Encounters with Bollywood in Kabul
By Taran N Khan
17 September 2014
How Southasia’s dominant film industry is embraced but also appropriated by Kabulis
Chhup na sakega ishq hamara/charon taraf hai uska nazara
Our love is impossible to be hidden away/Its signs are to be seen everywhere
In a country estate in Paghman, northwest of Kabul, I once encountered a horse that had its mane cut in a strange way. Something about the way the hapless animal peered out from behind its locks of hair seemed familiar. But it wasn’t until the boys who worked on the farm spoke his name that the penny dropped. “He is ‘Tere Naam’,” they giggled, pushing their own hair, cut in the same pudding-bowl style, out of their eyes. Tere Naam was a popular Hindi film that had taken the country by storm, and the movie’s hero Salman Khan had made the signature haircut all the rage. I had seen almost every young man in Kabul sporting the same look. This was 2006 and my first visit to the city. From reading and anecdotes, I was somewhat prepared to encounter such sights, and find the notorious popularity of Bollywood films reflected in fads and fashions. But horses styled like Hindi film heroes were beyond my preparation. That was one of the first inklings I got of the many ways in which you encounter Bollywood in Kabul, sometimes in places you least expect.
The love affair of Afghans with mainstream Hindi cinema is well documented over the years. It found a new lease of life with the ouster of the Taliban regime in 2001, and the lifting of the ban on theatres and TV. The arrival of truckloads of Hindi movie VCDs via Pakistan coincided with the waves of journalists arriving from all over the world, and the happy reunion was reported across the globe. Then, as now, the first visual impressions of the city are marked by its obsession with Bollywood. From the posters and pictures of various stars on shops all over town, to references in conversations and the music on the radio, Bollywood seems both ubiquitous and incongruous in this town, its plasticky glamour made all the more garish by the contrast with the battered, bullet-riddled facade of the city.
But horses styled like Hindi film heroes were beyond my preparation. That was one of the first inklings I had of the many ways in which you encounter Bollywood in Kabul, sometimes in places you least expect.
That’s how it seemed to me when I first arrived in Kabul. Like most Indian journalists, I faithfully sent back stories to newspapers at home about the soft power of India, the fame and love we got because of Bollywood and Indian TV soaps. My articles had funny observations on the overblown aspects of this adulation with quotes from Afghans professing admiration for various stars, and an appropriately cutesy ending about a city battered by decades of war finding hope and happiness in Hindi films. Interestingly, most of these reports followed almost the same narrative arc as those of successful movies – a set up of romantic comedy, an interlude of tragedy and separation, and finally a tentative hopefulness and reunion of the lovers, in this case Mumbai and Kabul.
I am now somewhat embarrassed by my crass fascination with the Afghan enchantment for Bollywood, which seems touched with the same excess that I channelled so archly into my ‘aren’t they quaint’ features. Strangest of all, I find now, was the assumption that enjoying entertainment of a questionable quality could be considered newsworthy. A filmmaker in Kashmir once told me that when she first arrived in Srinagar, she was amazed to find that young girls spent hours discussing nail polish and clothes. Why they should not, or would not, did not occur to her to question until later, when she could scrutinise her own response critically. Perhaps it came from the implicit idea that conflict zones are spaces of noble suffering, where frivolous concerns and trivial pastimes are out of place, even unseemly. Perhaps somewhere in that notion – that war zones are no place for Dhoom 2 – is the key to understanding the intense scrutiny that is levelled on Afghans and their somehow bizarre, somehow quaint love for Bollywood.
My arguments are in a way disingenuous, as I find the relationship of Kabulis with Hindi cinema fabulous and intriguing. But it is also more nuanced than most reports on this suggest (and I limit myself to Kabul as I have spent most of my time there). Among the images I carry from my earliest encounters with Bollywood in Kabul are tanks trundling down Shahr-e Nau, the ‘new city’, past Park Cinema, the small theatre flanking the large green space in the middle of town with posters advertising showings of 1980s hits. I remember queues of people lined up to watch films like Jeene Nahin Doonga and Aag hi Aag, movies that are carnivals of violence, murder and rape, coming in from streets that had till recently seen the real thing. And I recall large hand painted cut-outs of Indian film stars on beauty parlours and gyms, the bastions of female/male adornment, as aspirational images to be gazed at by Kabulis as they transformed themselves.
