With superhero movies being in vogue, is there any space for costume dramas to return?
With superhero films becoming a dime a dozen, it sometimes feels that, more and more, viewers are tilting towards movies promising absolute escapism. In the dark comfort of the theatre, we seem to relish the concept of a person with exceptional physical abilities or superlative gadgets annihilating the forces of evil.
Sadly, in the midst of such obsession with superheroes, the good old swashbuckler genre is almost extinct. In fact, the period flicks of the late 30s, starring the dashing Errol Flynn, are precursors to modern day films about protagonists with outstanding (read: Uutlandish) abilities.
The swashbucklers of the 30s, 40s, and 50s were the superheroes of an era which glamourized and lionized swords, cannons, jolly-roger, palace intrigue, and bravado. Period movies with razzmatazz and romance once formed a major sector in Bangla movies as well -- something that is all but gone today.
At a time when the country was slowly coming out of the impacts of a bloody and brutal war, these movies provided relief from a life marked by privations and austerity.
A message of deliverance
Most of the costume dramas of Dhallywood, known as “poshaki chhobi,” had three objectives: Provide non-stop excitement, send a message of hope, and show victory of good over evil.
These movies, often with plots showing fictitious desert lands, were shot mostly in the forests of Gazipur.
Many of the stories were adaptations of the Arabian Nights with the actual plots changed as per the whim of the scriptwriter. These films aimed to provide unvarnished entertainment, with actresses dancing in Arabian clothes and villains getting into suspenseful duels with the hero.
However, at a time of political upheaval, with the country plunged into a bona fide autocracy, the movies also played a part in sending out a subtle message of hope to the ones who were defying the dictatorial regime on the streets of Dhaka.
The messages had to be discreetly interwoven with absurd antics or silly jokes because Hirok Rajar Deshe -- a political satire by Satyajit Ray -- was banned in Bangladesh because of its theme of mass uprising against tyranny, which was a bit too forthright for the then autocratic regime. The swashbuckler movies always came with moral lessons which acted as a rallying point for the crusaders of democracy.
Some of the films actually echoed the desires of the masses for a messiah who would come and offer them deliverance.
The film Pagla Raja showed late actor Razzak in the role of a king who is kind but also went around his kingdom after dark, dressed in rags, to find the actual condition of his subjects, punishing the unscrupulous in the process.
Many movies tried to create the magic of Arabian Nights by presenting 7th century Arab cities presented through local film sets. Exuberant, opulent, extravagant, and over-the-top -- these movies were what drew the youth back then.
Naturally, the costume films spurred a generation of sword-wielding heroes with the top spots going to Wasim, Javed, and Sohel Rana.
Fancy words and clothing
In the 70s and 80s, when period pieces hit their pinnacle, many fancy words used on celluloid entered the regular lingo. The most notable are: “Khamosh,” “gostaki maaf korun hujur,” “badla,” “bagicha,” “hefazat,” and, of course, my all-time favorite, “zalim.”
Meticulously designed clothes were the mainstay of such films, triggering the fashion of wearing long boots with trousers tucked in them. So popular were these films that the genre inspired a television serial called Hiramon. Actors who failed to make it to the big screen ended up living their costume dreams on the small screen.
There was a certain template followed by most of these shows and movies: An altruistic king deposed by a malicious sibling with the help of a conniving minister. His sons exiled to two different parts of the kingdom, one becoming a soldier, the other a brigand.
The evil minister’s daughter falling in love with one of the brothers, and a woodsman’s (don’t ask me where he came from) daughter netting the affections of the other one. Throw in a blind mystic (often played by Anwar Hossain) and voila, you have your plot.
End with the heroes chained in an underground dungeon, the girls dancing provocatively (to appease the lust-filled villain), and, eventually, a prolonged battle scene between evil and good.
The final scene is, of course, a long monologue about the triumph of truth plus the happy reunion of all.
A movie titled Fakir Maznu Shah (1980) attained cult status as it was set against the actual Fakir Sanyasi rebellion of 1772 -- where travelling ascetics, unable to take the customary donations from local landlords due to a repressive tax system by the British, rose in rebellion.
A digital age costume film
With so much technology entering the film industry, a modern day costume-drama can be just as exhilarating as any superhero movie. Just imagine using all the computer graphics and drone-cameras to make the stunts even more breathtaking.
In Bollywood, the trend has already begun. In the West, period films never died out completely.
While films like Captain Blood, Prisoner of Zenda, or Crimson Pirate may not be made anymore, the costume thriller still manages to pull crowds.
With a superhero glut in the market, a dive back to the old formula would be a prudent one.
We all need a little bit of palace machinations, daggers, poisons, masks, and horses from time to time.
Not to mention some sensuous dancing.
Towheed Feroze is News Editor for Bangla Tribune and teaches at the University of Dhaka.