Dhaka Courier

Remembering Alamgir Kabir, the Professor of Bangladeshi film, 32 years after his tragic death

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Alamgir Kabir Photo: IMDB

Albert Einstein once said, “Education is not the learning of facts but the training of the mind to think.” The late Bangladeshi filmmaker Alamgir Kabir, a pioneer in his field who passed away on this day (January 20) in 1989, took Einstein’s advice, trained his mind as a filmmaker and through his creations, projected the light of his beliefs and ethics onto his viewers.

Kabir, with Einstein as his pole star, was studying electrical engineering at Oxford University in the Sixties when he saw the legendary Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman’s magnum opus, ‘The Seventh Seal’. He was moved by the film to forget Einstein and drop out of Oxford, enrolling for courses in film direction and aesthetics at the British Film Institute instead.

He later moved into journalism as a film critic, and taught film studies, sharing his notion of filmmaking with coming generations. The late Tareque Masud and Tanvir Mokammel, two of the country’s most celebrated and accomplished filmmakers, were both his students.

He believed it was not mandatory for a director to go to his audience -instead it should be a two- way communication between the audience and director.

Alamgir Kabir always knew the challenges and repercussions of screening films out of audiences’ comfort zone. Still, he inspired young, independent filmmakers to break the leash and educate themselves to try out something new, and become adroit filmmakers, technicians, critics, and film- journalists.

Alamgir Kabir was the ‘sine qua non’ of Bangladeshi  films. He believed films could change the socio-political scenario in society. He turned his films into ‘text’ that can galvanize the idea of films themselves and inspire the audience- critics- filmmakers to start a new epoch of culture.

Though he didn’t start smooth.

His first film was neither successful nor felicitated by elites of the society. He penanced on this, always expressed his distress over this. “It troubles me to see the so-called higher classes’ attitude towards films. Bangla film still echoes the era of undivided Bengal Presidency. Until we make surreal films adapting Sarat Chandra flourishing romanticism, these ‘so-called enlightened’ audiences remain dispirited watching the film,’ Alamgir Kabir wrote in on one of his books.

Bangla film presents the time of Pramathesh Barua- exalted dramatic dialogues but Alamgir Kabir incepted the era of ‘Cinema Direct’ filming his first movie ‘Dhire Bohe Meghna’, a political film that touched deeper notions like sectarianism. It may be mentioned that Kabir was a deeply political figure, who joined the Communist Party of England during his stay there. Upon his return he was jailed by the Ayub Khan government for his leftist ties, and participated in the Liberation War as chief of the English section of Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendro.

In his first film, Kabir screened the time after the Liberation War, and narrated people’s pain, anguish, terror, and glory from the point of view of the fiancé of an Indian Soldier killed in the war.

Telling the story his camera often wanders off in the streets, rivers, sky, alleys, composing our thoughts, reflecting love toward Bangladesh which lasted in sanctifying for Bangladesh.

With Surjo Konna (Daughter of The Sun), the maestro of Bangla cinema- Alamgir Kabir in 1976 philosophized that people understand much more through their imagination, thoughts, and feelings than what they see with their eyes, once the barrier between consciousness and subconsciousness breaks apart.

A young man’s subconscious portrays the time and society where women could not break out of their ‘historically captive’ state and the characters soon assimilated a negative image due to psychological ambivalence created by society’s imposed beliefs. The film reflected the freedom of females through male dominance. And with the flux of time, he proved that pure cinema transcends the limitation of storyline and narration to visualize our journey of life, awakening our primitive but pure feeling that does not depend on time and space.

He didn’t characterize berserk heroes trying to save the day, instead, the protagonist was living an alternative reality where some eerie- enchanted woman comes to his life leaving a mark of slope between dream and reality through the replete storyline and efficient composition.

Simana Periye (Across the Fringe) was different from his contemporaries, a commercially viable and quality film after the first two. The film mostly shows us the story of two protagonists washed off on a sparse island but the limited dialogue and presence of other characters not once distracted the audience from enjoying the film, who rather complimented the director for the novelty of composition and screenplay. He also portrayed ‘class- differences’ through the protagonists- a modern bourgeoises girl and peasant.

This might seem cliché or fiction but proves the point of Freudian theory that ‘people with lower social standing fantasize about mingling with people from the elite class. He knowingly turned his communist activist days to celluloid. Kabir simply experimented and successfully evidenced that films can be successful with a rich storyline and making.

He believed such mainstream films should be filmed but another type of film should blossom as well and so he took a bold step altering the era of adapting romanticized books with his way of storytelling. He experimented using negative films in a film role- he was the first director who tried new tricks.

1979’s Rupali Saikate (The Loner) was a positive psychology film, broke the linear progression film structure. Alamgir Kabir finally blossomed out as an ‘auteur’ making a film in ‘Cinéma vérité’. This film was a reflection of his own belief in politics, society, and human rights. He grew up believing in Marx and Sartre’s existentialism and youths in the early Sixties were conscious about the political and cultural changes. This film shows us a story of a young aesthetically vibrant man believing in equality and equity.

