Selected Analysis

How Indian cinema shaped East Africa’s urban culture

By Rasna Warah /Africa as a Country/ – At a time when “social distancing” is becoming the norm due to the coronavirus pandemic, it may appear self-indulgent to reminisce about a period when going to the cinema was a regular feature of East African Asians’ lives. But perhaps now that the world is changing—and many more people are watching movies at home on Netflix and other channels—it is important to document the things that have been lost in the war against COVID-19 and with the advent of technology. One of these things is the thrill of going to the cinema with the family.

What has also been lost is an urban culture embedded in East Africa’s South Asian community—a culture where movie-going was an integral part of the social fabric of this economically successful minority.

Those who pass the notorious Globe Cinema roundabout, which is often associated with pickpockets and street children, might be surprised to learn that the Globe Cinema (which no longer shows films but is used for other purposes, such as church prayer meetings) was once the place to be seen on a Sunday evening among Nairobi’s Asian community. I remember that cinema well because in the 1970s my family used to go there to watch the latest Indian—or to be more specific, Hindi (India also produces films in regional languages like Telegu, Bengali and Punjabi) blockbuster at 6pm on Sundays. Sunday was movie day in my family, and going to the cinema was a ritual we all looked forward to. The Globe Cinema was considered one of the more “posh” cinemas in Nairobi; not only was it more luxurious than the others, but it also had better acoustics.

As veteran journalist Kul Bhushan writes in a recent edition of Awaaz magazine (which is dedicated entirely to Indian cinema in East Africa from the early 1900s to the 1980s), “Perched on a hillock overlooking the Ngara roundabout, the Globe became the first choice for cinemagoers for new [Indian] releases as it became the venue to ogle and be ogled by the old and the young.”

Indian movies were—and are—the primary source of knowledge about Indian culture among East Africa’s Asian community. The early Indian migrants had little contact with the motherland, as trips back home were not only expensive but the sea voyage from Mombasa to Bombay or Karachi took weeks. (At independence in 1947, the Indian subcontinent became two countries—India and Pakistan—hence the reference to Indians in East Africa as “Asians.”) So they relied on Indian films to learn about the customs and traditions of the country they or their ancestors had left behind.

Exposure to Indian languages and culture through films was one way Indians abroad or in the diaspora retained their identity and got to learn about their traditions and customs. I got to learn about the spring festival of Holi and goddesses such as Durga from watching Indian films. I also learnt Hindi, or rather Hindustani—a mix of Hindi (which is Sanskrit-based) and Urdu (which is also Sanskrit-based but which borrows heavily from Persian and Arabic)—which is the lingua franca of Northern India and Pakistan, and which is the language most commonly used in the so-called Hindi cinema.

On the other hand, the sexist culture portrayed in the majority of Indian films also reinforced sexual discrimination among East African Asians. The idea that women are subservient to men, and that it is the woman who must sacrifice her own needs and desires for the “greater good” of the family/community, were—and still are—dominant in Indian cinema. Love stories portrayed in films—where young lovebirds defy societal expectations and cross class, religion or caste barriers—were not supposed to be emulated; they were considered pure entertainment and not reflective of a society where arranged marriages were and still are the norm. I heard many stories of how if an Asian woman dared to cross racial, religious, or caste barriers she was severely reprimanded or stigmatized.

Watching Indian movies was also one way of keeping up with the latest fashions. Men and women often tried to copy the hairstyles and clothes of their favorite movie stars. When the hugely successful film Bobby was released in 1973, many girls adopted the hairstyle of the lead actress (who was barely 16 when she starred in the film) Dimple Kapadia. (I used to have a blouse at that time that was a replica of the one the actress wore in the film.) When the famous film star Sharmila Tagore dared to wear a revealing swimsuit in the 1967 film An Evening in Paris, she opened the door for many Indian women to go swimming without covering themselves fully.

Since music often defined the success of a film, top playback singers, such as Lata Mangeshkar, Kishore Kumar and Muhammad Rafi, were held in high regard, and people flocked to watch their live concerts in Nairobi. Wealth and opulence were in full display at these events.

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