Thousands flocked to cinemas in Dhaka on Friday as Shah Rukh Khan’s blockbuster “Pathaan” hit the big screens, the first Bollywood movie to get a full release in Bangladesh in more than half a century.
The action-packed spy thriller smashed box office records when it opened in India in January and the star has a huge fan following around the world.
But Dhaka banned films from its neighbour soon after its independence in 1971, in the face of lobbying from local movie-makers, despite India backing it in its independence war with Pakistan.
“I am so excited because a Hindi film is being released in Bangladesh for the first time,” said Sazzad Hossain, 18, at a cineplex in the capital.
“We are all Shah Rukh Khan fans. For the first time I’ll watch Shah Rukh Khan on a giant screen.”
Bangladeshi cinemas have gone into steep decline, with poor-quality local films unable to match Bollywood’s glitz and glamour or draw audiences, and the ageing Shakib Khan its only bankable star.
Some movie houses even switched to illegally showing pornography to try to remain viable, but more than 1,000 have shut their doors in the last 20 years, many of them to be converted to shopping centres or apartments.
At the Modhumita Cinema Hall, once Dhaka’s most luxurious movie theatre, heroin addicts sat outside this week in front of posters for Jinn, a newly released Bangladeshi movie.
“I haven’t seen such a poor crowd in many years,” said one theatre employee. “Only a few rows have been filled up. Nobody watches these local art movies or films with poor storylines.”
Cinemas used to be a mainstay of Bangladeshi social life.
“This hall was like a great meeting place of the Old Dhaka community,” Pradip Narayan told AFP at the Manoshi Complex, a 100-year-old movie theatre turned into a market in 2017.
“Women used to come in the night to watch films here. Our mothers and sisters from neighbouring areas would come here, and when the show ended at midnight or 12:30 at night, it looked like a fair here.
“A woman even gave birth to a child in this cinema hall. Such was the craze for movies back then.”
Authorities attempted to lift the ban on Indian movies in 2015 when two Bollywood hits — “Wanted” and “The Three Idiots” — were screened, but protests by local movie stars forced theatres to stop the shows.
The government finally issued a decree last month allowing the import of 10 movies a year from India or South Asian nations.
“In Pakistan the number of cinemas came down to 30-35 once. Then they allowed importing Indian Hindi films,” said information minister Hasan Mahmud.
“The number of cinemas has since risen to about 1,200 and the standard of Pakistani films also improved.”
“Pathaan” was released in 41 theatres across the country and many shows in the capital were already sold out, said distributor Anonno Mamun.
Allowing the screening of Bollywood movies would prove to be a “game-changer”, he told AFP. “Everyone loves Hindi movies here. Many also love southern Indian movies,” he said.
The Modhumita cinema’s owner Mohammed Iftekharuddin — a former president of the Bangladesh Motion Picture Exhibitors Association — is hoping for a business turnaround.
“I think 200-300 more cinema halls will reopen after this,” he said.
“Monopoly destroys business. When there is competition, there will be business.”
But Bangladeshi filmmakers are alarmed at the prospect, with some threatening to protest by wearing white shrouds of death to symbolise the demise of the local industry.
“Don’t they know about the Nepalese film industry?” asked director Khijir Hayat Khan.
“Don’t they see that the Mexican film industry was destroyed after opening the market (to Hollywood’s products)?”
Nonetheless, there is undoubtedly unsatisfied demand among audiences.
Forest department official Raj Ahmed, 30, travelled 250 kilometres (155 miles) from Khulna in southern Bangladesh to see “Pathaan”, but could not secure a ticket.
“I feel very bad,” he said. “I was waiting for many days to watch Shah Rukh Khan on a big screen.”