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Reshaping Bangladesh’s cinema hall culture by leaps and bounds

Abdur Razzak Sohel
05 Feb 2023 15:13:17 | Update: 05 Feb 2023 15:16:22
Reshaping Bangladesh’s cinema hall culture by leaps and bounds
Mahboob Rahman Ruhel — TBP Photo

When he was living abroad, Mahboob Rahman Ruhel used to go to the cinemas every weekend. Going with the local culture, watching movies and having a good time with friends had quickly become a hobby for him.

But when he came back to Bangladesh, he found that the culture was absent here. On top of that, cinema halls were closing one after another due to a lack of business caused by the absence of good films and modern technology and better services at the theatres.

The situation was not like this even two decades back, when cinephiles and general people all used to rush to the cinema halls— both on weekends or weekdays — for new Bangla films (or even for super-hit Hollywood movies on rare occasions).

But when Mahboob returned, it was at a time when people’s interest in choosing to watch movies in cinema halls for entertainment was dropping significantly with the quality of Bangla films and halls deteriorating.

With his business mind at work and his passion for movies in the driving seat, Mahboob decided to do something to change this scenario and bring people back to the cinema halls, and play a role in saving this industry.

He entered the market with the promise to ensure a healthy environment for the audience and offer modern facilities, including quality sound systems and big screens like in developed countries.

It was a big gamble for him since the cinema hall business at the time was considered to be a loss-making one but his passion overcame the concerns.

On October 8, 2004, with Mahboob at the helm, Star Cineplex — the first of its kind in Bangladesh with multiple screens — opened at the Bashundhara City Shopping Mall in Dhaka.

The Cineplex received a warm welcome but, despite having all modern amenities, struggled for a few years to create a strong foothold because people were out of touch with cinema halls because of previous negative experiences. But Mahboob never wavered from his goal.

He carried out campaigns using various methods at different levels to encourage people to come and watch movies at the Cineplex. The most effective one, which created the highest level of interest among people, especially the youth, was bringing in blockbuster movies from Hollywood.

It took him and his team about two years to properly reignite the people’s passion for watching movies at cinema halls while playing a key role in reshaping the culture. Since then, they never had to look back.

At present

Since the launch of the first international standard multiplex movie theatre at Bashundhara City, Mahboob has so far opened six more branches in and outside Dhaka city.

Four of them are in the capital: Shimanto Shambhar at Dhanmondi, SKS Tower at Mohakhali, Sony Square at Mirpur and Bangabandhu Military Museum. The other two are in Chattogram and Rajshahi.

Mahboob, who serves as the Star Cineplex chairman, aims to launch a total of 100 branches of Star Cineplex around the country in near future.

The journey had begun with Tk 3 crore in investments, including loans, and now the amount of investment stands at nearly Tk 80-90 crore. Their business has also witnessed 20 per cent of growth year-on-year.

The company has big plans for the future, including launching branches at the upazila level around the country. There, they also want to create a youth hub where they will be able to enjoy various recreational facilities.

The company has already produced several films, which received good responses from movie lovers and plans to continue to do that and create better opportunities for actors, directors and producers.

The start

Mahboob left the country in 1990 to pursue higher studies abroad. He completed high school and college in Wellington, New Zealand. Then he studied computer science and information systems at the University of Texas, he told The Business Post.

During his 12-year-long stay abroad, he was charmed when he saw that people go to watch movies at the cinema halls with family and friends at any convenient time. He also got accustomed to the culture soon.

After he returned home in 2002, he said it saddened him when he saw the culture was not only absent or going away, but the cinema halls were also shutting down one after another.

Soon after, he visited Delhi where the first multiplex cinema hall was launched in 1997. He found the people there watching movies, enjoying popcorn and drinks and having a good time all around just like people in the west. He realised that if it’s possible in Delhi then it will be possible in Bangladesh, Mahboob said.

Around that time, Bashundhara City Shopping Complex was being built in the capital’s Panthapath area, near the Karwan Bazar intersection. Seeing a prime spot in that up for grabs, Mahboob decided to chase his dream.

He talked to the market authority right away, finalised the works and set things in motion to build the country’s first multiplex cinema hall.

Star Cineplex opened its doors to the people in October 2004. Since then, it has only become popular among cinephiles by providing the best experience with modern facilities and state-of-the-art projection technology and sound system.

Later, the country’s first multiplex chain also became the first to screen 3D movies at its theatres in Bangladesh.

