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Tuesday, 27 November, 2001, 16:08 GMT
Bollywood eyes Afghan market
An Afghan boy standing next to Hindu film posters
Hindi films did brisk business even during the civil war
By the BBC's Sanjeev Srivastava in Bombay

India's Bollywood film industry is once again eyeing the Afghanistan market where Hindi films did roaring business before being banned by the Taleban.

Afghanistan was among the biggest overseas market for Bollywood films until the early 1990s.

Hindi film stars like Amitabh Bachchan, Dharmendra, Hema Malini and Sridevi had a huge fan following among Afghans.

With a majority of Afghans finding it difficult to understand Hindi, musicals and action films were more popular.

Even during the civil war years Hindi films continued to do brisk business in cinemas of bigger cities like Kabul, Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif.

Market lost

But with the Taleban coming to power, screening of films was banned and a major overseas market was lost to Bollywood.

With cinemas reopening in Kabul, Bollywood moghuls are hopeful about Hindi entertainers coming back in demand.

Boys in Kabul at a Hindi film show
Screening of films was banned by the Taleban

A none-too-successful Bollywood action film, Elaan, was amongst the first films to be screened in Kabul's Bakhtar cinema shortly after Northern Alliance forces assumed control of the Afghan capital.

Bollywood distributor, Chandrakant Mehta, plans to visit Afghanistan in December to explore opportunities and revive his old business contacts.

"I had contacts with several Afghan film distributors who used to buy film rights from us. I have lost all contact with them and the first thing I need to do is to find out whether they are still alive. Then comes the issue of reviewing business ties with them," he said.

Old ties

Bollywood's links with Afghanistan are quite old.

Amongst the first Hindi films to make an impact in Afghanistan was the 1956 release Kabuliwallah or The Man from Kabul which starred Balraj Sahni as a tough Pathan with a kind heart.

Another film to become a big commercial success in Afghanistan was the early 1970s release Zanjeer, or Chain, which incidentally was also the film which created the angry young man or rebel persona in Hindi films.

The film marked the beginning of Amitabh Bachchan's meteoric rise as the biggest superstar of Hindi cinema.

Well known Hindi film actor, Pran, played the role of a big hearted Pathan and Bachchan's best friend in the film.

Afghan 'affair'

Bachchan's love affair with Afghanistan continued until the 1990's when one of his films, Khuda Gawah, was shot extensively in Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Kandahar.

Even though the film was a box office disaster back home in India, it ran to packed houses for 10 weeks in Kabul, according to Manoj Desai, producer of the film.

"It was an amazing experience to shoot in Afghanistan," Mr Desai told the BBC.


We once got a message from Burhannuddin Rabbani who said he was a big fan of Bachchan and the film unit should not fear about their safety from rebels

Manoj Desai, film producer

"There was a civil war raging in the country but because of the then Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi's friendship with Amitabh Bachchan, the Najibullah government took great care of us."

"The film unit used to be escorted by a convoy of five tanks in the front and another five guarding the rear," he said.

Bachchan's popularity

According to Mr Desai, so popular was Amitabh Bachchan amongst all sections of Afghans that the security seemed unnecessary.

"While shooting we once got a message from the then opposition leader and now Afghanistan's President, Burhannuddin Rabbani, who conveyed that he was a big fan of Bachchan and the film unit should not fear about their safety from rebels," Mr Desai said.

Even Feroz Khan, the well-known actor-producer, remembers his days in Afghanistan with great fondness.

He was there in the 1980s to shoot his film, Dharmatma, an action film modelled on The Godfather.

"When I went there to select locations King Zahir Shah was at the helm of affairs. By the time we went there to shoot a coup had taken place."

"But we did not face any problems and everybody treated us with great respect and affection," Mr Khan told the BBC.

Impediments

Dharmatma was shot in Kunduz and also had spectacular shots of the Bamiyan Buddhas which have been bombed out of existence by the Taleban.

However, it might be a while before Bollywood could actually start making money out of the Afghan market and many film distributors would prefer to wait and watch for the moment.

According to Amar Achrani, who distributes Hindi films in overseas markets, there are a number of imponderables about the Afghan market as of now.

Bollywood cameraman
Producers hope Hindi films will soon be back in demand

"We do not even know how many cinemas are in a condition to screen films right now in Afghanistan. Then there is also the question of business and monetary transactions.

"We would like our money in dollars and it may be sometime before even a proper exchange rate is fixed for the Afghan rupee," he said.

But these procedural wrangles are unlikely to keep old and new Bollywood releases from finding their way into cinemas across Afghanistan.

According to Komal Nahta, editor of Film Information, a Bollywood trade magazine, even in the days of the Taleban there were instances of Hindi film prints being smuggled into Afghanistan.

"There will be some in Bollywood who will wait till things become completely normal in Afghanistan."

"But sensing a good business opportunity some others will go in right now. Like in every other business it's these people who will get the early bird incentive," he told the BBC.

See also:

19 Nov 01 | South Asia
Kabul goes film crazy
05 Oct 01 | South Asia
Bollywood suffers from US attacks
08 Feb 01 | Entertainment
India's censors hire film sleuths
15 May 01 | Film
Bollywood comes to Cannes
20 Dec 00 | Entertainment
Wax debut for Bollywood star
05 Dec 00 | South Asia
Game show turn off for Indians
01 Jul 99 | Entertainment
Bollywood star tops the poll
31 Aug 00 | Entertainment
Indian cinemas are Millionaire losers
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