Reel Life: Big B & Rajinikanth in Cannes via Kabul

Shahrbanoo Sadat’s ‘The Orphanage’ shows how Hindi cinema fires the fantasies of destitute young men in a Soviet-run orphanage in Afghanistan during the early 1980s

A still from 'The Orphanage'
A still from 'The Orphanage'

Namrata Joshi

Most Indians who have travelled abroad, will probably have a story or two to narrate about the unforeseen sway of Bollywood, the country’s global soft power, in unexpected places and amidst unlikely people across the world. I remember a West Indian taxi driver in Toronto who turned out to be an ardent admirer of Priyanka Chopra. And it was the shared love for A.R. Rahman’s ‘Chhaiyyan Chhaiyyan…’ that marked the start of a strong friendship for me with a fellow Romanian film critic at the Moscow Film Festival.

My favourite tale, however, is from one sunny Sunday morning in 2019 at the Arcades theatre at Cannes. I had gone in to watch young Afghan filmmaker Shahrbanoo Sadat’s The Orphanage that was playing in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar at the Cannes Film Festival and was taken completely by surprise to find the popular Hindi song ‘Jawani janeman...’ from Amitabh Bachchan’s Namak Halal (1982) featured in the opening credits, in a sequence that was all about a film screening within the film.

Things didn’t just end with these opening moves of Parveen Babi. Sadat’s film, about the life of adolescent boys in an orphanage in Afghanistan at the time when the country was transforming from a republic into an Islamic state with the takeover by the Mujahideens, shows how Hindi cinema, Big B in particular, fired the fantasies of the destitute young men, especially the protagonist Qodratollah.

The impact of the Bollywood stars is portrayed as going beyond the photos and posters stuck on the walls or the haircuts the kids are inspired to replicate.

The Hindi film industry is also shown to be their guiding light. Qodratollah’s emotions are steered by Big B songs to the extent that he even implicates himself in some of the song sequences—like ‘Jaane kaise kab kahan iqrar ho gaya…’ (Shakti) and ‘Zindagi to bewafa hai ek din thukrayegi...’ (Muqaddar Ka Sikandar).

Later, in an elaborate interview, I asked Sadat if, like her characters, Big B and Bollywood formed a significant part of her own childhood as well. “No, I was very far away from Bollywood,” she replied. But admitted that she couldn’t ignore its hold on the rest of the country: “We were talking about Amitabh Bachchan all the time and singing the lyrics when we were driving around—all the Indian songs from the 1970s and 1980s, from Raj Kapoor to Bachchan,” she said.

A recreation of 'Ye dosti...' song from 'Sholay' (Courtesy: Viginie Surdej)
A recreation of 'Ye dosti...' song from 'Sholay' (Courtesy: Viginie Surdej)

Later, when Sadat started to work on the film, the second in the series of films based on the unpublished diaries of Anwar Hashimi, she decided to view them all—from Raj Kapoor to Big B all the way to Shah Rukh Khan movies. “So, I think I ended up watching 400 films,” she said. At times some of those were without subtitles. But she found the plots simple and language easy to understand, a lot of words quite like those in Persian.

The recording of that interaction with Sadat, which curiously never took the form of a print article, reached out to me as I read about the fall of Kabul and Sadat managing to flee from Kabul to Paris, in a long drawn, tension filled operation worthy of a Bollywood film itself.

I listened to the recording yet again with Bollywood continuing to be in the eye of the storm, all its power and glory being reduced to dust, even as it has brought, and continues to bring, joy amidst hopelessness to many unknown lives. Even amidst unimaginable violence, tumult and trauma.

So, in The Orphanage, Bollywood is movingly shown as an escape from penury and privation for the waifs. Sadat spoke about Afghans not being very expressive. “You look at their faces and you cannot really see if they’re happy or sad. You cannot really know what’s going on in their head. And then there is this contrast in their love for Bollywood.

Be it love, anger, revenge or fight; everyone is experiencing emotions in a very extreme high level in those films,” she said. What makes the over-the-top melodrama in our films work for the Afghans for real? At least it did work back in 2019. “They don’t really have any interest in seeing their everyday life [on screen]... But what they would love to see is something that is not real. Something that would reorient reality,” she said.

Besides Big B and SRK, Sadat spoke about the takeover by another Indian superstar. “There is this guy whose name I don’t remember. He is not from Bollywood but from the other big industry out there... He’s punching one guy and then 20 people are flying... He puts a cigarette and then he lights it up with a gun,” she said. Who else but Thalaiva Rajinikanth!

In The Orphanage, Qodratollah is shown black-marketing tickets of Big B’s Shahenshah at the Cinema Shahr theatre in Kabul. I was informed of three surviving cinema theatres in Kabul back in 2019. Spaces that women didn’t go to. It wasn’t as though those women were not allowed but the crowd was too rough and unpleasant to handle.

“It’s like a circus inside. They show a lot of really cheap, low-quality films from Peshawar,” she said, adding, “Bollywood is available in DVDs sold in the black market in Kabul.”

Sadat spoke about Salim Shaheen, a huge fan of Bollywood and of Dharmendra in particular, a self-made filmmaker of successful local B films. A French journalist Sonia Krunland made a documentary on him called Nothingwood. At the other end of the spectrum has been the arthouse auteur of Afghanistan Siddiq Barmak who won the Golden Globe for the best foreign language film for Osama. “I think he’s working on a film with an Indian crew,” she said. Wonder what happened to that film, two years on.

Sadat was catching everyone’s eye that day with the text on her T Shirt: “Peace with Taliban = War on Afghan Women”. She wore it through the day in a deliberate attempt at drawing the global filmmaking community’s attention to the futility of the then on-going peace negotiations with the Taliban. She went on to talk about how she wouldn’t be allowed to step out or make a film, if the Taliban were to take control of the country again. It wasn’t about her alone, she emphasised, but women in general. “If Afghanistan were to become Islamic Emirate, women would go back to the same condition as the Taliban period of 1996 to 2001,” she warned, back to becoming mere birth-giving machines of sorts.

Given the present day war-torn Afghanistan and the siege on Bollywood within, her words from that day about curbs on freedom of expression, due to a conflict situation or undemocratic forces, ring most true: “There are many filmmakers who believe that when you get out of the comfort zone, you have a stronger urge to tell stories and you have more interesting stories to tell than being in a civilisation which is comfortable.”

Perhaps, the continuing crisis on several fronts will shake Bollywood off its complacency and make it reach out and conquer newer worlds. Who wouldn’t want Big B and Thalaiva to travel further? And faster, higher, stronger.

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