Bringing people back to theatres

When Star Cineplex entered the business, it was a time when the cinema hall industry was battered by many issues, including a lack of quality services and good films, Mahboob said.

The Cineplex came in with a package of solutions to tackle and overcome those challenges. The audience started loving the modern technological facilities and healthy environment.

Seeing Cineplex’s popularity, many cinema halls in Dhaka and elsewhere around the country started to modernise their facilities and improve services. As a result, the struggling days of cinema halls have gotten better. Although Covid-19 put a dent in that progress over the past two years, they started recovering once the pandemic situation eased and Bangladeshi filmmakers started making better films in recent times.

Many people who did not go to cinema halls for decades are now coming back. The halls have become recreational hubs for people of all ages.

Until now, Star Cineplex has screened around 1,600 Bangladeshi and international movies. Every day, nearly 3,000 people watch movies in the halls of Star Cineplex, Mahboob said.

He said, “There is a story worth mentioning. Back in 2004, when we had “Joyjatra” on, a 97-year-old woman came to watch the film at Star Cineplex. She was very excited because she had come to a cinema hall after 35 years. It felt like a big win for us because we managed to bring a person like her back to the theatre.

“Like her, people of all ages including children now come to watch films at Star Cineplex and they are becoming cinema lovers increasingly thanks to our services.”

In the coming days, he said, they plan to introduce better opportunities and facilities to provide the audience with more comfort while watching movies at Star Cineplex branches.

With the literacy rate rising and cultural preferences changing, people want a better place for recreational activities and the cinema hall industry has made a comeback riding on this demand. “And this is not the case only for the solvent people. People from lower-middle and lower-income groups are also coming to watch films at Star Cineplex,” he added.

People’s brand

“Star Cineplex is no longer just our brand. It is the brand of the people,” Mahboob said with a smile.

“Let me tell you how and when I realised that. During peak Covid, all the cinema halls across the country were shut down for over a year. The authorities were reluctant to let them reopen and risk spreading the virus again even after the situation came under control.

“It was then that the movie lovers started showing solidarity with the cinema hall owners and raising their voices demanding that the halls are reopened. We are grateful to all of them,” he said.

He continued, “Like every other cinema hall, Star Cineplex also suffered massive losses and the Bashundhara City branch was even facing closure at one point. But the movie lovers did not let that happen. They came back and helped us get back on our feet.”

He said hundreds of people rushed to Star Cineplex daily when cinema halls reopened after the pandemic situation came under control. Last year’s smash hits “Hawa” and “Poran” helped significantly to cover the losses. Star Cineplex also saw record earnings riding on these two movies.

Taking Bangla cinema worldwide

Mahboob said Bangladesh’s film industry has been suffering for years due to a lack of quality content made with meaningful stories. “The market wants good stories centred on youths and urban culture with the right messages but most of the local filmmakers are still focusing on thrillers.

“This is why the film industry has been failing to gain popularity in the local market and win the global market.”

He said Star Cineplex has been working to bring back the heydays of Bangla cinema and take it to the global market. They are involved in film production and have made several good movies focusing on good stories.

The film “No Dorai,” produced by Star Cineplex, was a hit among movie lovers and also won a National Film Award. They plan to produce more movies in near future to boost the local film industry.

“This year, I plan to make at least four movies. If it becomes impossible, I can surely say that we will make at least two films based on true stories and focusing on content quality. I will also produce some fictional films in future.

“Many good movies will come in future. I want to see Bangla cinema in a good position both locally and internationally,” Mahboob added.

Star Cineplex is also active in inspiring youths and university students to make films. To that end, they have been arranging different promotional activities, including short film contests, he said.

Expansion plans

After Star Cineplex launched its first branch, it had to struggle for the first two years before it started making significant profits. And now, in the last three years, the company witnessed 20 per cent of annual growth year-on-year, Mahboob said.

The company now plans to expand at the upazila level and set up at least 100 screens around the country as the buying capacity and disposable income of the people are rising, he said.

“The use of drugs, especially yaba, among the country’s youths has increased significantly. The youths have disposable income but no recreation. This is one of the reasons why they are getting addicted.

“We want to change that. We want to enter the upazila level with anti-addiction messages and reduce drug use among youths,” he said.

“To that end, our upazila level move will include a full package of recreational activities, including music, drama, sports, etc. The youths will not get caught up with the bad stuff if they stay involved here. That’s why I want to expand quickly. It’s my social responsibility, said Mahboob.