Global Flows: The Hindi Movie in Africa

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The Hindi Movie in Africa

Anjali Gera Roy, Writer of the Year 2011 Writer of the Year JAL, No. 8, 2011

DESPITE the long history of Hindi cinematic flows to Africa, the researcher is forced to depend on anecdotal evidence to testify to the popularity of Hindi films in Africa. Shyam Benegals mention of the influence of Mother India (1957) on the Ethiopian filmmaker brought the Hindi films African constituency to public attention. Shashi Thaoor supports Benegals statement through the example of his Senegalese friends non-literate mother who would take a bus to Dakar to watch every Bollywood film despite not knowing a word of Hindi. But it is Brian Larkins work on the impact of Hindi films on non-South Asian communities such as the Hausa of Nigeria that inaugurates a new direction in the study of Bollywoods African invasion through connecting the movements of Hindi cinema in the past with Bollywoods transnational flows. More recent studies by Haseenah Ebrahim on South Africa confine themselves to Bollywoods circulation in the new global process However, new findings by Gwenda vander Steene in Senegal decouple Hindi cinemas pre-global circulation from diasporic settlement by examining cultural practices centred on Hindi cinematic texts in regions without a South Asian diaspora. This paper draws on these ethnographic studies to locate the global flows of Hindi cinema in these pre-global narratives of mobility to predate the history of globalization in Indian oceanic circulations, colonial migrations and post-colonial exchanges under the rubric of internationalization.

While Hindi films have been an integral part of the Indian diasporic experience, their popularity in many parts of the world without an Indian audience, as Larkin observed more than a decade ago, is an intriguing phenomenon. This undocumented history of Hindi cinemas popularity in both Anglophone and Francophone Africa was performed in a party at an autumn school on  Cultural Production and Conflict Mediation organized by the African Studies Centre at the University of Bayreuth in October 1999 where creative persons from different African regions  had congregated. Being a gathering of professional performers, the evenings invariably offered impromptu performances of poetry, music and dance. On one such evening, a young Nigerian theatre director and a celebrated Cameroonian actor collaborated to put together a song and dance sequence from a popular Hindi film of the late eighties.[2] Dressed in a salwar kameez borrowed from an Indian participant, the seasoned Cameroonian stage actress imitated the inimitable jhatkas[3] and matkas of the former reigning Hindi film queen Madhuri Dixit with consummate ease waving her duppatta as the young Nigerian director intoned the sounds of the chartbusting number aiji oji from the 1989 hit film Ram Lakhan while jumping about like Anil Kapoor. Their familiarity with the Anil Kapoor blockbuster of the late eighties confirms Janaki Nairs report in 2004 that the regular matinee show in theatres in Senegal, Gambia, Cameroon and many other parts of Francophone Africa until recently was the Hindi film, a tradition  that has declined with the gradual disappearance of the old style theatres (Npg).

Also Read ‘The Triadic Identity of Jean Toomer.’

A twice-migrant Indian from Africa to New York recalls having watched Raj Kapoors Mera Naam Joker 13 times in an open air theatre in Tanzania in the seventies.[4] Her memories of viewing Hindi films such as Sangam (1964) and Mera Naam Joker (1970) constructed them as an integral aspect of family outings at which Indianness was staged through dressing up in ethnic outfits, eating Indian food and socializing with Indian friends. They corroborate Devadass thesis about the social centrality of viewing films through similar case-studies from Southeast Asia. But the New York theatre director makes a surprising revelation that connects Hindi films African viewership to South Asian diasporic presence while removing it from the region of official statistics on the export and exhibition of films. She points out that while South Asians watched films seated within a fenced enclosure, Africans would view them from outside without being able to hear the dialogues.[5] However, other memories, such as those of a Canadian academic of Ghanaian origin, reconstruct regular theatrical screenings of Hindi films in Ghana until the 1970s where he confessed to have watched Ramesh Sippys Sholay (1975) after bunking school.[6] The images made by a Vodun image maker in Benin interviewed by Dana Rush appear to have been inspired by calendars of Hindu gods and goddesses available in African owned shops. In the absence of insufficient fieldwork, anecdotal evidence of this nature must be pieced together to reconstruct the pre-global flows of Hindi cinema to Africa. And in the absence of official trade figures or records of state policies on film exports, such anecdotal  details might help to explain how Tharoors Senegalese friends mother got addicted to Hindi films or the Ethiopian filmmaker derived inspiration from Mother India. The Hindi cinematic penetration into remote African regions appears to have been a combined effect of South Asian migration, quotas on film distribution and exhibition as well as an African desire of the Indian.

