Bollywood/Africa: a divorce?

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From the Sixties to Eighties, mainstream audiences in Africa, and especially female audiences, loved Indian films. Even though they didn’t understand the words, they would end up knowing the songs by heart from seeing the films over and over again, and loved the dances and the intrigues of the sentimental melodramas that were easily deciphered from the images alone. But times are changing. Bollywood films are no longer so popular in Africa. It is time to reconsider this historic relation in the light of changes that are affecting both cinema and society on the two continents. An exploration on the ground in Mumbai and Pune, which takes into account certain historical elements without which it is difficult to grasp the current evolutions.
(extracts : full version in french)

Bollywood, a far cry from realism
With almost eleven million spectators a day and films exported to over one hundred countries, the impact of the Bollywood film industry is formidable. From the first Indian film, Raja Harishchandra by Dhundhiraj Govind (Dadasaheb) Phalke in 1913, to 1981, India produced over fifteen thousand feature films. Since, it has produced at least as many again, at a current rhythm of more than a thousand films a year (1,091 in 2006, 1,146 in 2007, 1,325 in 2008, in twenty-six languages). Of the 1,325 films produced in 2008, 286 were in Telugu, 175 in Tamil, while Bollywood produced 248 in Hindi.
Bollywood denotes a genre that Salman Rushdie described in The Moor’s Last Sigh as « Epico-Mythico-Tragico-Comico-Super-Sexy-High-Masala-Art » – masala being the mix of hot spices that blows your head off in a lot of Indian dishes – and which has permeated all forms of popular culture, starting with music. With over three hundred channels, television is one of its essential vectors, broadcasting not only films but also cinema programs that bring stars to the public eye (there is now one television set for every ten inhabitants, compared with twenty-six inhabitants in 1992, 60% of which have satellite TV, which makes India the world’s third television market after China and the US).
It is striking that the biggest hits of the national television station Doordarshan, created in 1959, were the two principal Indian epic texts, The Ramayana and The Mahabharata. The introduction of satellite TV in 1991 (from Hong Kong, with Star TV – Satellite Transmission of Asian Region TV) considerably modified the media landscape. What didn’t change, however, was the Indian cultural norm of a unique model of national unity conveyed by the travesty of a mass culture. Bombay cinema (Bollywood) served as a model of popular regional cinema and thereby acquired a national dimension. In constantly renewed forms, the population identifies with it as an abstract national community celebrated in each film. In it, the founding epic texts are re-written in a multitude of ways. Even if they are sometimes criticized or parodied in it, the principal reference remains the codes of the Dharma (traditional Hindu law) and the power of renunciation.
The mother figure is historically primordial in popular Indian cinema, the prime example being Nargis, Mehboob Khan’s very famous Mother India (1957). But while – in reference to Kunti who has to renounce his firstborn, Karna, in The Mahabharata – Nargis has to achieve supreme renunciation by sacrificing her son, Birju, who has he subverted the dharmic codes of filial obligation, another mother figure later emerged with Raakhee, who incarnates the suffering and fiendish postmodern mother.
This popular cinema historically draws on epic texts, using forms developed in Parsi theater. The latter paved the way for the arrival of cinema by updating its narratives with elements taken from the colonial encounter. But its style was also influenced by lithographs (and later calendars and posters), in which bodies strike up meaningful poses that are often inspired by the mythical texts, and of which the artist Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906) was a key figurehead. They prefigure Bollywood’s penchant for flesh, sumptuous costumes, and swathes of jewelry – signs of an emerging middle class that has continued to grow to three hundred million people today. During the colonial period, it was a way of asserting an Indian culture, and today remains a national ritual with which all Indians easily identify. The films of the Thirties situate conflicts between tradition and modernity in a nationalist context and thereby founded a genre in which the dharmic codes structure romantic and sentimental melodramas that tend predominantly towards the tragic. Today’s modern hero conserves a facet of the epic texts’ immemorial heroes, in a context that remains nationalistic. He continues to evolve more in relation to dharmic rather than social codes. It is not through a material analysis that the caste system or exclusion of certain categories of the population are denounced, but in the name of the values that founded an emerging nation. Romance is not couched in a reading of reality and thus does not open the way to social change. Yet, like in the bourgeois novel, the force of Bollywood cinema lies in depicting transgressions without these challenging the order of things. Modernity is incorporated, but order is upheld.
The references to epic did not make melodrama a sine qua non, but historically Bollywoodian films have invariably developed it. Beyond the genre, it is question here of a narrative structure that enables a culturally-rooted collective representation accessible to all. But melodrama is also a means of focusing the debate of ideas to define the nation State around well-established codes. As so often in popular cinema, Bollywood is a cinema of integration and repetition of ideas that founded the nation.
