Dhallywood is a wild cinematic genre overflowing with noble heroes, epic danger, and ludicrous levels of glitz and glam. Thrilling stories and legendary romances have been told through Bengali cinema since 1956, with some 100 Dhallywood movies released every year. Sarker Protick takes us onto the sets and into the studios for an intimate look at the campiest films imaginable in his series Love Me or Kill Me.
The industry is the Bangladeshi cousin to India’s more well-known (and well-funded) Bollywood, but with a particularly flamboyant brand of pulp fiction. Most films are made in the sprawling city of Dhaka—thus the nickname “Dhallywood,” and Protick, a Dhaka native, came to them almost by accident. He was working on a project about his hometown when he got a chance to shoot on a Dhallywood set. He was instantly mesmerized.
“I visited a studio, and was captivated by the colors, by the light, by the atmosphere,” Protick says of the work. “My experience there on the first day changed my mind about a focus for the project. Shooting a story on Dhallywood became irresistible.”
Thus began his love affair with the fantasy and farce of Bengali cinema. Protick shot on a handful of sets for films with names like Big Brother, Warning, and Action Jasmin. The title Love Me or Kill Me comes from a Dhallywood film Protick has never seen, but he calls it “[a title] that expresses the extreme emotions that define the genre.”
The series captures the kitschy, almost comical aesthetic of these movies and the industry behind them. Films are usually made quickly, but production can suddenly stop for long periods and resume at a day’s notice. Actors take their roles very seriously, whether they are bursting into song or challenging the hero with a villainous cackle. Everything is drenched in a kaleidoscope of over-saturated color. Films are often made on the cheap, with special effects and action sequences that verge on cheesy. But these things give Dhallywood films a sensational, otherworldly quality that viewers can get lost in. The films are a delight, even if they are formulaic.
“Love and revenge are the core ingredients of our movies,” Protick says. “The stories do not change much: Boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, bad guy takes girl away, hero fights to get her back. There is always the same climax and a happy ending. The events and details are odd, sometimes weird … There seems little or no contact with reality. But people love it.”
Dhallywood films have fallen out of favor in recent years. Protick remembers when he and his friends no longer found the movies “cool.” Yet the genre perseveres; although some cinemas outside Dhaka have closed, people still fill the seats when films are shown. Protick considers the movies a vibrant art form that represents the spirit of Bangladesh more accurately than the stories of poverty and struggle that too often dominate Western media. In his eyes, Dhallywood is a celebration of the passion, excitement, and color of his culture.
Protick plans to continue the series and is now a regular on movie sets, often going completely unnoticed. He’s even gotten in on the action—a director, needing an extra for a scene, once asked him to stand in as a journalist in the film.
“I wasn’t comfortable about it but didn’t want to refuse him,” he says, “I stood with my camera and did a scene with three lines.”
– By Jenna Garrett