Peeling away the layers of these images takes time and immersion in the codes of Afghan film watching, which is more complex than suggested by first impressions. It is a journey from a somewhat contemptuous incredulity at ‘how can they love something so awful so much’ to a closer understanding of the language that is being spoken in these exchanges and the realisation that there is an exchange, a conversation that contains elements of history and agency. A conversation much like the kind my grandmother would carry on with her TV screen in our home in Aligarh, in the early days of VCRs and home movie watching. “Don’t think we don’t know what you’re playing at,” she’d tell the villainous mother-in-law trying to fool the virtuous heroine with honeyed lines, as she chuckled in delight at the whole situation. “We know all your tricks.” Like my grandmother, the audience is up to all of Bollywood’s tricks, but they watch anyway.
Dil mein chupa ke pyar ka toofan le chale / Hum aaj apni maut ka saaman le chale
With a tempest of love hidden in my heart I marched away / Today I carried the tools of my own destruction away
A particular story tends to be repeated by Afghan men of a certain generation and perhaps of a certain social milieu. The story is about a gentleman usually described as an ‘uncle’, who was so besotted with the beauty of Madhubala, the actress who held sway during the 1950s, that he rode off on his bicycle from Kabul to (then) Bombay to marry her. Once in Bombay, he confronted all kinds of obstacles to reach her, but somehow he managed to overcome them all and place his proposal before her, only to be refused. He returned to Kabul heartbroken but a hero. The story may or may not be true, but it is certainly illuminating. Perhaps its purpose is to serve as a primer for the eccentricity of Kabulis in general and over matters of the heart in particular. Perhaps it’s meant to showcase the mystique of Madhubala, who was of Afghan descent, or of the medium of cinema. Or maybe it was a way of establishing the sense of ownership Kabulis felt over the Bombay film industry. This far away space populated by beautiful creatures like Madhubala was, paradoxically, part of their lives in the most intimate way, a fantasy within their reach, more so than the American films they saw dubbed into Farsi via Iran.
In much the same way, Kabulis viewed many of the actors working in the Hindi film industry as their own, particularly the generation of Madhubala and Dilip Kumar, (the latter born in Peshawar). The crop of ‘Khans’ currently working in the industry have made the claim for themselves in statements about their emotional ‘Pathan’ sides, and their excessive love for family. In general, such statements have been met with good-natured ribbing in Kabul, at the idea of the relatively effete actors looking to their roots to bolster their mystique and machismo. This is entirely different from the treatment accorded to the likes of Kader Khan, who was born in Kabul and speaks to reporters from Afghanistan in good Pashto. Perhaps somewhere in that notion – that war zones are no place for Dhoom 2 – is the key to understanding the intense scrutiny that is levelled on Afghans and their somehow bizarre, somehow quaint love for Bollywood.
In the hierarchy of Indian-Afghans, Feroz Khan holds a special place in many hearts. The dashing actor-director spent some months in the country where he shot Dharmatma, a retelling of The Godfather, most notably in the locations of Bamiyan and Band-e Amir. When the unit arrived in Kabul, it caused a sensation across the city. Newsreel footage from the time shows the crème of Kabuli society and officialdom turning up to fête the Indian actors. A friend who was then in school remembers skipping classes and running to the Intercontinental Hotel to catch a glimpse of his heartthrob, Hema Malini, the lead actress in the film. He missed seeing her, but a cousin who managed to catch a dekko by driving all the way to Bamiyan returned terribly disappointed. She was too dark for his taste.