When it emerged in late eighteenth century theater, the word melodrama etymologically incorporated two terms: dramaturgy and music. It was sung theater. The origins of Bollywood go back to English melodrama – entertainment destined for the popular classes – which became dominant in English theater at the turn of the nineteenth century, but also to Indian musical theater, notably the Urdu poetic dramas of the late nineteenth century. Bodies play a primordial aesthetic role here. They speak, before words are even spoken. Their features (scars, costumes, etc.) contribute to their silent discourse. The acting does not seek realism, but the expression of eternal laws. Like in The Mahabharata, it is not the presence of an actor that constructs a film’s unity. The authority is not that of possibly contradictory heroes, but is dispersed in a cultural rooting, values that are recognized as universal. In melodrama, this easily leads to a Manichean duality between good and evil, virtue and demons, etc. That being so, sex always induces a violation of a social order, which doesn’t mean that Bombay cinema doesn’t play on eroticism, with great subtlety in Raj Kapoor’s films in reference to the Kama-Sutra, and often completely crassly today with increasingly unbridled displays of female flesh filmed in music video style.
It is melodrama and detachment from reality that have enabled Bombay cinema to rally India in all its diversity around the mother figure. In Mother India, Nargis isn’t a star, but a mother, the mother, and bears all the symbolic weight that this implies. It is nonetheless striking that the actress was later fiercely attacked for being a Muslim, whereas her husband, Sunil Dutt, and her son, Sanjay Dutt, were considered by Hindu politicians to be Muslim terrorist sympathizers. Her son was even arrested in April 1993 under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Prevention Act (TADA). Behind the mother figure, that has historically been worked and reworked in one form or another in Bollywood cinema despite the extreme diversity of its productions, the contradiction between reality and film discourses is thus clear.
The creation of an International Film Festival in 1952 enabled filmmakers to discover both Italian neo-realism and Akira Kurosawa’s epic films. This encouraged more Indian filmmakers to shoot on location, but didn’t significantly change the trend. But, as has already been mentioned, transgressions and meta-discourses can be found in films that it would be wrong to consider as purely one-dimensional. Even in Mother India, historically the film that has made the most lasting mark and Bombay’s biggest hit ever (Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film in 1958), the dharmic law upheld by the mother is undermined by Birju’s actions, with which the spectator is invited to identify. It is he who triumphs, not the mother. He embodies Krishna’s contradictions in The Mahabharata‘s Kurukshetra War. He is the rebel who draws on class conscience, whereas the mother perpetuates the values of fraternity and religion. Whereas the mother represents a discourse that conforms to the national ideal, Birju offers the spectator the counter-discourse of subversion.
This is the mark of the auteur, Mehboob Khan, who chose the hammer and the sickle for his production company logo. Explorations of desire in Raj Kapoor’s work, or of romanticism in Guru Dutt’s also denote auteurs who, in the Fifties and Sixties, made their mark on Bombay filmmaking by taking up the responsibility of a post-colonial affirmation of identity in an emerging India. Today, India, along with China and Brazil, has established itself as a power to be reckoned with in a globalized world. Bombay’s film industry, now known as Bollywood, demonstrates its triumphs, limitations, and even its negative developments.
Exacerbation of the star-system
Although popular Bollywood films used to be produced by a multitude of independent companies, over the last few years, the tendency has been towards a concentration, or, to use the word on everyone’s lips here: « corporatization ». As the famous critic Meenakshi Shedde points out: « concentration is fundamentally transforming the methods, revenues and profitability of the Indian film industry ». The development of marketing methods has given rise to a star system already prevalent in this cinema, but which is Americanizing to the extreme. Stars’ wages represent approximately 10% of a film’s budget, sending budgets sky-high, reaching unprecedented levels, for example one hundred million rupees (two million dollars) for the film Blue with Akshay Kumar, Sanjay Dutt, Zayed Khan and Lara Dutta. Almost entirely shot underwater, the directing of Blue was entrusted to a talented filmmaker, Tony, and shot at sea off Bangkok. In it, Akshay Kuma dives nearly one hundred feet down with about forty sharks above his head, takes on a pack of fools in a kung-fu fight, balances on a motorbike, explodes in the air, etc.
Meenakshi Shedde fears that the Hollywood star system model may lead to stars controlling both filmmakers and screenplays, « which would be an unhealthy development ». Even if that’s not really new in Bollywood film, it has never been so much the case as today. An actor as famous as Shah Rukh Khan (SRK), who is universally idolized, even – and perhaps above all – abroad in the Indian diaspora, but also in the Middle East and in South-East Asia (he was even awarded the Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres medal by the French government in 2008), is today the most powerful man in the Indian film industry, which hasn’t earned him just friends. The fanzines that closely follow both actors’ private lives and tensions in the film world, such as Stardust (one of whose recent headlines was « Why does everyone hate SRK? »), or Filmfare, are crammed with heated exchanges between artists, notably the difficult relationship between SRK and the other, now ageing superstar, Amithab Bachchan (a waxwork statue of whom stands in London’s Madame Tussaud’s).
Battling egos; need it be pointed out that this is a male thing. If actresses are often more present for the glamorous beauty of their forms than for the quality of their acting, the role historically played by Amithab Bachchan isn’t unrelated to this backseat role and his decline coincides with a re-emergence of female stars.
