Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Afghanistan's Little Bollywood

Jalalabad turns out movies by the dozen, despite having no cinemas.
By Hijratullah Ekhtyar

At first sight, the green tents standing in a row in the southeastern Afghan city of Jalalabad look like they might be temporary shelter for a group of refugees, but they serve a very different purpose. In a city known as “Little Mumbai” as the nearest thing Afghanistan has to Bollywood, the tents are the local cinema. 

For around a US dollar a time, Jalalabad residents can come in and watch a locally-made film in their own language, Pashto.

The tent cinemas are only open for business on public holidays. Gaps in the cloth are patched up to prevent daylight getting in.

Zerawar, 23, has seen three films back to back, although his enjoyment was somewhat reduced by the noise from outside the tent, as young men revved their motorbikes nearby.

“I wish there was a cinema hall in Nangarhar province,” Zerawar said. “Our officials are busy looting, and they don’t attend to things like this.”

Back in the 1980s, Jalalabad had two cinemas, but both are long gone.

The head of the film industry workers’ union in eastern Afghanistan, Najibollah Sadeq, said government inaction meant that plans to build cinemas had never materialised, and shops had appeared on the proposed sites.

Sadeq said his association used to rent halls in Nangarhar’s larger hotels to screen films, but the owners had stopped allowing this because of growing security concerns.

As a result, he said, “We have to set up these tents and present our films to the public.”

Mohammad Zarif, who both produced and acted in one of the films now showing, “Upper and Lower Pashtuns United”, said showing it in a tent was a last resort.

“Filmmakers and actors have made great losses here. They have lost interest in it and many have given up the profession,” he said.

After the Taleban government was ousted in 2001, Afghanistan experienced a boom in all kinds of media. When it came to films, nowhere was more productive than Jalalabad, where over 100 movies have been made in the last decade.

Production values may be basic and some of the acting amateurish, but the volume and popularity of the output won Jalalabad the nickname “Little Mumbai”.

It has been an uphill struggle. For a start, none of the female parts are played by locals, because conservative Afghan customs and values make that impossible.

To get round the problem, filmmakers cross into neighbouring Pakistan and hire female actors there, splicing the footage into the sections shot in Nangarhar.

A male actor called Shaan recalled being in scenes of a film in which no women were involved. “When I watched the finished film, I saw an actress running along, and myself chasing after her,” he said.

Such issues reflect the sensitivities of making films in Afghanistan, where TV stations are often under attack for showing Bollywood movies deemed too racy for local tastes.

For viewers like Zerawar, the Nangarhar-made films in Pashto strike the right tone.

“Foreign movies are harmful to our culture and faith, but Afghan films give us messages of patriotism and humanity,” he said.

But as Sadeq pointed out, filmmakers and male actors are constantly at risk from those with more radical views.

“Every evening when I go home, I check around my house four times. I live in fear,” he said. “People believe that if someone works in cinema, he’s an infidel. And we can’t go outside the city to shoot movies.”

He said many Islamic clerics were happy with the content of locally-made films, but if the Taleban tracked down the filmmakers, “they will behead us with a knife”.

Mohammad Asef Bahadori sees himself as a founding member of the Pashto film industry here, but says it has proved impossible to turn a profit.

“I made 12 films in Nangarhar at my own cost. I spent a lot of money, but made huge losses, because the films didn’t bring in enough income to cover costs. I’ve given up making films now,” he said. “Since there’s no cinema for people to come to and pay admission, the films are released on CD even before the final cut. They go on sale in the shops, and that doesn’t pay even five per cent of their cost.”

Mohammad Shah, the representative of the state agency Afghan Film in the provincial government’s culture and information department, said he had raised the matter with more senior officials, to no avail.

“We have nothing in our hands, and there’s nothing we can do about it. The government has not been supportive of the Afghan Film Agency. When we talk to officials about this, they nod their heads but do nothing,” he said.

Sadeq remains optimistic despite all the obstacles. He cites two success stories – a film called “Handprint” won first prize in a national film festival, while a 22-part drama serial called “White Poison” has been taken up by the national television network.

“We cut down on the cost of food for our own children to pay for these films,” he said. “There are no profits to be made in Afghan cinema, but we are driven to make films by our own enthusiasm and by the popular interest in them.”

Hijratullah Ekhtyar is an IWPR-trained reporter in Nangarhar, Afghanistan. 

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