It would be too much to call such exchanges regular, but the Afghan love for Indian films was no one-sided affair. Bollywood found inspiration for several characters in the rugged mountain peaks and fabled bravery of the country. Amitabh Bachchan played Badshah Khan, the large hearted ‘Khan’ who sacrifices everything to keep his pledged word in the movie Khuda Gawah. But perhaps the most famous ‘Pathan’ in Bombay would be Pran as Sher Khan in the 1970s blockbuster Zanjeer. His character initially clashes with Amitabh Bachchan’s righteous cop, but is eventually won over and becomes his staunchest champion. Most memorably, Pran gets a turn with whirling handkerchiefs in a dance accompanied by one of the evergreen bromance anthems of Hindi cinema:
Yaari hai eeman mera/ Yaar meri zindagi
Friendship is my faith/My friend is my life
And one of the most moving images of the ‘Kabuliwala’ was that created by Balraj Sahni in the film of the same name, where he played a trader pining for his home and his young daughter, long before Afghans became one of the largest refugee communities in the world. In a haunting song, Sahni’s luminous pain is underscored by the notes of the rubab, the stringed instrument that closely represents Afghanistan and its culture in Hindi films:
Ae mere pyare watan/ae mere bichde chaman
Tujh pe dil kurban
Oh my beloved country/ Oh my lost garden
I sacrifice my heart to you
While these images are remembered and enjoyed, most Kabulis find their sense of self elsewhere in the narratives of Hindi cinema, in places they determine themselves. I encountered this fact in my first few months in Kabul, during a dimly lit party attended mostly by expats and a sprinkling of young hyphenated Afghans, who had grown up outside the country and returned to work for various aid agencies or media groups. Somewhere in the middle of the innocuous exchanges that mark such get-togethers, I found myself talking about Hindi movies to an Afghan girl who had grown up in Switzerland. “Did you watch Pakeezah?” she asked me, and just like that, the timbre of the entire evening was transformed. For a long time, we recounted scenes from the movie, which was a tragedy about a courtesan with a doomed love affair, a haunted character unable to escape her past. My new acquaintance recounted at length how she had seen the film as a child in Europe, and how it had moved her to tears to see the heroine dance even after cutting her feet on glass, leaving blood stained footprints on the white sheets.
Our conversation drew in other Afghans, who had seen the film with their parents in California, Paris, India, in various stages of exile. Some remembered entire scenes while others held just images, but for most of them the film was a memory of tears and melodrama of the kind relished by youth, as well as a strangely tangential but powerful connection with the home they had left behind or had only heard of. They hummed parts of the songs, to which most knew only the refrain:
Chalte chalte, yunhi koi mil gaya tha/sare rah chalte chalte
Along the way, I met someone/ just like that, as I walked along the way,
Chalte chalte they sang, their accents making the words a ripple of music unknown to me. Chalte chalte – a lament for all that was left behind by a community of exiles, a memory of a film seen years ago and recalled with such passion back in the city that was theirs and yet unknown to them. The mention of Pakeezah turned the party into a pageant of memory and displacement, loss and identity, as the foreigners watched, bemused, at all that emotion flying around, like something out of an Indian movie.
Later, I met two young girls, neighbours who had spent their entire lives in Kabul without ever venturing out of the city. They had grown up together during the Taliban years in Macroyan, the Soviet-era housing block in the west of the city. During dinner, they pelted me with questions on the romances of various actresses and asked detailed questions about different films in fluent, if accented, Urdu. “But how do you know all this?” I asked them, amazed at the sheer volume of films they seemed to have watched. When the Taliban took over, they said, they weren’t allowed to go to school or work. So they parked themselves in a small room with its windows entirely blackened out, and spent all their free time there watching films on VCDs. They emerged with the overthrow of the Taliban, having watched a large chunk of all Hindi films ever made and speaking very good Urdu. They had to be very quiet and very careful that the dialogues were never overheard, not even by their neighbours. And they had to buy the VCDs only from trusted sources. But they never got caught. Incredible as this story sounds, it is not entirely unusual.