The Bollywood hero according to Amithab Bachchan
In terms of the construction of an imagination and social mobilization, this actor’s role in the Bollywood film world highlights the pertinence of popular cinema for an emerging nation in the postcolonial context. In the Seventies, Bachchan completely federated the entire nation around a pretty macho rebel character, who was carefully kept popular by the media and reworked from film to film with an extraordinary repetitiveness. For everyone, this modern hero – the angry young man John Osborne style – represented national reconciliation in an India disenchanted by the corruption of its elites. Working-class Indians who, as of the Seventies, were subjected to the effects of economic liberalization and the increasing gap between rich and poor, saw in this antihero – even if he was himself a member of the bourgeoisie, related to the Nehru/Gandhi dynasty – a reaction against oppression, repression and the loss of hope that was engulfing them, a symbol of their own aspirations.
Bachchan’s warm voice was even used by Satyajit Ray in The Chess Players. It enabled him to get people to swallow interminable monologues, or was a penetrating voice-over, for example in Hum (1991), which marked the end of his mega-hit era. Despite his steamy affairs that filled the fanzines, his introverted rebel character sat awkwardly with romanticism. It is thus that this actor’s huge success, who dominated practically the entire Bollywood production in the Seventies and Eighties, steered this cinema away from female characters. By restoring the ritual of revenge, the anger that transpired from his acting turned the page of Gandhian non-violence, as was also the case in politics. It wasn’t until his popularity waned that women and romance found a place again. Amithab Bachchan nonetheless conserves a huge aura, notably for the way in which he injected new life into presenting popular television games like Kaun Banega Crorepati (Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?). He has also remained a key player thanks to his sizeable investments in film and television production.
It is hard to grasp this preeminent actor’s extraordinary importance and his twenty-five-year domination of popular Indian cinema. His decline after Hum marked the end of this type of Bollywoodian hero and the return of song and romance (that would later become diluted in dance-showmanship, bordering today on hip-hop).
Of course, like other superstars, such as Dilip Kumar or Raj Kapoor, Bachchan sang too, the insertion of songs in the narrative being a characteristic of Bollywood film (it may be noted, however, that many stars’ songs are dubbed). Song (much more than dance, which, unlike the feats of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in American musicals, is always a collective scenic form) anchors a cultural vision of birth, marriage and death. This synchronicity founds the myth of the actor for the public, who sees in him the magnified expression of their cultural identity. But whereas the songs of Mother India reinforced the collective ethic of the village, Bachchan’s songs are not, as the choreography testifies, focused only him, with strong adulterous overtones. It was by inscribing himself within this manipulation of tradition that he was able to reformulate the Bollywoodian hero.
In his major hit Zanjeer (The Chain, 1973), Bachchan revived a genre that is highly popular in Bollywood films – revenge – but added a social, anti-authoritarian content. In it, Bachchan is associated with the figure of the horse, which confers him a mythological rank in the eyes of spectators completely familiar with the founding epic texts. The film came out at a time of staunch patriotism after the 1971 war with Pakistan. In a country where, even today, audiences have to stand at the start of every screening to listen, or even sing, the national anthem, eyes glued to the projection of the Indian flag on the screen, the question of patriotism is a constant that the cinema reworks over and over again.
Far from the real India
In recent films, the Bollywood patriarchal Hindu hero is now a kind of savior of the nation. But with contradictory heroes, films such as Neeraj Pandey’s A Wednesday! and Rajkumar Gupta’s Aamir (2008) are inscribed differently in this « act of auto-purification » led by Bollywood since the Nineties, when films started tackling the opposition between Hindus and Muslims head-on.(1) Certain films have nonetheless contented themselves with giving outsiders – the British colonizers – the role of the devil, so much so that the political unease of the Nineties has never really been taken as a subject to debate. As Feroz Khan, director of the Prithvi Theater and maker of Gandhi, My Father (2007), a film about the failure of the relationship between Gandhi and his son, indicates: « films talk about things that happen, but never about why they happen ».(2)
This constant is still valid today. As Feroz Khan points out: « Bollywood answers people’s aspirations but doesn’t represent the country’s reality « . Writer Sachin Gandhi is categorical: « India could not dream of having a worst ambassador for its culture and its cinema than Bollywood. The melodramatic love stories and weddings are confused with Indian culture and rituals, where as only Punjabi weddings are shown in Bollywood films. The other regions are only represented via stereotypical characters that recall colonial representations: the jovial Sardar, the cynical Bengali, the clown from Southern India, etc. »(3)
Other famous directors, such as Shayam Benegal or Kumar Shahani have called for « anti-forms » to resolve their dissatisfaction with an empty and vain cinema. « Bollywood has become detached from the people. Poor people no longer exist in its films », points out director Sudhir Mishra, who navigates between Bollywood and independent cinema, mainly co-produced with France.(4)
Indeed, the films shot in Mumbai manage to present a clean and functional city where there is no dirt or pollution or slum-dwellers. Behind the argument often heard that poor people don’t want to see their environment in films and prefer dreams – an argument defended by some of the people I talked to and one which is also often heard concerning African film – one can detect a strange conception of a cinema which, to be popular, ought only be entertaining and offer identification with characters at the top of the social ladder, whose sentimental problems are not upset by social events.
