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Bollywood Comes To Nigeria

This piece originally appeared in Samar 8: Winter/Spring, 1997

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 people."

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.

Brian Larkin is currently completing a doctoral dissertation in the Program on Culture and Media at New York University's Department of Anthropology

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