It would be too much to call such exchanges regular, but the Afghan love for Indian films was no one-sided affair. Bollywood found inspiration for several characters in the rugged mountain peaks and fabled bravery of the country.
During my time in Kabul, I heard stories of families who had lived for years in Peshawar and watched Hindi films regularly, both as a gentle subversion and also as a connection to their own homes. I heard of store owners in Kabul who took risks to save and smuggle VCDs of films, like the ones watched by my friends in Macroyan. To me, taking the risk of punishment or imprisonment for something as trivial and trashy as Bollywood entertainers seemed appalling and even a sort of betrayal of the high standards expected from stories of war and repression (secret groups for reading Lolita, perhaps, but for watching Kuch Kuch Hota Hai?). But who am I to pick and assign value to objects and pastimes, especially in lives spent stealing pleasure wherever it could be found? For the girls shut in the room in Kabul and for others like them, the flickering images on their small TV screens took on tremendous meaning, becoming something worth living for and hiding away. Something like a home, a place where they could be closest to what they used to be.
Gulshan mein gul khilte hain/jab sehra mein milte hain/main aur tu
Flowers bloom in gardens/when in the desert/I meet you
One summer evening in Kabul, I attended an open air screening of a movie called Shikast-e Qalbaha (The Defeat of Hearts) in the office of the producer/director of the film. The film is in Dari, and the story is loosely based on Romeo and Juliet, with star-crossed lovers being separated by fate and their families. But as I watched, it became clear that this was another encounter with Bollywood. The cinematic language of Shikast-e Qalbaha was derived in part from the action-packed films of the 1980s, and in part the Shahrukh Khan-esque romances of the 1990s. The plot was interspersed with songs, with the lead pair dancing in a more restrained way and without the background line-up of the Indian versions, but fulfilling the spirit of the moves as best they could.
For the girls shut in the room in Kabul and for others like them, the flickering images on their small TV screens took on tremendous meaning, becoming something worth living for and hiding away.
Later, I accompanied the director, who is one of the biggest stars of Afghan cinema, on a shoot for his next feature film. This was a multi-starrer on the theme of patriotism and war – a departure from the director’s usual oeuvre. As the crew worked, I realised that the actors were also modelled as ‘doubles’ of prominent Indian stars. They were introduced to me with their dual identities, as ‘Afghanistan’s Sunny Deol’ and ‘Afghanistan’s Danny’. Even the form of Urdu spoken by most people on location derived almost entirely from film dialogues, with bombastic flourishes and verbal exclamation marks dotting the most mundane of discussions. As the process of making the film unfolded, Bollywood was ever-present like a giant blueprint, an invisible film school for the entirely self-taught director, the massive edifice whose arches and flourishes were reproduced on a smaller scale in the Afghan countryside. At the same time, it was the behemoth they cheekily challenged, at least in their own minds, by creating the same impact or a more effective message for their own audience with far fewer resources. After pulling off a fight sequence between a cop and a prison escapee using only firecrackers, the director couldn’t resist turning to me and asking “How much would it have cost in Mumbai behenji?” rubbing in the wastefulness of the world’s largest film industry.
I found echoes of this ghostly hovering of Bollywood while working with Afghan media producers over various periods of teaching video production and screenwriting. From camera angles to the pitch of emotions, the biggest bank of visual and narrative references available to Afghans working in the media tended to be mainstream Hindi cinema. This kind of overwhelming currency of the signs and sighs of Mumbai entertainers lends weight to the lament that Bollywood is swamping local film production. It certainly created exasperation in some unusual quarters, including a prominent Iranian director who worked closely with Afghan filmmakers in the early years after the Taliban fell. “Why are Indian films so popular here?” he asked in genuine puzzlement, “and why are they the way they are?”
