Television to the Rescue: Secularism, Islam, and TV in Modern Bangladesh

By Tarikul Islam (New York University)

I love watching movies – I know, a shocker, right? Recently, I found out that a Bangladeshi film closed at the prestigious Busan International Film Festival. I was so surprised, being a Bangladeshi, that I almost immediately opened a full-screen tab for Youtube to watch the movie Television (which you can also watch below!).

The film explores the lives of an entire water-locked village, whose waters prevent the inflow of new ideas and change. Chairman Amin, the local leader, exacerbates the town’s physical isolation by further banning television because he interprets that it is haram. Islamic ideology, he claims, forbids them to have images of non-living things. This ongoing conflict between people from different generations, from different religious groups, and from different social classes is the theme of Television. In the end, compromise and secular ideas bridge the gap between these different groups.

The initial conflict of the movie starts when Chairman Amin witnesses Kumar Babu, the head of the only Hindu family in the village, bringing a television into his image-free society. In this crucial moment, we see a very explicit clash between the Muslim and Hindu religions.

Chairman Amin: What have you bought, Kumar Babu?
Kumar Babu: A television.
Chairman Amin: What?
Kumar Babu: A television.
Chairman Amin: Don’t you know that television is a sinful box?
Kumar Babu: Our religion doesn’t prohibit this.
Chairman Amin: Oh, right, it is allowed in Hindu religion.

Soon Chairman Amin’s world collapses down upon him. As the leader of the village he must decide between keeping it image-free, according to his interpretation of Islamic doctrine, or giving Kumar Babu his own freedom to watch television. His religion’s moral supremacy on the one hand or a more secular tolerance on the other.

Throughout the movie Chairman Amin’s main goal is to keep idolatry via television out of his village. However, the most powerful moment in the movie is at the very end, when Chairman Amin sits in front of an old television set and watches the Hajj as it is being broadcast. But let’s rewind a little bit. A few months before this transcendent moment, Chairman Amin leaves his village to start his pilgrimage to Mecca to complete his Hajj. He is unable to face his village out of shame when he learns that he cannot complete his Hajj after getting scammed by a travel agency.  Finally, he is only able to connect with Allah in front of a ‘forbidden’ television because he is able to complete his Hajj through its images.

The twist is that, in this miserable state, television and secular ethics comes to the rescue. In the final moments of the film, Chairman Amin confesses that through his imagination, and by watching the Hajj being broadcasted on television, he is able to reach Allah.  He does not need to worry about physically traveling to Saudi Arabia. In mine, and many Muslims’ opinions, he does not follow Islamic doctrine, but rather uses some technicalities in logic to rationalize this situation and fulfill his pilgrimage.

It has been a rather difficult year for secular bloggers in Bangladesh. However, Bangladeshis consider Television to be one of the most wholesome movies made in the country. In addition, they hope that Dhallywood (the local film industry) can learn from the movie and make movies in the future that the people can both enjoy and learn from. I agree, and would add on that people should learn a more specific message: secular ethics and ideas do not necessarily contradict with religious ethics or ideas. Secular ethics can help to find a common ground between different religious groups when they both assume that their religion is the only acceptable one and that others shouldn’t be honored, or even recognized. However, secular ideology should be followed when religious groups are in conflict, like deciding whether TV’s are permitted or not, in order to make sure each group is as happy as possible with the outcome.

We can go on and talk about many more examples of secular ethics bringing order to society, but I would rather just sit back and watch some television.

Tarikul Islam (New York University)

TarikulTarikul Islam received a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry from New York University where he did his undergraduate research in material science. He also founded and was the first president of Mentoring Urban Youth, a program that guided underprivileged urban high school students with their college applications. He hopes to pursue a career as a medical doctor, as soon as he can get accepted into a medical school.

4 responses to “Television to the Rescue: Secularism, Islam, and TV in Modern Bangladesh

  1. That’s sounds like interesting film , I will have to check it out. Insightful post exploring the socio-cultural themes of the film.

    Like

  2. Interesting piece. Religious ideology will probably always be prevalent in our society. Secular ethics should also be more promoted to lessen extreme viewpoints. I can see film being a great outlet to integrate more secular thinking.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Like

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