June 9, 2008

POSTCARD: Dhallywood Dreams

Laurence Mitchell is a fellow travel writer at Bradt and the author of guides to Serbia, Belgrade, and Kyrgyzstan. He's also a passionate wanderer who takes stunning photographs. To find out more about him, check out his website: www.laurencemitchell.com. I've been following his recent adventures in South Asia. Really, most extraordinary:

Movie-making in the Indian Subcontinent is not restricted to Mumbai and Bollywood: Pakistan has its very own Urdu-language ‘Lallywood’ based in Lahore, and Bangladesh has Dhallywood, the Bengali equivalent, in Dhaka. I took this photograph in Sylhet in Bangladesh’s northeast although really it could have been almost anywhere in the country. It has all the vital ingredients: well-fed moustachioed men, cartoon violence, pretty women with heaving cleavages, expensive cars. Of course, you don’t see any of this on the streets of Bangladesh – it’s an unashamed escapist fantasy world: Bangladeshis don’t want to waste their hard-earned taka on tasteful art-house documentaries that feature modestly veiled women, rickshaws and rice fields.

Sylhet is best known as a pilgrimage centre, being home to the shrine of the 14th-century Sufi saint Hazrat Shah Jalal. It is also the capital of the district where virtually all of the UK’s Indian restaurant staff hail from. So the rich, north Indian tandoori food that we love in the UK and consider to be ‘Indian’ is actually prepared by Bangladeshis who, as a rule, prefer simpler dishes of fish and rice. Some of this foreign-earned ‘curry money’ eventually filters back to Sylhet, as poor a town as any in this impoverished country. For reasons best known to themselves, Sylhet returnees seem to invest their hard-won savings in the property market – in state-of-the art, air-conditioned shopping centres, which no-one other than their fellow curry-wallahs can afford to shop in. Maybe it’s a case of too much Dhallywood fantasizing?

-Laurence Mitchell

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