Rasheeda Bhagat

Kabul, May 8

WHETHER it's a muddy, broken road in the historic town of Bamiyan, about 250 km from Kabul, or a bustling street in Kabul, at shops, stores, and particularly hair dressing saloons, big portraits of Shahrukh Khan, Ajay Devgan, Sunny Deol, Aishwarya Rai, Preity Zinta, Madhuri Dixit and scores of others greet you.

Music is back on Kabul's streets and invariably it is a number from a Hindi movie that you hear. While this was not surprising, one was startled to hear a song from a Tamil movie at a little shop in Bamiyan.

Inquiry revealed that it was being broadcast from an Afghan radio station! A week in Afghanistan is sufficient to realise that India and Indians are loved and respected here. Ask them why and they will give you a number of reasons, and Bollywood of course is among the top three.

Whether it is the front office manager at the Intercontinental Hotel or a boy on the streets, they all talk of Shahrukh Khan with ecstasy.

Sixteen-year-old Jaffar, a class XI student, helps his father at his carpet shop in the evenings. He is already a savvy businessman and negotiates the rates smoothly in the absence of his father Haji Abdul, who is handling customers at his other shop.

"I just love Shahrukh Khan. I've seen Veer-Zaara a few times; I also loved him in Devdas. Oh, how I cried watching that movie," says Jaffar, who also loves watching movies starring Aamir Khan and Sunny Deol. His dream is to visit India, and "one day if I make it to India, I'd give anything to work for Shahrukh Khan," says the boy.

But 77-year-old Haji is not too happy with today's Bollywood films. "They have no story, and no culture to show. You don't make any more films like Mother India or Mughal-e-Azam. The films about the farmer that Manoj Kumar used to act in, they were excellent and I loved them. Even your music today is no good compared to what it was 30-40 years ago," he sighs.

Even at the Intercontinental Hotel, Kabul's premier hotel where there is such a rush for rooms that you have to literally plead for accommodation, it is a similar story. Whether it is tough-guy Kassim at the front desk, or suave Ahmed, all of them look dreamy when Bollywood is mentioned.

Most Afghans watch Indian movies on television - Indian channels such as Zee and Sony's Setmax are available here - or on VCDs and DVDs, pirated versions of which are freely available. Even at the Delhi Durbar, an Indian restaurant owned and run by a Tajik, a big portrait of the vivacious Madhuri Dixit welcomes you at the entrance.

While it is easy to talk to men, who go into raptures over their fascination for Bollywood stars, it is difficult to strike a conversation with any woman on the road or in the shops.

Most of them are clad in a blue burqa, and even those who have discarded the veil are always walking briskly and are reluctant to talk. But we did manage to get a glimpse into what the young, educated Afghan women think about Bollywood at Bagh-e-Zanana (Women's Garden) that is being reconstructed in Kabul, after years of neglect and destruction.

Its director Nilab Sadat is a beautiful young woman, who had to flee to Peshawar in Pakistan during the Taliban era to continue her education. She was not the first woman to not only return home, but also take up a job after the Taliban's ouster by the allied forces at the end of 2001.

It is with a question mark in her eyes that she discusses the future of Afghanistan and the status of its women. But her eyes light up at the mention of Indian cinema.

"I simply adore Shahrukh Khan and loved his film Devdas. And your Preity Zinta is so beautiful. My dream is to come to India and meet Shahrukh Khan. And Indian music is great... I love listening to Lata Mangeshkar's songs. If I can ever meet her, I'll think I'm in paradise!"

An Iranian woman working for an NGO in Afghanistan strikes a chord when she says that, unfortunately, the kind of Indian movies seen in Afghanistan are the usual song-and-dance commercial productions.

"But I know you have so many good films with important messages... I think India should make an effort to send movies which have powerful gender themes to Afghanistan, because the women here need to see that women can be educated and emancipated and must have self-confidence. I'm sure they can draw inspiration from such films."

Response can be sent to rasheeda@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated May 9, 2005)
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