Britannia Cinema 1934 in Ramna
Left: Poster of Dhaka's first regular film 'Mukh O Mukhosh' made by Jabbar Khan in 1960, Right: Shabistan hall
Balaka Cinema - east of Dhaka New Market
Typical cine posters
Gulistan in 1963
Gulistan and Naz cinema complex dismantling - 2005
Market constructed at Gulistan and Naz site
Basundhara City Mall, Panthapath
Basundhara City Mall front
Star Cineplex 3 halls inside Bashundhara City Mall
In the late 40’s, I used to visit the movie houses of Dhaka city quite frequently with school friends. Cinema halls in those days in Dhaka were few and far between and prices of tickets of front or middle stall were affordable. Among the better halls, Rupmahal was located in Sadarghat, Mukul opposite to Collectorate bldg and Maya (later Star) at Wise ghat. In the next layer, Lion was located at Islampur, Tajmahal in Moulvi bazar, Paradise at Ali Naqi's Dewry of Satrowza. Picture House an old theatre hall near Armanitola was renovated in the mid '50s and commissioned as 'Shabistan'. Nagar Mahal was built in Bangshal which was renamed later as Chitra Mahal and today's Nishat was Manashi. ‘Britannia’ was in Ramna area north of Nawabpur old rail crossing mainly for the Europeans, Dhaka’s Nawabs and local elites. It ran English films.
During 40’s, the area between Victoria Park and Sadarghat was considered the heart of the city and Buckland bund its lung. The main arteries were Nawabpur and Islampur roads where most of these movie houses, hotels and markets were located. The area remained crowded with all types of traffic. One of the main recreation of city was visiting movie houses. The rush of rickshaws and horse driven carriages around cinema halls in the evening hours spoke of the craze of the families to watch movies. During Eid festival, halls offered "full serial"- cluster of 3-4 films for whole night under a single ticket. A mood of festivity persisted all around the halls.
In the 50’s, Mr. Dossani, a business tycoon of Karachi/Bombay origin built ‘Gulistan’, the first air-conditioned hall in this part of the country at a strategic location in Fulbari-ramna area. A miniature hall “Naz” was also built on top of it in the subsequent year exclusively for viewing English movies. Gulistan-Naz complex brought a revolutionary change in the cine-goers world in Dhaka. The halls were fully air-conditioned with wide screen and stereo sound. Cozy seats uniform all over, perfumed, and ambiance made it a favorite meeting place for the educated and elite community. Morning shows were introduced on weekend and a club for children formed for showing at a nominal price. Gulistan-Naz with its elegance lifted the cultural atmosphere of the city and stood up as a model institution for nourishing the cultural modernity. The halls exhibited popular and award winning English, Hindi and Bengali movies. Soon the area became popularly known as Gulistan area.
Gulistan hall opened with the film Raj Kapoor-Nargis ‘Amber’ in 1952. Gulistan and Naz released series of award winning western movies, such as, 'Swiss family Robinson', 'One Million years B.C.', 'War of the Worlds', 'The Absent Minded Professor', 'The King and I', 'Gone with the Wind', 'To Kill a Mockingbird', 'Divorce, Italian Style', 'War and Peace' and 'Some like it hot' etc.
In the '60's, another good air-con hall, Balaka came up on the eastern side of New market. Britannia hall was dismantled as the city grew northward. The first Indian colour extravaganza 'Aan' was released in Nishat in 1952 and there was a mad rush. Shabistan opened with Guru Dutt's ‘Baazi’. 'Andaaz' was a great hit, its main casts Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar became instant heroes to the local youth, and Nargis their heart throb. They began imitating their hair styles. 'Mahal' impressed the cine goers with the beauty and charm of Madhubala. Its hit song 'Ayega... Ayega' in Lata's voice echoed Dhaka's lanes and by-lanes for years.
Victor Mature’s ‘Samson and Delilah’ was released in Paradise hall and ‘The Bicycle Thief’ and 'Bitter rice' in lion or some halls I can’t remember now. Lion cinema hall had the tradition of releasing action movies and thrillers like 'Hunterwali, Toofan-mail, jadu-e-anguthi, Raam bhokto hanuman, Josh-e islam, Tarzan, Robinhood and Zorro series. It was very popular among local youths.
Most movies in those days ran full houses, viewers came from all sections of the society. Dhaka was a city that loved cinema. Even Lion cinema hall, not much dear with the family viewers because of the disreputable characters that dominated it, redeemed itself by screening famous movies 'The Hunchback of Notre dame' with memorable performance from Anthony Quinn as the Hunchback. Cinema, as an entertainment, gained a unique status in the society at that time. Movies like 'The Fall of the Roman Empire', 'Cleopatra', 'Ben-Hur', 'Spartacus', 'Doctor Zhivago', 'The Birds', 'The Cranes Are Flying', 'The Sound of Music', 'Roman Holiday', 'Bridge on the River Kwai' were liked by all sections of people.
Suchitra-Uttam pair became top favourite among the Bengalis once Sagarika and Shapmochan were released in late 50's.
During 1965 war, a ban was imposed on exhibiting Indian movies. Lahore films starring Sudhir, Santoshkumar, Sabiha and Noorjahan tried to fill up the void. But, story and technically they were inferior and hardly made impact on Dhaka viewers. With the entry of new find Waheed Muraad, Zeba, Mohammad Ali, Niloo the urdu movies began to gain ground. 'Armaan' and its song 'Akeley Na Jana' was a big hit. Waheed Muraad became the idol among the youths of Dhaka.
Dhaka began making films both Urdu and Bengali and some good films were produced with Rahman, Sabnam's and Subhash Dutt. 'Chanda' and 'Taalash' became popular all over Pakistan. Zahir Raihan made his first colour film 'Sangam' with Haroon and Rosy. Bangla comedy 'Tero Nombor Feku Ostagar Lane', 'Rupbaan' a folk tale, 'Nawab Sirajuddaula' and 'Jibon Thekey Neya', ran packed house for weeks. New movie houses Moon, Modhumita, Ovisaar, Jonaki and Ananda were built in the '60s and '70s.
During last 3 decades, movies in Dhaka cinema halls have shown a downward tendency. No longer we see people from educated community visiting movie halls like those '50's and '60s. City’s 35 cinema halls wear a nasty appearance with erotic posters to draws crowd from a particular class. Most movies produced during '70s-'90s were full of vulgarity. It is like a nightmare to even imagine going to cinema halls or to let our children go to movies. It seems like ages since the practice of visiting the halls and enjoying movies with family members have died down.
Of late, some young talented movie makers are coming up to reverse the trend. 'Bachelor' and Humayun Ahmed's 'Shyamol Chhaya' are refreshing. Introduction of Star Cineplex in Basundhara City Mall, Panthapath, with 3 multiplex movie theatres hosting Automated Digital Cinema Screening Systems and Dolby Surround Sound, is a welcome sign. It may be the flag bearer of the trend ‘Gulistan & Naz’ once set in the cultural life of Dhaka. Gulistan cinema complex was declared an abandoned property in '71 and taken over by 'Muktijoddha Sangsad.' It is unfortunate that such an elite cinema complex with a reputation of neat and pleasant atmosphere for good movies had to be demolished.