[Reader-list] Fwd: [Internal] Indian cinema in Nigeria

Jeebesh Bagchi jeebesh at sarai.net
Tue Feb 12 11:51:09 IST 2002

Bollywood Comes To Nigeria

Brian Larkin

It's Friday night in Kano, northern Nigeria and Mother India is
playing at the Marhaba cinema. Outside, scalpers are hurriedly
selling the last of their tickets to the two thousand people lucky
enough to buy seats in the open-air cinema of this city on the edge
of Africa's Sahel desert. The rest just pay for the privilege of
standing for the three hour movie. On average, a friend tells me,
everyone in the place has seen the film at least fifteen times: at
the cinema, on television and on video. Throughout the film people
sing along to the songs in Hindi, they translate the dialogue into
Hausa and speak the actors' lines for them. Mother India, first
released in the 1950s, is one of the most popular films in northern
Nigeria, known to everyone from the old to the young. The chance to
see it again at the movies has people out in force. "I have been
showing this film for decades," one distributor told me, "and it can
still sell out any cinema in the north."

For over forty years, African audiences have been watching Indian
movies. In places such as northern Nigeria, generations of Hausa
youth have grown up besotted with Bollywood ("Bombay/Hollywood") film
culture. Over time, Indian movies have altered the style of Hausa
fashions, their songs have been copied by Hausa singers and their
stories have influenced the writings of Nigerian novelists. Favorite
stars are given Hausa nicknames, like Sarkin Karfi (King of Strength)
for Dharmendra, Dan Daba Mai Lasin (Hooligan With a License) for
Sanjay Dutt, or Mace (Woman) for Rishi Kapoor. To this date, stickers
of Indian films and stars decorate the taxis and buses of northern
Nigeria, while posters of Indian films adorn the walls of tailor
shops and mechanics' garages.

Bollywood culture is a fundamental part of the Indian diasporic
experience: American, African, Middle Eastern, and British Indians
have kept in touch with the homeland by keeping up with the latest
films and songs coming from Bombay. But in West Africa, as in many
other parts of the world, Indian movies have become popular without
the presence of an Indian audience. There, the following for Indian
films has always been African. These fans are watching movies about a
culture that is not their own, based on a religion wholly different
from theirs and, for the most part, in a language they cannot
understand. What then, do African fans get from Indian movies? It is
true that most Hausa fans cannot understand Hindi, but then the
average cinema-goer cannot speak English well either. As few African
films are shown in Nigerian cinemas, to see any film is often a
choice between watching it in different languages.

Ever since Lebanese distributors began importing Indian movies in the
1950s, though, Hausa viewers have recognized the strong visual,
social and even political similarities between the two cultures. By
the early 1960s, when television was first introduced, Hausa fans
were already demanding (over British objections) that Indian movies
be shown on TV. Hausa fans of Indian movies argue that Indian culture
is "just like" Hausa culture. Instead of focussing on the differences
between the two societies, when they watch Indian movies what they
see are similarities, especially when compared with American or
English movies. Men in Indian films, for instance, are often dressed
in long kaftans, similar to the Hausa dogon riga, over which they
wear long waistcoats, much like the Hausa palmaran. The wearing of
turbans; the presence of animals in markets; porters carrying large
bundles on their heads, chewing sugar cane; youths riding Bajaj motor
scooters; wedding celebrations and so on: in these and a thousand
other ways the visual subjects of Indian movies reflect back to Hausa
viewers aspects of everyday life.

In a strict Muslim culture that still practices a form of purdah,
Indian movies are praised because (until recently) they showed
"respect" toward women. The problem with Hollywood movies, many of my
friends complained, is that they have "no shame." In Indian movies,
they said, women are modestly dressed, men and women rarely kiss, and
you never see women naked. Because of this, Indian movies are said to
"have culture" in a way that Hollywood films seem to lack. The fact
is that Indian films fit in with Hausa society. This is realized by
Lebanese film distributors, and Indian video importers as well as
Hausa fans. Major themes of Hindi films, such as the tension between
arranged and love marriages, do not appear in Hollywood movies but
are agonizing problems for Nigerian and Indian youth.

After Maine Pyar Kiya was released one friend told me it was his
favorite movie: "I liked the film" he said, "because it taught me
about the world." When the star Salman Khan had to choose between an
arranged marriage with someone he didn't love and running away from
his family to follow the woman of his heart my friend said, "I shed
tears, tears. Even though I know the film is fiction I still shed
tears, because it was about what is happening in the world."
Hollywood films, he said contemptuously, have no shame or they are
just action, "they don't base themselves on the problems of the

The themes of Indian movies are often based on the reality of a
developing country emerging from years of colonialism. The style of
the movies and plots deal with the problem of how to modernize while
preserving traditional values - not usually a narrative theme in a
Jean-Claude Van Damme or Steven Speilberg movie. Characters choose
between wearing Indian or Western-style clothes; following religious
or secular values; living with the masses or in rich, western style
bungalows. Women often decide whether they should speak shyly to
their lover or stand up, look him in the face and declare their love
forcefully. Male stars are often presented with the choice between a
"traditional" lover, who respects family and dresses modestly, and a
modern woman who lives a rich, fast, life hanging around discos and
hotels. The use of English by arrogant upper-class characters or by
imperious bureaucrats; and even the endemic corruption of police and
state officials, all present familiar situations for postcolonial
Indian and African viewers.

For years, Indian movies have been an accepted, admired part of Hausa
popular culture compared favorably with the negative effects of
Western media. Indian movies offered an alternative style of fashion
and romance that Hausa youth could follow without the ideological
baggage of "becoming western". But as the style of Bollywood has
begun to change over the last few years this acceptance is becoming
more questioned. Contemporary films are more sexually explicit and
violent. Nigerian viewers comment on this when they compare older
Indian films of the 1950s and 1960s that "had" culture to newer ones
which are more Westernized. One friend complained about this saying
that "when I was young, the Indian films we used to see were based on
their tradition. But now Indian films are just like American films.
They go to discos, make gangs, they'll do anything in a hotel and
they play rough in romantic scenes where before you could never see
things like that."

The irony is that this shift in the style of Indian films also
mirrors the transformations in contemporary Nigerian society.
Post-oil boom Nigeria has exacerbated a sense that traditional Hausa
values are eroding, that women are becoming sexually freer, that men
are more likely to rebel against their parents' authority. Hausa fans
have seen these changes in Indian films. While they preserve the
sense that Indian culture is "just like" Hausa culture, there is a
mounting argument that current Indian movies are spoiling the values
of Hausa youth. This argument hasn't affected the massive popularity
of Bollywood, but it is a new, conservative critique whose impact
remains to be seen.

The international success of Indian film subverts the constant mantra
of the cultural dictatorship of Hollywood movies. While the success
of Bollywood doesn't alter the fact of America's media supremacy, it
does focus attention to the many parts of the world where Bollywood
reigns supreme. When I left the Marhaba cinema after seeing Mother
India, I bumped into a friend who asked me where I'd been. I told him
and asked him if he knew when the movie was made. "No," he said, "I
couldn't tell you. But as soon as I knew film, I knew Mother India."
 From Nigeria to Egypt to Senegal to Russia, generations of non-Indian
fans who have grown up with Bollywood, bear witness to the
cross-cultural appeal of Indian movies.
Monica Narula
Sarai:The New Media Initiative
29 Rajpur Road, Delhi 110 054
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Internal at mail.sarai.net


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