The pirated movie industry is alive and well in Bangladesh. Though the country boasts a respectable number of legitimate theatres, the features shown are quite outdated, though the lure of the big screen does pull in its share of faithful cineastes. After our experience in Nigeria, where the capital city could claim only one multiplex (and that closed down within months of our arrival), Kristel and I were eager to check out the new theatre complex in Dhaka that some of our fellow volunteers had raved about. Located at the top of the swanky Bashundhara City shopping centre, the theatres were said to be state of the art when it came to their seating, sound and screen. Somewhat desperate for a cinema fix, we made our way to the top floor of the mall, thankfully untouched by a recent disastrous fire that destroyed a number of other shops and offices in one of the nearby towers. We found the theatre in the corner, and I eagerly grabbed one of the playbills to see what was being shown. And the feature attraction for the week was……Rambo IV. “You’ve gotta be kidding me,” I said, my hopes for a decent movie dashed by Sylvester Stallone’s last gasp at cinematic glory. Sensing my disappointment, Kristel looked at the playbill and said, “Well, it might be OK”. Given her abhorrence of mindless movie mayhem, this likely ranks as the most unlikely endorsement in the history of film. Looking at the posters for the Coming Attractions, our gloom deepened, as the parade of films on the way included such masterpieces as “Rush Hour III” and “Dragon Wars”. With my lip in full pout mode, we left the theatre behind, slowly descending by escalator to find solace in the pirated movie shops three floors below.
As in Nigeria, these shops offer discs with multiple movies on a single DVD. Though I’ve yet to see the extravagant claims of “80 in 1” that were common in Nigeria, the discs on display usually average six movies linked by a common theme, though this design is sometimes sacrificed in favour of filling up the DVD. Since there have only been five of the blood-soaked “Saw” horror films, for example, the remaining spot was reserved for the Charlize Theron flick “Monster”, presumably because the title promised something equally gruesome. The DVD pirates will go to any length to promote their disc, resulting in some slight exaggerations. The Cate Blanchett film “Elizabeth” was touted as having won 71 Oscars and 56 Golden Globe Awards, a rather remarkable tally that would have meant it had swept every award for the past three years. The pirates also seem to assume that no one really bothers to read the copy used to describe the movies, as they are willing to put anything on the reverse of the package. The best descriptions have been those taken directly from the internet, sometimes from ordinary filmgoers who were disgusted with the movie. It’s not often that a film gets promoted as “the worst piece of garbage I’ve ever seen”. The text can also sometimes prove to be educational as well. I learned quite a bit from reading the plot of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”, though it had nothing to do with the movie it accompanied, except maybe that both were produced in Britain.
The emphasis in the pirated movie industry is on speed; a film in theatres today should mean that the DVD is available next week. And for the more popular titles, this is exactly what happens. The summer blockbusters currently raking in the dollars at the box office in North America are already on sale in Chittagong. In some cases, the pirates are the equal of the Hollywood distributors. On one occasion, I saw a film being offered in my local version of Blockbuster that I had never heard of before. Later on, I clicked on the Globe and Mail’s website and found the same movie being released in Toronto theatres on that same day. Of course, a few things end up getting surrendered in this race to the market, like quality and functionality. It’s not unusual to have a film interrupted by someone standing up in front of the video camera that has been smuggled into the theatre. And subtitles are often equally suspicious, as when one character shoots another and exclaims, “I got you, you son who has intimacy with his mother!!!”
The sheer volume of DVDs available in these stores can lead to some interesting misunderstandings. On a recent trip to my Blockbuster, I asked the clerk if he could show me their collection of discs with six movies on them. Expecting him to produce the usual box with hundreds of the most popular titles, he instead gave me a nod and reached behind him for a plain paper bag with a few dozen discs in it. Somewhat confused, I looked inside the bag and found a fine assortment of pornographic DVDs. Eager to make the sale, the clerk spread the discs all over the counter and pointed out the most popular ones. Quickly looking around to see if anyone else was watching us, I waved him off and said, “No! No! I don’t want these. I want regular movies.” Since his command of English was a little shaky, he interpreted this to mean that I found these movies too tame, so he grabbed another basket with even raunchier discs to show me. Soon, there was a collect of porn on display that would rival the back pages of Hustler. Other customers had drifted into the shop by now, so I protested even more loudly and gestured somewhat frantically in the direction of the latest Star Trek film. I was sure at this point that the Bangladeshi vice squad had already been called, so I quickly helped the clerk pack up the pornos and put them back behind the counter. “Six movies, not sex movies!” I exclaimed, but the bewildered clerk had already given up on me and gone to find someone else to help this picky pervert. Quickly doing a mental check on my Bangla vocabulary, I greeted the next clerk by counting on my fingers until I reached six, and he nodded his head and reached for the correct box of mainstream movies. The first clerk appeared soon after and I repeated the counting exercise in an effort to prove that I wasn’t a dirty old bideshi. He acknowledged the miscommunication with a laugh and a repeated “Sorry”, though I could see in his eyes that he still harboured some suspicions about my particular peccadilloes.
Though these discs suffer from dubious technical quality that often render them unwatchable, their unbeatable prices and speed to market ensure that the Bangladeshi public will continue to make the pirated movie industry a booming one here. And I look forward to continuing to see the inventive packages offered by the local video shops. Providing I dare to show my face in there again, that is.