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Breaking Taboos for Bollywood

A handful of women, defying convention and the authorities, que up to watch the latest Bollywood hits.
By Wahidullah Amani

Afghan women are trickling back to the cinema after an enforced 10-year absence, despite continuing opposition to their presence from the authorities and male-dominated society at large.

The development comes as Kabul’s cinemas are booming with crowds of young men - starved of entertainment during the five-year Taleban rule, during which cinemas were closed and much of the film stock was burnt - flocking to see the latest Bollywood hits and the occasional Afghan offering.

At present, there are only a handful of women brave enough to venture out to see a film, and there appears to be only one cinema in Kabul where they can go, but always accompanied by husbands or other relatives.

But it is still something of a breakthrough after a decade in which women were first barred from going to the cinema by Islamic mujahedin when they took power in 1992, following the overthrow of the Soviet-backed Najibullah regime, and then all films were banned when the student militia took power three years later.

Despite the collapse of the Taleban just over a year ago, the great majority of women still do not feel able to go to the cinema, as they did freely during Najibullah’s rule. “If conditions were right, I would love to go to the cinema with my friends,” Mahbooba, 17, told IWPR.

Akbar Khan Aryobwal, who claims his Aryob cinema in Kabul is the only one where women are coming, and who has provided a separate seating area for them, said, “Women are turning up at our cinema, but in small numbers. We have three shows a day, watched by six or seven women in total. And they are always accompanied by family members. Up to now no woman has come alone.

“The security authorities ordered us not to allow women to come to our cinema. We replied that according to the 1964 constitution (which is to be the basis of a new one currently being drafted), there is no ban on women seeing films. And there has been no official announcement from the government that women should not visit cinemas.”

A board in the lobby of the cinema announced, “Every woman can come to the cinema to watch movies.”

Meanwhile, Kabul’s young men are crowding into cinemas nightly to clap and cheer as popular Indian actors and actresses go through their familiar routines. Toryalai, one of a group of youths waiting outside Kabul’s Park Cinema, said, “I’ll be seeing this film for the third time. I love Indian movies because they have good stories and plenty of dancing and fighting.”

A number of youths indicated that another big attraction was the sight of voluptuous, often scantily-clad Indian beauties, in stark contrast to the sheltered women of Afghanistan - many of whom still wear the full burqa veil in public.

Asad, 17, who was also waiting outside the Park, said, “I am an Afghan, so I feel it is duty for me to watch Afghan films, and I know their stories well. But there are only a limited number of them, which is why I am watching foreign films.”

Most Afghans can follow the simple plots in the Indian musicals and melodramas, while many have seen so many Indian films that they have acquired a good understanding of the language, one young man told IWPR.

Feraidoon, the deputy manager of the Park Cinema, admitted that the number of Afghan films was limited, and those available were old and worn. “People like Indian films, so the Department of Afghan Film has ordered all cinemas to show Afghan films twice a week, Iranian films twice a week and Indian films three times a week.”

With their national pride dented, a number of Afghan film-makers - some driven abroad and others into hiding during the Taleban rule - are working hard to produce some locally-made offerings to compete with the Indian imports, many through private film companies.

Leading Afghan film-maker Salim Shaheen, head of the private Qais Films, has returned from a five-year exile in Pakistan to complete two films he was working on when the student militia took over in 1995, Kala Shakh (Stubborn) and Yaaghi (Rebel).

“After they took over they came to our office and saw a picture of me on the wall with a gun in my hand, accused me of being a soldier and ordered me to hand it over. I told them I was an actor and the picture was a scene from a film, but they didn’t believe me and beat me badly.

“Finally I took them to a house, told them to wait outside while I fetched the gun, and escaped through a back door, finally ending up in Pakistan.”

While in Pakistan, Shaheen continued to make films, including Dozakh (Hell), Jaada –e-Marg (Avenue of Death), Shekast Ishq (Love’s Failure) and Qachaqbaran Marg (Smugglers of Death).

A different fate was in store for Mohammad Qasem Karimi, head of recording in government-run Afghan Film, who was ordered to look after the office after the Taleban fired all but 20 of the 140 staff and burned around 2,500 films, around two-thirds of the national archive.

Karimi and eight other workers managed to save another 2,500 after being tipped of about an imminent raid by the Taleban-appointed head of state radio, television and film, Mullah Ishaq Nezami. The reels were hidden behind a false wooden wall painted the same colour as the rest of the room.

“We saved the films because the national film archive is just as important as the national museum,” he said.

Wahidullah Amani is a freelance journalist in Kabul.

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