The reign of the multiplex
If Bollywood no longer represents poor people, it’s no doubt because they are no longer their main market. In 2002, only a handful of the 130 films shot a year in Bollywood made a profit. This was a brutal wake-up call: the structure of both the films and their distribution needed radical modification. Changes were in fact already underway. In 1997, Yash Raj Films, one of the biggest production companies, organized the release of Yash Chopra’s Dil To Pargal Hai (The Heart Is A Wild Thing) throughout the whole of India – a first. A film can be released today in 800 cinemas throughout the country. Ajay Bijli’s company PVR and Shravan Schroff’s company Fame launched a chain of multiplexes, replacing the 150 to 300-seat movie theaters with 1,500-seat cinemas. The first five screen multiplex, Fame Adlabs, opened in Mumbai in 2001. It was an immediate success. Big shopping mall pop-corn culture, like that already found in South Africa, took hold: this is where guys take their girlfriends, even if it means paying a lot more for a ticket (130 to 150 rupees – $2.50 to $3.00 – compared to 4 to 35 rupees in the neighborhood cinemas, depending on the seat), and that’s excluding all the extras.
Hit movies started earning 300 to 400 million rupees (six and a half to eight million dollars). The international rights sold at double for major productions like Om Shanti Om or Jodhan Akbar, whereas satellite television rights reached seven to eight million rupees, on top of which were added music, DVD, and internet rights. Distributors’ sheer size and political clout have given them more protection against pirating, which was close to 80% of earnings. The authorities’ major crack-downs on street sellers and dealers have reduced this figure to 50%, and distribution’s digitalization should make it easier to get a step-ahead of pirates by flooding the market in one go.
DVD sales rose by 25% in 2007, reaching a turnover of twenty-six million rupees ($510,000), but I was able openly to buy pirated DVDs on the street of all the films on at the cinema… Five films are burned on one disc and sold for less than one hundred rupees; a lot less than the price of a cinema ticket. The quality of the copies is poor, but these sellers are all over the place.
Bollywood sells more tickets than Hollywood, but as their price is considerably lower on its principal markets, returns are much lower. In 2002, Bollywood sold 3.6 billion tickets and the totality of its sales (cinema tickets, DVDs, television, etc.) represented 1.3 billion dollars, whereas Hollywood made a global turnover of fifty-one billion dollars from just 2.6 billion tickets. But things are changing. According to Price Waterhouse Coopers, the Bollywood industry made a turnover of 2.2 billion dollars in 2007. This is expected to double by 2012, thanks to an annual growth rate of 13%, whereas Hollywood’s turnover is only growing by 3% a year.
The diasporic imagination
The Indian diasporan market – the Non-Resident Indians (NRI) – represents nearly eleven million people: two million in North America, one and a half million in Europe, 1.3 million of which in the UK, two million in Asia (of which 1.2 million in Malaysia), 1.4 million in the Middle East, one million in Latin America and the Caribbean (mainly in Trinidad, Guyana and Surinam), 500,000 in the Pacific and two million in Africa, mainly in South Africa (1.2 million) and Mauritius. Confronted with problems of integration, these populations are often nostalgic for their roots and love things that enable them to stay connected with their culture. The kitschness of Bollywood films – more directly identifiable, easy to appropriate, less impersonal and offering a sense of belonging to a community – facilitates this subjective identification through a popular culture that is paradoxically considered authentic, as opposed to realist films by diasporan filmmakers such as Gurinder Chada (Bhaji On The Beach, Bend It Like Beckham, etc.) or Udayand Prasad (My Son The Fanatic).
Ticket sales in India rarely represent more than 40% of a film’s revenue. Among populations with living standards that are considerably higher than in India, the distributors clock up bigger and bigger turnovers, so much so that film aesthetics are adapting to meet the demands of the diaspora. Some films are real hits, and stars travel to promote them. As examined in the Africultures special report seventy-two, Diaspora: identité plurielle (Diaspora: Plural Identities), the diaspora has constantly to balance alterity and belonging. The realities of the diasporan experience being eluded, these two terms are deformed in Bollywood films. They are no more than the transposition of a mythical vision, but paradoxically play an important integrating role. The example of the UK is typical, with a population of 1.3 Indians. Dil Se (Mani Raman, 1998) was a flop in India, but the first film to reach the top ten in the British box office. In 2001, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (K3G/Happiness & Tears) reached third place, earning £2 million (almost three million dollars). Bollywood was in fashion then. Nightclubs played its tunes and sold « Bollywood cocktails ». Ashutosh Gowarika’s Lagaan (2001) was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Award at the Oscars. But once the fashion passed, Bollywood’s success abroad became limited to the diaspora, and films’ Americanization has lost the adhesion of mass audiences in India, satisfying only the middle classes. One critic summed this up, pointing out that all the films are now set in Italy or Greenland. This is an example of one of the major popular cinemas gradually losing its original audience as it has concentrated on high-earning markets for purely commercial reasons.