He worked on characterization in films and the presentation of the story. From Dhire Bohe Meghna’s socialist leader to Shimana Periye’s Ratan Master, Kabir worked making these character archetypes. And the presentation had a flux of modernity where falling in love with someone of different religion and fear of society at the same time raises a question of dogmatism and skepticism at the same time. Reminds us of the history of inter- sectarianism in our society.

Alamgir Kabir himself stated his career like this: “Naturally Cinema Direct captivated me as I started as a socio-political conscious journalist in my early youth and later, I embraced myself as a student of film studies. So, I felt this area of filmmaking was very crucial and constituent if I take Bangladesh’s context into account. I experimented with Cinema Direct in my first film Dhire Bohe Meghna (1973) in the structure of full- length feature film. Needless to say, the run was tough. Therefore, our industry was still largely under influence of the pre-independence Calcutta studio-infused Bioscope conventions. In that precinct, experimenting with film especially Cinema Direct was equivalent to knowingly taking your own life in Avant- grade manner. And so, my film was enigmatic to both audience and critics as they were used to the Bioscope- Novel genre of films and were nescient about the evolution of films as well.

He outreached films in his distinctive way, understood the necessity of creating newbies. And so, he started ‘The Dacca Film Institute’ in 1969 endeavoring on his own. On 8th January of 1970 class on films officially started in his residency. He taught his students cinematography, composition, aesthetics, outdoor cinematography and lectured on ‘directors cinema’. This was only the official way of his revolution. This resulted in Bangladeshi Alternative Cinema Movement. His wheel of inspiration and positivity to films made him ‘Cholochitracharya’ to his students, compatriot filmmakers, colleagues, and friends.

Renowned filmmakers Tareq Masud (Director of Matir Moyna, Runaway, Adam Surat’, Tanvir Mokammel (Director of Chitra Nodir Pare, Lalon, Nodir Naam Modhumoti), Morshedul Islam(director of Dipu no 2, Dukhai, Anil Bagchi Ekdin), Akhtaruzzaman (Director of Poka Makorer Ghor Bosoti, Princess Tina Khan, Ferari Basanta) were all students of the ‘Film Appreciation’ course he taught. A new generation of filmmakers believes he is the ‘doyen of quality film movement’ in our country.

Kabir was born in Rangamati in 1938 and spent his early years decamping from one place to another with his family. He was schooled in Dhaka Collegiate Scholl and finished intermediate from Dhaka College. He completed his bachelor's from the University of Dhaka in Physics and started studying Electrical Engendering abroad at the age of 22. In university, Kabir became interested in Politics especially the left movement. He gained his revolutionary thought and belief, nurtured his nature as a filmmaker and philosopher. Not only that, he developed a critique in himself, this prudence made him not only an excellent teacher but also a prolific writer.

He started accumulating his knowledge and belief working for The Daily Worker known as a newspaper of the Communist Party of Great Britain, his course of life changed inspired him to be the man we knew. In his time as a reporter, Kabir went for guerrilla welfare training in Cuba. As a reporter of a communist daily, he took an interview with Cuban President Fidel Castro. He also participated in the liberation war of Palestine and Algeria. He founded East Pakistan House and East Bengal Liberation Front in London and participated in the racial discrimination movement.

In 1966, he was imprisoned by the Ayub Government just after returning to Dhaka because of his affiliation in the leftist movement. He witnessed the liberation war and was a Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra veteran. These significant events instrumentalized and shaped his way of a career as a filmmaker- more importantly as a pioneer.

Unlike many others, he never blamed the fact of colonialism and imperialism rather he believed in embracing nationalism and emphasized pursuing the region's identity. He urged to dig for our unique language of art saying, “It is too late to blame our colonial past or cultural subjugation by the majority community of this sub-continent. Because we know now that given the right conditions and dedication from adherents of the art, even the most exploited nation could achieve true cinema with marked national character.”

Pre- and post-Liberation War and other events may trigger him to be a filmmaker. He believed in documentaries and started his career with ‘Liberation Fighter’. He directed seven feature films and nine short films in his career but contributed more to educating his successors to this alternative form of self-expression. The film was a way of speaking revolution, freedom and social justice, reforming society.

His books “Cinema in Pakistan” (1969) and “Film in Bangladesh” (1979) defines cinema as a social revolution for development, represents omnibus of in his social studies of film that he developed from the mid-60s onward.

Alamgir Kabir always embraced films as a social and political discourse and was more than happy helping new directors in every way he could, believing in the revolutionary power of films.

This pathbreaking artist, critic and activist was lost to the world on January 20th, 1989 in a tragic drowning incident.

He was only 50 years old.

  • Professor of Bangladeshi film
  • Remembering Alamgir Kabir

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