Few people in the West have heard international superstar Akon's new hit. But tens of millions throughout the rest of the world have been dancing to Chammak Challo for weeks. Why? Because the catchy tune is the musical centerpiece of the latest Bollywood sci-fi blockbuster Ra. One, whose (super) hero is no other than Shahrukh Khan, the most popular actor in the (rest of) the world. That Akon, a Senegalese, sings in Hindi will come as a surprise to many, but not to Africans. They have been singing Bollywood tunes in Hindi for 60 years.
Indian cinema arrived in West Africa in the early 1950s and people instantly related to it. Like them, Indians revered the family and the elders, dressed in long tunics, ate with their fingers, and carried loads on their heads. There were turbans and veils, cows in the streets, vibrant colors, large weddings, multi-generational households, songs, dances, tabla drumming, and romantic love — but no explicit sexuality.
More significantly, arranged marriages, caste barriers, and the importance of morality, honor, family name, and religion were all topics central to Bollywood and to African societies. Life under and the struggle against colonialism; the poor, the exploited and the oppressed as central characters; and mythology — issues European and American cinemas completely ignored — strongly resonated on the continent. Bollywood offered a model of cultural resistance and a path between tradition and modernity.
Although they were neither dubbed nor sub-titled, people flocked to Hindi films. After seeing a movie several times — and because of the recurrent themes — they understood enough Hindi to navigate the plots.
Senegal — arguably the most Indianophile West African country — counts more than 40 Indian clubs: men and women, young and old dress, sing, and dance Indian style; and the Miss Hindu competition was held there for several years. The most watched program on RDV TV is India in Senegal; and Allo Bombay follows Bollywood news. In Dakar, an Indian who owns a video store gives dance and Hindi classes several times a week.
In Northern Nigeria, the Islamic resurgence that followed the Iranian revolution in 1979 has re-framed the immense popularity of Bollywood. Islamic schools' girls choirs, as well as a male Sufi group, Society for the Lovers of India, sing Bollywood soundtracks with Hausa lyrics praising the Prophet Muhammad.
Indian films have inspired Hausa musicians, poets, and writers; and since the 1990s a local film industry on video, influenced by Bollywood, is popular among Hausa in Nigeria and Niger, whereas the southern Nigeria Nollywood films have limited success.
But as a few directors are catering to a wealthy Indian Diaspora, some wonder if the Bollywood/Africa love affair is not inching toward divorce. Still there are enough films on corruption, love, women's struggles, terrorism, and religious issues to satisfy an African audience. Some wish that African cinema could emulate Indian films, which maintain their cultural perspective and still appeal to different cultures. While Bollywood indeed remains rooted, it is also greatly influenced by the culture of the African Diaspora. After song and dance routines met funk, disco, Michael Jackson, and hip-hop, they were never the same.
Pirated Bollywood DVDs continue to sell in Africa, but Indian series are now all the rage and have replaced the Brazilian and Mexican telenovelas from Dakar to Madagascar. When Pallavi Kulkarni, the heroine of the immensely popular series Vaidehi, visited Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire last year, throngs of people lined the streets in a welcome that had not been seen in Dakar since the Senegalese soccer team returned from the quarter final of the World Cup in 2002.
Now with Akon and his perfect Hindi, there is one more reason for Africans to love Bollywood, and for India to expand its cultural and economic reach on the continent.
Articles on Bollywood and Africa