South Africa and Mauritius, Indian territories
When the International Indian Film Academy Awards were organized in Johannesburg in 2003, thousands of fans flocked to see the Bollywood stars in the flesh. These third-generation South African Indians said they were delighted to see « their own culture ». Many were dressed like their favorite stars and sang their songs to catch their attention. Like in India, the music is released before the film along with a music video in the form of a trailer, a highly effective means of promotion. It is this music that for them makes a real « Bollywood, » with at least six tunes woven into the narrative. Nightclubs play these tracks in a row, before the film is even released in cinemas.
As the South African critic Nashen Moodley points out: « Bollywood is hugely successful in South Africa, handled by the two main distributors Ster Kinekor and Nu Metro, which release new films in the multiplexes each week. Screens are thus dominated by Hollywood and Bollywood, not to mention the pirated DVD circuit that is very well organized with regard to Bollywood films. »
Medha Sampat, in charge of India at South African Tourism, the national South African tourism promotion company, organizes free promotional trips for Mumbai producers. By increasing the number of films shot in South Africa, the company hopes to attract more Indian tourists. After four shoots in 2007, it hoped to secure a dozen in 2008. With nine million tourists in 2007, tourism represents 8% of the South African economy. In Mauritius too, people are aware of cinema’s contribution to promoting tourism. Some fifteen films have been shot there by the Bollywood industry, including music videos and the film songs. In a recent controversy, Kunal Shivdasani, a director who himself came to the world of filmmaking from advertising, started to shoot Hijack (2008) there, an action movie on plane hijacking. As a result of all the administrative red tape, however, the team packed up and went home in the middle of the shoot! It was too difficult to get authorization to shoot in the airport, essential to the film… With two to three films released each month, Bollywood is very present in Mauritius and its actors, such as Shah Rukh Khan or Hrithick Roshan, idolized. Films are found on DVD and in the cinemas, but are also shown on national TV. The press is full of articles that follow the news on new films and the stars, which are also further developed in specialized papers. According to Eliana Timol, from the Mauritius Film Development Corporation: « auteur films are not accessible and aren’t really very popular with Mauritians. It is the stars in the cast who attract the public ». Concerts by Bollywood singers such as Atif Aslam, Vinod Rathod, Suniti Chawan or Debojeet are a guaranteed success.
In South Africa, like in Mauritius, the numeric importance of the Indian diaspora means that Bollywood films are very well distributed there, and even dominate the screens in Mauritius. In East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania), large Indian communities also guarantee films’ success.
The rest of Africa: piracy and competition
It is often said that African audiences like Indian films because they are full of music, love, dream, action, not to mention the women’s beautiful clothes, and the luxuriance and beauty of the well-orchestrated dances. It is also said that the films’ modesty facilitates their access there where audiences are easily shocked by the sex scenes of Hollywood films. The final kiss indeed often remains the most of what’s shown, and even this is above all suggestive (even if characters kiss more and more in recent films). They can be watched with the whole family.
All this strikes me as being part of the same pretty contemptuous condescendence towards audiences that people are quick to see as backwards. If African audiences have liked Bollywood, it is, as far as I see it, more because they feel an affinity with popular Indian films and their non-Western way of dealing with themes that are also part of their reality. Whether in the recurrent question of young people’s independence in large families, arranged marriages, impossible love between different castes, father-son conflicts, vengeance or redemption, survival in the face of adversity, the importance of honor and self-respect, or the mission of perpetuating moral and religious values, Bollywood deals with issues that speak to traditional societies undergoing globalization.
On the music front, there is scope for significant research, as it seems clear that some Indian music has historically been influenced by African music, notably through exchanges with the Indian diaspora living in Africa, or through contact with the African diaspora. Pankaj Rag, director of the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune, told me that at the end of the Forties, there were numerous examples of African music in Indian films.
Even if heroes’ systematic return into the fold of communal law makes Bollywood films conservative manifestos, we have seen to what extent and according to which contradictions these films have contributed to the emergence of a nation after colonization. They do so in a cultural framework that isn’t that of American film, in which the hero is the sole maker of his destiny. From film to film, they construct an autonomous response corresponding to an autonomous imagination, reworking epic texts, the founding myths. The films’ general aesthetics (melodrama, music, chasteness, etc.), which may be so easy to scoff at, are thus the vehicle and not the content, the condition of an affirmation or at least the codes of a genre, as it were, which, based on existing structures of popular entertainment forms, have gradually developed without ever straying from the fluidity of this cinema’s relationship with its public.
