‘My mother’s love for acting flowed from her blood into my own,’ says Bulu Bari, an extra in Dhallywood, Bangladesh’s Dhaka-based film industry. ‘I remember being five years old, going to rehearsals with her in a rickshaw.’
Petite and now elderly, Bulu is dressed in a vibrant orange, green and purple sari and walks with slow, deliberate steps. A Dhallywood regular since childhood, she is greeted by almost everyone at the Bangladesh Film Development Corporation, commonly known as FDC. Bulu travels here most days, on a bus which takes several hours each way. Here, extras like her sit beneath the large central tree, chatting together while they wait for work. Mainly women, many have been working in the industry their whole lives.
Much like Dhallywood films themselves, the Bangladeshi film industry has had a melodramatic past. When Bulu’s mother – Bilkis Bari – appeared in the first full-length Bengali ‘talkie’ in 1956, The Face and the Mask, Bangladesh was then East Pakistan. ‘The Bengali Muslim middle class considered foreign films to be a threat to Bengali culture,’ says Joyshri Bithi, author of a book about Dhallywood extras. ‘In 1957 the outcome was the formation of the then East Pakistan Film Development Corporation here in Dhaka.’
After Bangladesh’s independence in 1971, cinemas were banned from screening Indian films. The local industry flourished and produced an array of successful films throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Around 100 films a year were made in the 1990s, too. Bithi describes these decades as ‘a golden era for Dhallywood, commercially and critically’.
But with the 2000s came a sharp decline and last year Dhallywood produced just 36 films, which Bithi says were ‘all low quality’. Increased access to foreign films on the internet is the main reason, although some in the industry claim it is also due to a growing trend of film productions being used as vehicles for money laundering and sex trafficking.
‘Once upon a time 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 accessible for normal people – rickshaw drivers, daily [wage] labourers’.
Despite Dhallywood’s decline – and the subsequent lack of job opportunities – many of the industry’s loyal extras continue to frequent the studios daily. FDC’s modernist buildings are striking, but many are abandoned and dilapidated – there is even the film set of a romantic garden which has gone into disrepair, complete with dried-up pond and rickety bridge.
Here sits Shanta, who says that as a teenager in late 1990s Dhaka, she would ‘do housework carrying a radio, listening to cinema songs all day’. She watched the big stars on television and, she says, ‘a secret grew up inside of me: that I would one day act alongside them’.
Shanta married young and was widowed when she was 17. An older friend took her to Dhallywood. Shanta began working as an extra to support herself and her daughter – sometimes alongside the stars she idolized. Shanta says she has ‘an emotional attachment’ to the industry. ‘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 was facing problems that I walked away from’. Passing a film set one day, she stopped to watch the shooting. ‘Suddenly someone came up to me and asked if I wanted to act,’ she says. Over the years, acting work has allowed Shefali to support herself – her husband has another wife, and she has to cover her own costs. She cares, too, for her disabled brother, her widowed sisters-in-law, her nieces and nephews, and her parents. Working as an actor has also given Bulu Bari the freedom to live as a single woman and support her family in a conservative society where most women are not financially independent. But the magnetism of the film industry pulled Bulu’s marriage apart, just as it did her mother’s before her. Her well-known actor mother, Bilkis Bari, was looked down upon by her husband for her profession – which was, and still is to a lesser extent, associated with ‘immodesty’ and ‘promiscuity’. She went to auditions and rehearsals behind his back – unable to tolerate her freedom, Bilkis’ husband left her.
‘We struggled at the beginning,’ says Bulu. ‘My mother only had one blouse and a saree, which she would re-wash at the end of each day and re-wear the next, to go to rehearsals.’ Bilkis worked in film up until the year of her death.
Bulu met her future husband on set: he was playing ‘the villain’. After marriage, her in-laws started expressing disdain for her work as an actor, although she says he himself didn’t mind much because ‘he was lazy and did not work’. Bulu’s husband would 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 care for her mother. Even now, Bulu supports her adult children and her grandchildren through acting.
Life in the shadows
‘As older women we have to fight for our place in the industry. They see us as glamourless,’ sighs Bulu, explaining how much has changed since her younger years when work was plentiful and there was ‘a togetherness, a community, among the actors’.
‘Women in the film industry [particularly from the lower classes] face a lot of challenges,’ says researcher 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 explains, adding that some women don’t want this kind of work, ‘but they have to do it because it’s big money which is not possible to earn in film any more’.
For older women, though, such work isn’t an option. Bithi says sometimes women must beg to survive: ‘They’re spending the whole 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 responsible for caring for others.’
Ratri, another extra, asks us to meet her outside the FDC at a nearby café. She has a small frame, jet-black hair and is wearing dramatic make-up. ‘From producer to production boy, everybody needs women, everybody gets women, and everybody uses women,’ she says plainly. She explains how middlemen in Dhallywood ‘manipulate’ younger women and girls, who are often from rural and working-class communities.
‘They are duped by men and brought into the film industry from the village, and then they are abandoned. These women have no option but to go into sex work,’ she says, explaining that it is very common for acting roles to be given in exchange for sexual relationships. ‘It’s a trade-off they have to do, because they have to go on.’ Her own story is characterized not just by a love affair with the film industry, but with a now prominent actor whom she met in her late teens. ‘I was very beautiful when I came into the film industry. We were working on the same set and came together,’ she remembers, emphasizing that it was a ‘romantic relationship’, lasting about three years.
But when Ratri fell pregnant, the hero abandoned her. ‘He refused to take any responsibility or give me any support to help raise my child,’ she says, tears running down her made-up face. Though this was 16 years ago, Ratri says that to this day he uses his power and influence in Dhallywood to prevent her from getting work in the industry. ‘If he is there shooting, his people inform the guards not to let me in. They humiliate me and throw me out.’
Ratri has spoken publicly about her story before, but says that most people do not believe her because of the disparity in class between her and the well-to-do hero. She says she was ‘used and manipulated’ by him, but in the same breath will declare her love for him, describing him as a ‘very good man’ and arguing that it is others in the industry who have 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
Turning up and waiting on the benches beneath the tree used to be enough to find work as a Dhallywood extra. Over the past 10 years work has dried up – and what’s left often goes to fresh, well-connected faces.
‘Times are really tough,’ says Shefali, adding that she had to take out a large loan for her younger sister’s medical treatment. She wishes she could find stable work outside of acting, but still holds the film industry close to her heart.
‘We come here to chat with friends, to hang out and have fun,’ she says. Sharing not only their devotion to film and acting, but also their struggles in the face of the industry’s decline, the women extras have much to discuss.
‘We don’t want to stay at home, even if there’s no work.’
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