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Kenya, Africa, and the Indian film industry

Last year, the Indian High Commission in Kenya organised a retrospective of Shah Rukh Khan’s “critically acclaimed” and commercially successful films. A spokesperson for the High Commission said, “Shahrukh Khan Retrospective is expected to further promote friendship between the peoples of India and Kenya”.

I wonder who turned up for the screenings and how the locals respond to Indian films. Kenya does not have a formal distribution and exhibition sector. Instead, “video houses” (small spaces where films are shown on home video equipment) provide the Kenyan poor their entertainment. Apparently, Indian films jostle with films from Nigeria (called Nollywood) and Hollywood. According to Fred Mbogo, a lecturer at Moi University, Eldoret, Kenya:

Bollywood movies are not always popular but they manage to attract a considerable number of faithful patrons. Their major selling point is usually their employment of elaborate music and dance as they explore their storylines. Their costumes and settings are always tastefully combined.

With a growing consumerist aesthetic in Hindi films, the mise-en-scene serves is often used as backdrops that are products in themselves. The audiences as consumers/travellers can now experience themselves. In that sense the Hindi film mise-en-scene is a shopping window that tantalises audiences with lands to be visited, costumes and accessories to be worn. Then Hindi films can be likened to Walmarts, shopping around for the next best deal to offer its customers, and countries like Kenya — which provide the exotic backdrop (at a cheap cost) — well serve that purpose.

The films are structured and sold in ways that do not allow for any understanding of “other” cultures. This should not come as a surprise as Hindi films tend to veer towards a homogenized portrayal of India’s diversity of identities, customs and practices, whether social, sexual, or religious. There is little understanding by way of differences. Whatever remains is reduced to otherness and silly caricaturing (for example enunchs, homosexuality, transvestites) without acknowledging the fact that these groups are a part of a deep and rich tapestry of Indian history.

In this context, Africa and Africans have been poorly represented in Indian cinema (despite the fact that the Censor Board in the 50s and 60s was sensitive to their representation in Hollywood films and would ban any film that portrayed the continent and its inhabitants in a poor light). We have the occasional black character as villian, or as part of a gang of villians, as background dancers to pop ditties, but never as individuals with their own voice with something to say.

It would be too much to expect the spokesperson to think along these lines.

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