It is all of this that is in question today in Bollywood’s relation to both modest Indian audiences and the African public which used to love its films. The increasing imitation of American cinema in terms of both form and content, the prevalence of films that are produced more and more industrially to please a wealthy diaspora that is already highly globalized, or even to rival Hollywood on its own terrain, is empting this cinema of precisely what constituted its quality: its pertinence as a tool of post-colonial cultural resistance and its power of rebellion. Often all that remains are products that are astoundingly dumb, pale, laughable imitations of the worst of mainstream cinema, with characters repeating the same old dialogues, whatever city of the world they are in. As director Partho Sen Gupta notes: « sale and distributions agents think that Indian kitsch will attract people to the cinema, but most people in the West find Bollywood films too long, boring, and of no interest ».(5)
Bollywood therefore only breaks into cinema circuits in the West where there is a large diaspora. As Avtar Panesar, head of international sales at the major production company Yash Raj Films, points out, this is true in the US and the UK, as it is too in the United Arab Emirates where there is also a large diaspora. These are the three main markets, followed by Australia. « A film with no songs somewhat limits our audience », he recognizes, « but that is part of an evolution. We need to be faithful to our subjects and as Bollywood has now expanded to include different genres, songs and dances do not always have their place in thrillers! Audiences are open to such innovations. »(6) According to Avtar Panesar, South Africa is a good market with a significant pool of movie theaters and audiences remain steady, but the exchange rate against the dollar limits benefits. « Kenya was a very good market, but there are only 50,000 Indians left there, which has diminished entrance figures. The other countries are too small to be viable. » Piracy is undermining commerce pretty much everywhere: « Morocco was without doubt the most promising market », he adds, « but the market is now dead! DVD sales have fallen pretty much everywhere by 90%, to such an extent that we can no longer count on them! »
« In Côte d’Ivoire », points out the journalist Fortuné Bationo, « Bollywood is completely absent from the pirated movie stalls. Hollywood dominates everywhere ». This hegemony is sometimes contested by the Ivorian video films that come out sporadically. As for the music, others have taken over, in languages accessible to all: « The zouglou singers Yodé and Siro revisit the same tear-jerkers as Bollywood », he adds, « placing lovers at the mercy of the religious, which here has the power to undo the strongest of bonds. People feel more concerned by this social reality that affects them directly, sung in French and in Dioula. » As for Ivorian television, it continues the eternal broadcasting of telenovelas with, » notes Bationo, « less and less explosive sighing! »(7)
It is the same situation in Mali, according to journalist Moussa Bolly: « Indian films were popular with Malians, and especially Malian women, but as practically all the cinemas have closed, they are in freefall. » Bamako’s Babemba Cinema now only exceptionally programs Bollywood films. The Office des Radios et Télévision du Mali (ORTM) programs a Hindu feature the first Wednesday of the month, but often late at night. « The keenest fans are women and girls, » notes Bolly, « but it must be stressed that this fringe now prefers African sitcoms and Brazilian or Mexican soap operas. »
In Senegal, the satellite channel B4U broadcasts new Indian films and classics non-stop. Two cinemas in Dakar show Indian films – notably the musical ones – which still above all attract young people and women. At the start of 2000, before the progressive closure of movie theaters, the Radiodiffusion télévision sénégalaise (RTS, the public channel) had a weekly Indian film slot in its program. « That kept a large audience glued to the TV screen. But it only lasted three years », notes the journalist Aboubacar Demba Cissokho. « It is still true that for the dozen or so popular cinemas still functional in Dakar and the rest of the country, the films screened are those that give a large place to music. Audiences are no longer only made up of women, however, as they have found other slots on the private TV channels. » The Senegalese private channels RDV (Radio Dunya Vision) and 2STV don’t screen films, but rather weekly programs devoted entirely to music from India. Like in most other countries, Indian films can be found in the pirate network, but they aren’t a match for competition from American action movies. « We can even say that they are literally flattened in that domain », adds Cissokho.
