her from getting work in the film industry.
Ratri has spoken about her story before, but says that most people do not believe her. She says he ‘used’ her, but at the same time she said she loved him. Shew says he is a ‘very good man’ and that others in the industry led him astray.
‘Over the years he has gone to the top, while I have struggled,’ she says. ‘I could have been something much better, so I feel like I have lost everything.’ For the love of film
Before it was enough to come and wait under the tree to find work as a Dhallywood extra. Over the past 10 years work has stopped. And if there is any work, it goes to new fresh, well-connected faces.
‘Times are really difficult,’ says Shefali. She says that she had to get a large loan for her younger sister’s medical treatment. She wishes she could find good work outside of acting, but she still loves the film industry.
‘We come here to meet and talk with friends, and to have fun,’ she says. They share how much they love film and acting, but also their struggles. The women extras have a lot to talk abouts. ‘We don’t want to stay at home, even if there’s no work.’
NOW READ THE ORIGINAL:
(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)