Bollywood in Africa -- Is it getting too Western?

China isn't the only former victim of colonialism asserting itself in Africa. India's also on the move.

Published June 13, 2007 10:49PM (EDT)

The popularity of Bollywood movies outside India is usually, at least initially, an outgrowth of homesick Indian expatriate communities. But in West Africa, without any significant help from Indian audiences, Bollywood flicks developed a large African following as early as the 1950s.

I stumbled on this assertion in the middle of a dry treatise on India's "burgeoning relationship" with West Africa. Following the footnote led to "Bollywood Comes to Nigeria," a remarkable article originally published in 1997 by Brian Larkin, now a professor at Barnard University.

Larkin's research focused on the movie choices of Muslim Hausas in Nigeria.

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.....

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 Spielberg 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.

In the context of discussing India's relatively new interest in boosting its African economic profile, the relevance of the shared experience of Africa and India with colonialism should be obvious. Although not quite to the same extent as China, India also forged ties of solidarity with the newly independent countries of Africa in the '60s and '70s and it is trying to capitalize on those bonds now in the new scramble for African resources. According to a briefing paper released in April by the U.K.'s Royal Institute of International Affairs, "India and West Africa: A Burgeoning Relationship," India is sill something of a poor sister to China, but it is working hard to catch up.

But the days when Nehru was avidly "advocating decolonization ... and India's policy was wholly influenced by his missionary zeal to end racial domination and discrimination in the African territories" are long gone. The relatively non-ideological priorities of globalization rule the day now. "Current global equations and recent Indian policies confirm that India's engagement with West Africa has shifted from the old issues of colonialism, non-alignment and South-South cooperation to issues of trade and energy."

This has led to some unseemly incidents that carry echoes of the sins of a previous era of colonization -- notably, a $900 million deal cooked up between the Indian steel giant Mittal and the Transitional Government of Liberia that allowed Mittal "to opt out of national and human rights laws."

Which brings us back to Bollywood, because as long as a decade ago, moviegoers in Nigeria could see this coming.

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."

Indian films are just like American films, and it's hard to tell any significant difference between Chinese oil companies and Indian steel companies and the robber barons of yesteryear. One world, indeed.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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