In Benin, popular Indian films are still surviving Nigerian productions’ invasion of the market, and are available from any street seller. « I can ensure you that these are the films that I’ve spent a lot of money on in video-clubs because tickets cost double due to their length, which is often over two to three hours », says journalist Hector Todouvossi. « I am won over, carried away and moved by their music, often funk and disco ». But he adds: « If they are losing ground, it’s because the actors are no longer the same and the new actors are rarely at the level of the elders, which means that these films don’t catch on like in the past! » On the other hand, on TV, each channel broadcasts on average two telenovelas a day, with the exception of Golfe TV, which still remains the only channel to show popular Indian films, once a week. In the modest neighborhoods of Cotonou, thatched roof video-clubs show Indian films for fifty CFA francs, or sometimes twenty-five CFA a ticket. « They strongly attract young and female audiences », says journalist Espera Donouvossi. « They are hooked on the love stories, the lifestyle, the music, and the beautiful actors. But at the beginning of the 2000, these films’ audience fell ». And yet in places where only the national television can be captured, with poor quality images, Indian films are still popular in video-clubs and among pirated movie street sellers, on a par with Kung-fu and Nigerian films. « Today, there are no more operational cinemas », adds Donouvossi, « and it wasn’t until Sylvestre Amoussou’s Africa Paradise came along that the biggest one in Cotonou, the Ciné Concorde, got spruced up! »
In Cameroon too, « Indian cinema is no longer consumed with the same fervor as in the past », confirms journalist Jacques Bessala Manga. The closure of cinemas and the invasion of American action movies have got the better of the Sunday morning screenings in Yaounde where Indian films were largely shown. « Women and children particularly love the long song and dance sequences. Films such as Teri Kasam (A.C. Trilogchander, 1982) registered unimagined ticket sales. The film ran in cinemas for ten years. » It is still possible to see Indian films on pirated DVD. They are above all appreciated by the Muslim community, notably in the northern part of Cameroon or in the predominantly Muslim neighborhoods of the country’s main cities. « In the popular imagination, » adds Bessala, « Indian cinema nonetheless remains a cinema of contemplation, of sublimation of love, of the wondrous, of enchantment, but also of magic and witchcraft – themes that are also explored in Nollywood and popular African cinema. »
The same echo from Togo, where journalist Sitou Ayité indicates that Bollywood films are above all popular with the Muslim minority on VCD or DVD and in the central region of the country’s video-clubs. They enjoyed their hour of glory in the Sixties and Seventies with the Compagnie africaine cinématographique et commerciale (Comacico), which had a monopoly on distribution and exploitation. « Here », she points out, « the old Rex cinema is reputed for the film Bahut Din Huwe (S.S. Vasan, 1954). If the end of the Comacico and closure of a number of cinemas, including the Rex, slowed the invasion of Hindi films, the huge revival of Christianity completely finished it off. » Audiences, and notably women and young people, have indeed turned to Nigerian films that bear messages in accord with their faith. However, one of the local private television companies, the RTDS (Radio Télévision Delta Santé) started showing Bollywood films at least once a week in mid-September 2008.
In Guinea, India cinema was predominant until the Nineties. « At that time », recalls journalist Fatoumata Sagnane, « the Vox and Rialto cinemas specialized in them. Everyone knew the names of the films by heart and could tell their stories, especially the women. At the end of every screening, the audiences would chat, crying or jubilant! I remember my mother insisting on going to see Mehboob Khan’s Aan (Savage Princess) the very night she came out of hospital so not to miss it! But today, she barely mentions Hindi films. » Indeed, Nigerian films are becoming increasingly popular and American films have taken the place of Indian films, « probably because there’s no difference between them anymore and people have grown tired of them », adds Sagnane. « The copy is never up to the original! »
Journalist Sani Soulé Manzo from Niger sums this evolution up well, citing the example of his country: « Popular Indian films marked the Seventies and Eighties, despite competition from westerns, Bruce Lee type « Chinese » films, so-called comedians like Eddy Murphy or Louis de Funès and musicals. Indian actors like Amithab Bachchan, Raj and Shashi Kaporr were popular for their combat for justice or for their mischievousness. A lot of people in Niger learned several words in Hindi, such as « atcha » and « nahi » thanks to these films, the songs of which a lot of women knew by heart. As all the cinemas shut at the turn of the Nineties – with the exception of the Niamey French Cultural Centre and Zinder open-air cinemas – they were distributed on video until the advent, at the end of the Nineties, of Nigerian films in Hausa – the Dandalin Soyyaya – whose actors simply imitate their Indian counterparts. Sung in Hausa to music and decors copied from the popular Indian films in vogue, these Dandalin Soyyaya distributed on VCD have stolen the limelight from the « Hindus » on five of Niger’s six television channels (Télé Sahel, Tal TV, Ténéré, Dunia, Canal 3; only Bonferey doesn’t broadcast any), with broadcasts two to three times a week. For several years now, female audiences are mad about Brazilian, Mexican or Peruvian soap operas (Sinners, Barbarita, Women of Sand, Lorenzo’s Wife, Marimar, Muneca Brava, Rubi, Family Ties, etc) but also the Beninese, Burkinabe, Ivorian, Malian, Nigerien TV series co-produced by the French. The Indian films that do get released are pretty mushy. Troops like Kainuwa, Farin Wata, etc. have formed in Niger to imitate them, if not entirely, at least in spirit, to people’s almost unanimous satisfaction. Low purchasing power favors pirating, which the BNDA (Niger Royalties Bureau) tries to combat… »
In Tunisia, notes Naceur Sardi from the Tunisian Association for the Promotion of Film Criticism, « the Tunisian public’s relation with popular Indian cinema dates back to the second half of the Sixties. In 1965, after Bourguiba’s speech in Palestine about accepting the division and the UN decree 242, Tunisia and Egypt were locked in a political crisis. Tunisia stopped importing the Egyptian films that, along with American, Italian and a few French works, were the mainstay of the hundred odd cinemas that were still mushrooming throughout Tunisia. To replace them, the SATPEC (the State film import and distribution company) turned to two other sources: Lebanese cinema, which had seen the arrival of an Egyptian diaspora at odds with its government (including, for a while, Youssef Chahine), and popular Indian cinema. Very rapidly, the latter won a large audience, due to its similarities with Egyptian cinema: lovesick melodramas full of song, dance and action. Even the type of film stock used was the same, giving identical tones and light. Since, this cinema has never disappeared from our screens, even if it has had its ups and downs. » Today, there are only a dozen cinemas left in Tunisia, supplanted by DVD, internet and video. « There’s a crisis: even the major international hits aren’t finding an audience », Sardi notes. There are said to be 30, 000 shops burning pirated DVDs! You can find a large array of Indian films in them, and the public is well-informed about the new releases thanks to hundreds of satellite channels from the Gulf countries, which are very fond of them.