The global flows of Indian images to Africa must be framed against oceanic flows of images between Africa and India in contact zones of the past forged through travel and trade. Positing the coastline of Benin Republic and Togo as a vortex, incorporating items and ideas from across the sea into its littoral, Dana Rush focuses on one such vortextual phenomenon, that is, the incorporation of India via chromolithographic images (mostly Hindu) into the eternally organic religious system of Vodun (150). While the Vodun imagemaker Joseph Kossivi Ahiator, who incorporates Indian items into his own images, claims to have been inspired by his spiritual journeys to India, Rush provides a rational explanation of the travels of Indian images to Africa through the arrival of chromolithographs to Africa as early as 1891 when the first colour reproductions were executed in Mumbai (Rush 59-60). The Vodun belief about Indian spirits being from the sea that Rush mentions unwittingly returns the movement of images in the present phase of globalization through advanced travel and communication technologies to the circulations of people in the Indian ocean dating back to the 14th century while connecting televisual flows to other visual practices. A return to these movements in a space without borders might prove to be educating in exploring the implication of living beyond borders. Pedro Machado in Threads that Bind traces the multiplicity of long-term and complex networks of association across and around the ocean and maintains that an inter-relationship exists between cultural practices and material exchange.[7] He shows how the historical spaces of South Asia and East, East Central and Southeast Africa were intimately connected through the cultural logics of cloth consumption and the circulation of networks of South Asian merchants. Machados essay is remarkable in his detailed examination of the expanse of Gujarati vaniya networks in the eighteenth century and the determination of Gujarati textile patterns through the preferences of African consumers.

This transnational narrative of exchanges between Africa and India testifies to the contact zones of the past opened by travel, pilgrimage and trade through which cultural cross-fertilization occurred. However, in the absence of research on the history of this cross-fertilization, it is not possible to trace the process through which the idea of India was produced in the African imaginary. Studies in 2008 by Machado and Rush which identify specific cultural practices that emerged out of the oceanic exchange should go a long way in resolving the riddle of the similarity in textile patterns, visual and the musical production of India and Africa. As Rushs work shows, cinematic images are superimposed on earlier images such as those of the chromolithograph in the nineteenth century and those of producers by tales of travelers and slaves. Until more work such as that of Rush and Machado becomes visible, the history of African Indian cultural contact during the Indian oceanic trade must remain incomplete. However, it is possible to revisit the travels of Hindi cinema to Africa beginning in the 1950s through some recent essays.

For over forty years, African audiences have been watching Hindi films (Npg), Brian Larkin asserts, pointing out that generations of Hausa youth had grown up besotted with Bollywood and traced the influence of Bollywood fashions, music and stories on Nigerian cultural production. Larkins ethnographic study of the appropriation of the Hindi cinema in the performance of, what he calls a parallel modernity by Hausa viewers throws light on its little known uses and gratifications. Vander Steenes 2008 fieldwork in Senegal builds on Larkins pioneering work to disengage Bollywoods African viewership from the narrative of South Asian migration. In the same year, Haseenah Ebrahim adds a new dimension to the research on Bollywood audience by tracing the viewership from the ghetto to the mainstream in South Africa. The fieldwork by Fair, Larkin and vander Steene in Zanzibar, Nigeria and Senegal, respectively, testifies to the portability of Hindi cinematic narrative that lends itself to a wide variety of appropriations from providing a grammar for romance, lifestyles, fashions, and a model of values. Whether it is Hindi cinemas didactic function in Zanzibar or the performance of tradition or sacred in Nigeria, it appears quite clear that Hindi cinemas global flows even before the era of globalization have constituted a viable alternative to Hollywood. Yet their fieldwork which takes the Hindi cinema flows to Africa as axiomatic skims over the history of distribution and exhibition until the 1970s through which several generations of viewers were schooled in Hindi cinematic grammar.

Full Scholarly Essay available from ABC Books
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