In the year 2000 I was directing a documentary on the impact of satellite television in South Asia. The skies had opened up with the ‘dish’ technology over this region and, in turn, it had opened the floodgates for a new cultural universe.
Travelling across the region from the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) in Peshawar where Islamic groups had given a call to ban satellite television to the hills of Nepal where the government was fighting hard to have it’s own Nepalese channel so that Nepali children did not say that Rajiv Gandhi was their prime minister – the stories and reactions we were filming were truly revealing.
As in all documentary filmmaking, there were several never-to-be-forgotten images and soundbytes. However, it was in a place called Manikganj near Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka that I found what is known in the documentary world as “documentary gold”.
I had gone to a village in Manikganj to gauge the voices of the people there regarding their views on the new satellite universe. It was mid-morning when we arrived there and were herded by the village people straight to a wedding. Curiosity made us accept the invitation and follow the people to the wedding venue.
What followed in the next hour took our breath away. From a distance we could see the bride’s family walking through a long and winding village path to the bridegroom’s house with the usual auspicious Bengali wedding gift of a whole big fish (a symbol of fertility which both sides exchange as a gift during weddings in Bengal on both sides of the border). But what was even more amazing was that they were also carrying a television set on their head for the bridegroom as the main item of dowry.
While my cameraman was busy filming the odd twin gifts of fish and TV being placed in the courtyard of the wedding venue, I shot an off-the-cuff question at an elderly 65 year old patriarch of the family in Bengali. “What music do you play during weddings here?”
Without batting an eyelid, the old bearded gentleman in a white kurta replied: “We play the music of Michael Jackson.”
I thought I was hallucinating and that all the non stop travelling and filming had taken a toll on me! I repeated: “Huh..what did you say you listened to? Michael Jackson did you say?”
“Yes, at our weddings we play the cassettes of Michael Jackson,” said the old man.
By then the bride and groom had emerged and Michael Jackson popped out of the TV screen belting out an appropriate love song in Bengali – “Pore na chokher polok…ki tomar ruper jhalak” – translated in English it means “Your beauty is so breathtaking that I cannot even blink my eyes”. Michael Jackson was so popular in Bangladesh that he had been dubbed in Bengali! So you had King of Pop dancing to top of the chart local songs.
Not only had Michael Jackson crossed continents and captured the imagination of the people in the cities of South Asia but he had also been locally packaged to add value to the regional imagination. Michael Jackson had become a symbol of what global icons satellite TV could produce.
Author and inventor Arthur Clark, in an interview for the same film, had told me that the satellite television was the second swiftest revolution in history. Looking back now, I think that Michael Jackson was firmly etched in that history.
The popularity of Michael Jackson in the outbacks of Manikganj echoed an entertainment revolution in this region. Youth on the streets of Peshawar said they watched MTV in secret, youth in Nepal reported MTVisation in their very lifestyle, while the elite youth in Karachi and Mumbai said they watched MTV mesmerised.
Three months down the line when we sat down to edit the hour-long documentary with over 30 hours of footage, my team and I had no doubt about how we would start the film – it would be the Manikganj episode where the TV set arrives as dowry and Michael Jackson pops out out as the chosen favourite.
The documentary derived an appropriate name “Michael Jackson Comes to Manikganj” and was received well in screenings from Mumbai, Karachi, Colombo, New Delhi, Dhaka ,Oxford, London and Toronto.
The audience would ask me many times – did Michael Jackson really go to Manikganj? I would just smile then.
But today, as a tribute to the King of Pop, I do want to answer that question. Yes, indeed, Michael Jackson did more then come to Manikganj…he ruled over the hearts and minds of people in Manikganj and indeed the rest of Bangladesh and all of South Asia.