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South Asian Films in Kenya: A Major Cultural Influence

Volume 16, Issue 3  | 
Published 03/03/2020
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By Kul Bhushan who reviewed them from 1967 to 1980 and interviewed most stars and playback singers who visited Kenya during this period. 

Bollywood movies are an essential and an emotional link of overseas Indians with their motherland. These films influence their thinking, behaviour, fashion and lifestyle. In fact, they are a major influence on popular culture. Kenya is no exception to this as most local South Asians and indeed, quite a few Africans, watch these films and sing their songs. 

I began reviewing films in 1967, first in the East African Standard and then in the Sunday Nation. Since there were no press film previews, all I had were promo booklets with story outline and songs for these films which I collected on Thursdays and handed in my review the next day. These booklets with full colour covers started with the story line and ended with a cliffhanger for the climax. Never knowing how the film ended, I had to be careful in my comments. 

Nairobi Cinema Theatres

Asian women liked to dress up in their best and latest colourful sarees decorated with bling-bling patches for visiting the cinema. Every major new release inspired new fashions in terms of patterns and designs of these sarees which were imported in no time from India. The young ones soon copied the latest hairstyles and mannerisms of the heroines. The men were conservative but the boys went out of their way to woo the girls with their tailor-made copies of the styles of the heroes. 

Shan cinema in Ngara was one of the earliest ‘modern’ theatres in Nairobi. Its unique architecture like a shell on a hillside drew patrons in the fifties and sixties; its afternoon House Full Ladies Show on weekdays was very popular. Liberty at Pangani was always popular with the Eastleigh and Pangani crowd. Two cinemas in the city centre, Odeon and Embassy, were also crowd pullers for new releases and concerts by visiting movie playback singers. The Globe was a late entrant on the Nairobi scene. Perched on a hillock overlooking the Ngara roundabout, the Globe became the first choice for cinemagoers for new releases as it became the venue to ogle and be ogled by old and the young. It had its share of live concerts plus Gujarati plays from India. 

Game Changer Drive-In

Belle Vue Drive-In, on the way to the airport, changed the game for movie viewing. Going to the Belle Vue became a family ritual on weekends as cars started arriving by 4.00pm loaded with the entire family, kids, mom, dad and grand-parents; carrying a packed dinner, mostly bhajias and purees. After getting into the concourse, the families started to walk around to greet friends and relatives and exchange the latest news and gossip as the children played on swings near the huge screen. After the show, it was a mad rush for the exit. It would be well past midnight when the families got home. 

Bollywood’s Golden Decade

1965 to 1980 can be termed as the Golden Era of Bollywood films, as posted on the web. No less than seven of the top ten all-time great Bollywood movies were released in this period: Waqt (1965), Guide (1965) Bobby (1973), Garm Hawa (1973), Sholay (1975), Aandhi (1975) and Golmaal (1979). The hero of Waqt, Raj Kumar, came to Nairobi for its release and was mobbed no end as the women fawned on him. Dev Anand’s Guide released the pent-up frustrations of many local women who wanted to live their own lives with their real love. Bobby became the classic teen romance imagined by all desperate lovers. Inspired by this tale, one couple eloped until nabbed in Mombasa. Garm Hawa resonated with the angst of a Muslim in the newly independent India. 

Greatest Movie Ever Made

Sholay is still one of the greatest movies ever made with its dialogues popular till today, leave alone the acting of the main stars, especially the villain Gabbar Singh as all youngsters who wanted to act tough mouthed his dialogues. A thinly veiled biopic of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Aandhi, though a controversial tale had a delicate song hummed even today. My comment on this movie elicited a polite comment from an Indian diplomat to take it easy. A rib-tickling comedy, Gol Mal, was about a non-existent ‘double’ playing hockey and no wonder it was liked by Kenya players. 

Equally Memorable

Overseas travel was an unaffordable luxury for most; no wonder Evening in Paris was a great substitute for all hankering for night club hopping. Multi-award winner, Aradhana, showed the travails of a secret marriage. Widow re-marriage was the theme of Kati Patang with Asha Parekh. Manoj Kumar’s Purab Aur Paachim highlighted the values of the east versus the west, making Indians swell their chests in pride. Amitabh Bachchan and Rajesh Khanna’s immortal lines in Anand, this classic about battling cancer, were imitated by many fans. Based on the life of rock star Janis Joplin who died of a drug overdose, this Dev Anand movie, Hara Rama Hare Krishna, was a stunner with Zeenat Aman and her gyrations. Rajesh Khanna in Amar Prem has the eternal line, ‘Pushpa, I hate tears’. Its music still rings in my ears. The mega-production Pakeezah’s hit song was Chalte and finally, Muqaddar Ka Sikandar was welcomed about an orphan making good at last.    

Top Bollywood stars visiting Kenya

A galaxy of stars visited Kenya during this period. Some came for the release of their films, others on holiday but one of them, Mumtaz, arrived during her romance with a local tycoon, Mayur Madhvani of the famous industrial group in Uganda. She denied all rumours when I interviewed her in Nairobi but later got married to him in India. 

The legendary Dilip Kumar came twice; once with Lata Mangeshkar to introduce her in a heart-warming speech in chaste Urdu and sophisticated English that entranced a packed hall at Kenyatta Conference Centre. He returned for a holiday with his wife, Saira Banu. 

Two Heroines

Asha Parekh came with dancer Gopi Krishna and made a big splash with their live performances. She went to Nairobi National Park for a photo-op with wild animals and was stunned when a baby cheetah pounced on her. Sharmila Tagore arrived with her husband, the Nawab of Patudi, for a Kenya-India cricket series. Lots of dinner parties and cocktails with a trip to Mombasa thrown in! 

Raj Kumar came for the release of his film Waqt and went on a motoring safari on Mombasa Road. Shashi Kapoor had an argument during the shooting of a scene at the Safari Rally finish and left in a huff soon after. Rajender Kumar had a quiet visit for the release of his film. Two comedians, Johnny Walker and Jalal Agha, came to generate laughs and succeeded. In the early Sixties, Sunil Dutt, Nanda and Sadhna were among the stars who made it to Kenya. Sunil Dutt came to promote his film, Yeh Raste Hain Pyar Ke but returned with Mother Teresa many years later. 

Top Bollywood Playback Singers

Since music is an integral and important part of Bollywood fare, its playback singers are as popular as the top stars. The iconic Lata Mangeshkar led this group when she came to perform at the giant Kenyatta International Conference Centre in Nairobi with a full orchestra. No less than another icon, Dilip Kumar, introduced her in a memorable speech. After I interviewed her at the airport, I was really surprised to get a call from her the next morning. She asked me to suggest a Swahili song for her concert. Without hesitation, I proposed ‘Malaika’ and in less than a day, she had mastered the tune and the lyrics for this song which she sang to a great ovation. 

Another distinguished singer who came was Kishore Kumar, the great crooner who could sing in any genre. For a light touch, he brought along the comedian Johnny Walker. Their shows were a great hit at the Globe cinema. All-time great singer  Mukesh performed at the Embassy cinema and regaled the audience with his eternal hits in his honey and brandy voice. Ghazal king Jagjit Singh first arrived in Kenya with his wife Chitra, in 1969 in a troupe but that performance was not a great success. That is until our well known producer, Chaman Lal Chaman, invited them to sing on radio. Listeners were enthralled and the couple were inundated with invitations to perform in private homes. This success followed them back to Bombay; Kenya had launched a star! 

The film shows go on even today and with ever more diverse audiences……….