In Morocco, indicates journalist Mohammed Bakrim, also head of the Moroccan Film Centre, « Bollywood was a choice business for the distributors for a long time: Hindi films were top of the box office! Today, there are towns where it’s only movie theaters that program Bollywood. The Rif Cinema in Marrakech, the foremost cinema in terms of turnover, is a temple of Hindi film ». In 2007 in Morocco, the US was in the lead with 335 films distributed and a total of 1,327,351 entries which is 39 % of the market. However India was right behind with 312 films distributed and a total of 1,089,947 entries which is 32 % of the market. But in terms of position by film, the first Hindi film only came in twentieth position, with a sixty-five week run and 39,700 entries. « Of course, these films are very present on the pirate DVD market », adds Bakrim.
In Africa’s video-clubs and on its pirated movie stalls, competition between genres is fierce, therefore. It is interesting, in this respect, to note, as Tony Rajkumar writes, that: « Bollywood wants to get its hands on of Nollywood. An Indian delegation is already planning to go to Lagos in October 2008, to strike up a partnership with Nollywood. »(8) The aim apparently was to work on the distribution network, in which the Indians have great expertise, the Indians of course being tempted by the Nigerian market. To assist them in this, they were planning to solicit the Commonwealth Business Council (CBC), an organization of Commonwealth countries promoting investment, in order to create a film fund of a value of one hundred million dollars.
A divorce?
Hollywood, Bollywood, Nollywood: this is a period of major maneuvers between expansionist cinemas. The more Bollywood moves away from the singing-melodramatic masala that made it so great to try to imitate and rival Hollywood formulae, the more the African public prefers Nollywood and its local productions, or the considerably more effective American action movies. And like all audiences in the world, the African public is progressively moving away from cinema to watch mass-broadcast TV serials. And this in a context in which piracy is undermining commercial distribution, which is only still keeping its head above the water in countries with large diasporan communities.
If there is a divorce between Bollywood and Africa, it is ultimately because the African public has lost interest in the films, not because they can’t get to see them anymore (piracy has replaced the movie theaters). We would argue that this progressive disaffection reflects the commercial bent of a popular cinema that has thereby distanced itself from its post-colonial pertinence: in addition to the mobilization of a community around a national vision, its conception of the hero and of destiny (cf. Amithab Bachchan) was far superior to the hero in westerns. Its reworking through myths spoke to peoples who still accorded them a place of importance. Sub-Saharan audiences thus now prefer Nigerian videos that explore African societies’ concerns (violence, lack of social mobility, lack of State and protection, the burden of obsolete customs, etc.) to recent Bollywood productions, which, as highly professional as they may be, are at times astonishingly dumb. And, in the field of action movies, Hollywood professionalism continues to outstrip the rest of the planet.
It is thus on the ideological terrain and in the autonomy of imaginations that competition lies. We often underestimate the public: it determines its tastes and choices according to what moves it, what deeply animates it. Special effects are only fascinating for a moment. If Bollywood wants to strike up a chord in African hearts again, it no doubt needs to think less of markets and more of its own society’s relation to the world.

(1) Vijay Mishra, Bollywood Cinema, Temples of Desire, Routledge 2002, p.230 – an excellent analytical work that draws on previous works and fanzine articles, and which, in addition to interviews, films, news and magazine articles on the ground, abundantly inspired this article.
(2) Interview with the author.
(3) Sachin Gandhi, « The Keys of Kingdom », in Cinema in India, January-March 2004, p.46-49.
(4) Interview with the author. Sudhir Mishra shot his third feature film Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (2005) with the backing of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the CNC (French National Film Centre) Fonds Sud Cinéma and Artcam International (production). He tends to explore historic and social themes: Chameli (2004) retraces the history of India since the end of the Sixties; Khoya Khoya Chand (Lost Moon, 2007) is set in the film industry of the Fifties; and Tera Kya Hoga Johnny (What’s To Become Of You Johnny?, 2008) follows a Mumbai street child. His next film will also be co-produced by France.
(5) In Cinema in India, an NFDC publication (July-Sept. 2004, Vol IV, issue I). Partho Sen Gupta studied filmmaking in France at the Femis film school, after working for ten years in the Bollywood industry. He directed Hava Anay Dey (Let the Wind Blow, 2004), co-produced with French funding, on the destinies of two young boys in modern India.
(6) Interview with the author.
(7) All information concerning Africa was communicated by members of the African Federation of Film Critics (
(8) Title of his article on 7 August 2008 in Aujourd’hui l’Inde,
///Article N° : 10036


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