But such a reading may be overly simplistic, and ignores some key issues. It overlooks, for instance, the facility for storytelling so deeply rooted amongst Afghans, which flows from a robust oral culture and a desire to create their own messages for their own audiences. More importantly, it also overlooks the variety of cinemas that are being created in Kabul. Like in most places, there are all kinds of films being made here, some heavily influenced by Mumbai, and others entirely different in content and treatment. And there are spaces in between these streams where ideas are negotiated and reshaped from a variety of sources, and draw from the filmmakers’ own reality.
On my last visit to Kabul in the spring of 2013, I saw yet another version of Romeo and Juliet, produced by a cast and crew that were marked by their extreme youth. The love story was between a Kabuli boy and an Afghan Sikh girl, and ended in tragedy. But apart from the stock figures of good versus bad guys, the film had at its centre the dark figure of a cynical politician. Through this figure, the director channelled much of the angst of post-2001 Afghanistan in the exchanges the character has with his ‘foreign friends’ (who aim to use the country for their own ends) and even in a diatribe addressed to President Obama. “If so many billions of dollars can come to Afghanistan and disappear, what is the harm if a few million come to me,” he says. From being a run-of-the-mill romance, the film created moments of biting political satire that had even more of an edge for being watched in Kabul, surrounded by the evidence of the character’s criticisms. Through such tiny, delicate subversions, Kabul transforms the text of the film into its own.
Perhaps my most memorable encounter with Bollywood while making movies in Kabul occurred in 2007, when I spent some time on the location of Opium War, a feature directed by the award-winning Afghan filmmaker Siddiq Barmak. The crew was drawn from different countries, including Iran, India, Tajikistan, Georgia, the US and Afghanistan, and had come together in the remote and beautiful mountains to the north of the country. So naturally, instructions had to be filtered through a series of languages. In all this, the crew had developed an infallible way of taking the director’s emotional temperature that bypassed linguistic barriers. When under stress, he would hum Russian operas. When he was having fun, he sang Bollywood songs.
Arre deewano, mujhe pehchano/Kahan se aaya, main hoon kaun
O people, recognise me/Who am I, where did I come from?
In Kabul, Bollywood is many things. At times, it is an omen, a portent of things to come. A filmmaker friend told me that during the years of civil war, he would listen to the radio nervously with his group of soldiers each morning. “If the first song of the day was by Rafi, our company would advance and the enemy would have to retreat,” he said. “If it was Mukesh, the other side would move ahead.” The experience has left him with a deep and understandable aversion for the songs of Mukesh. At other times, cinema is celebration and ritual – there are few weddings that would be complete without a rendition of Parde mein rehne do, to which revellers dance with veils drawn over their faces. It can be a declaration of machismo, as in the boast of shop owners who sell pirated VCDs of films within a day of their release in Mumbai. It is irony, it is politics and history. In its complicated embrace, Kabul creates the entire satisfying canvas of life.
And while it is difficult to tell from its scale and emotional heft, the encounter between Bollywood and the city is an open ended one. Slowly, some things seem to be changing. Himesh Reshammiya’s music no longer blares from every car. John Abraham (or Ibrahim Jan, to give him his Kabuli name) is now painted over in the signboards for many gyms. And as the storytellers of Mumbai set their sagas around pampered urban youth, Kabul is finding other stuff to put on its flash drives or VCDs, from American movies to Turkish and Korean soaps. In fact, the city may be ready to move beyond its role as mere consumer of films, or even occasional location for stories set across the Hindukush. On my last trip to Kabul, I went to visit the director of Shikast-e Qalbaha in his office. He told me of his plans to launch a remake of the cult hit Sholay, with himself in the lead and Indian actors in various parts. It may seem like something out of a movie. But as Mumbai cinema transforms, it would be quite fitting if Kabul ends up doing Bollywood better than Bollywood itself.
~This article was first published in our quarterly issue Under the shadow of the Bollywood tree (Vol 26 Number 4).
~ Taran Khan is a journalist based in Mumbai. She has worked from Kabul, collaborating with Afghan filmmakers and media professionals.