Context & Culture

A Pathan Moustache Hair’s Worth: Afghans in Bollywood, Bollywood in Afghanistan


Hardy, hungry Afghan highlanders have for centuries looked beyond the Khyber Pass in search of…movies. And, be it clever marketing, be it spontaneous fascination, Bollywood cinema has also been keen on portraying Afghans throughout its different eras. Fabrizio Foschini has been looking at the outcome of this colourful cultural encounter, helped by the fact that Kabul is one of the world’s major bazaars selling old Indian movies (still with many thanks to Harun Popal for helping in the quest).

The assumption on which this blog is based is that Bollywood has been a most important cultural factor in Afghanistan since time immemorial. Generations of Afghans before, during and after the decades of war and international isolation of the country have grown up watching Bollywood movies and listening to their music. Notwithstanding the current diversification of the movie offer provided for by the satellite dish channels, Bollywood, both its old classics and eagerly-awaited new blockbusters, enjoys an unbridgeable advantage over other cinematographic productions, and whatever future trends, we can safely assume that it will always retain a special place in the minds of Afghans.(1)

This is true also because of the all-powerful tool for intra-cultural communication and exchange constituted by the Bollywood-song&video format. This tool finds its noble and historically legitimate origins in the widely-shared musical tradition of Northern India and Afghanistan, and in particular in the poetic-musical form of ghazal (see our previous blogs here and here). This shared, direct fruition is rendered possible also by the exceptional linguistic skills of the Afghan people, which decades of exile in Pakistan or of watching Bollywood movies – sometimes clandestinely – to cheer themselves up a bit while sitting in the desolation of their war-struck homeland have strengthened. The result is that presently almost any Afghan, whatever his or her walk of life, understands at least basically the language of Bollywood movies, in particular the heavily-Persianised Urdu of some ghazal lyrics or the highly formal Hindi of movies with a Moghul or ‘nawabi’ historical setting.

The few cinemas in Afghanistan have not returned to their former ‘family’ use, nor do they seem to screen Bollywood novelties, but rather a second hand choice of B movies from various Indian cinematographies. Bollywood thus remains mainly a private home entertainment, but there is a constant interest among at least part of the Afghan youth in new movies and their soundtracks. Even some media outlets follow attentively the Bollywood scene, with some rare attempts at VIPs gossiping (for example Khaama Press). Reassure your neighbourhood’s mullahs, however – no cultural invasion is meant here. The Afghan public is just reciprocating an interest and a fascination that Indian cinema first has shown towards Afghans since its origins.(2)

There must have been a moment around the middle of the 20th century when the cocky, burly, moustached Pathan walked from the crowded boardwalks of Bombay into the 35mm film that was being impressed into movies in newly independent India.(3) And the Pathan did so bringing with him stereotypes and clichés worthy of a mask from the Commedia dell’Arte (for some of the literary stereotypes about Afghans in India see our previous blog).

One of the first and finest examples of a Pathan on screen (impersonated by actor Pran Sikand) actually entails the presence of another such ‘icon’: the Chaplinesque golden-hearted cheater-tramp character developed by Raj Kapoor. In Chhalia (Cheat, 1960), the encounter between the two highly standardised characters is looked upon by everybody as an inevitable duel. Indeed, when the Pathan, Abdur Rahman Khansaheb, arrives in town (post-Partition Delhi, crowded with refugees from Pakistan) with his embroidered waskat and turban, everybody knows there will be troubles with the tramp, and even though the reason why the two characters should know each other is less than apparent (something to do with dues the now Pakistan-based Pathan crook has to collect from the small-time conman), the whole town waits eagerly for the fight, which does not take long to happen.

However, the Pathan here is something more than a shallow mask of virile pride. Set around and in the aftermath of Partition, the movie sees the Hindu heroine (Nutan) rescued from a group of Muslim rioters in Lahore by the Pathan, Khansaheb. He does so also in the hope that his human action will please God to grant similar help to his sister, who finds herself alone in India in the middle of the riots there. However, he ultimately becomes a prisoner of his own self-imposed moral intransigence when, hopeless of finding his sister alive after years of quest, he contemplates the abduction of an Indian woman as both compensation and revenge, and he targets the one he sees in the company of his rival, Raj Kapoor, unaware that she is the same lady whom he has protected for years in Lahore. When he rescued her from the rioters, he had offered her a protective veil – ‘Sister, cover yourself. I am a Pathan, I will never look at your face.’ Indeed, he cannot recognise her now but from her voice. When realisation of what he was about to do dawns on him, that almost destroys him (in his delirium he quotes a few famous lines from a short story on Partition by Sadat Hassan Manto). Insanity is only averted on the Pakistan-bound train when he is reunited with his lost sister, who had likewise been sheltered from the violence of the Partition by a Sikh family on the Indian side.

In Zanjeer (Chain, 1973), it is again Pran who rocks onto the stage dressed as a Pathan. He may be slightly older, but he looks even more daring&dashing (of course, the new look Technicolor only enhances his hennaed red hair and the golden embroidery of the waskat!). He is also, obviously, a crook – in the Pathan way. Running a gambling den, he immediately states his position in this world: ‘Sher Khan does dishonest deeds, but in honesty!’ (see clip here) Also immediately he is picked up as enemy number 1 by the protagonist-cop Amitabh Bacchan and, after a memorable fight with the latter which ends in a draw and in reciprocal respect, he decides to shut down his business in order to enjoy the friendship of the upright policeman.

When his now best friend is unjustly framed by a mafia boss, it is Sher Khan who goes to the moneylender to get some cash to pay the court fine for him. Having reformed and abandoned crime, he is now a penniless auto-mechanic. But, says he to the moneylender, ‘There is something I can give as a guarantee, if you value it at its right value – Sher Khan ki munch ka baal (a hair of Sher Khan’s moustache). This reminder of his honourableness is readily accepted and the hairy offer is kindly – who wouldn’t trust a Pathan’s word? – turned down. He can get the 5,000 rupees loan without interest. Pran-Sher Khan has some more great lines throughout this movie. When, for example, he is made an offer in exchange for killing the cop by the don’s henchmen, unaware of his friendship with him, he remarks: ‘A police inspector whose life is worth 50,000 rupees sounds like he must be a very honest one’. Moreover, Afghans gain the homage of featuring in a unique item number, a male-only ballet glorifying friendship (Yari hai Iman mera, Yar meri zindegi  – ‘friendship is my faith, the friend is my life’) – I don’t recall any other ‘guest people’ receiving such an honour in female-dance oriented Bollywood!

Zanjeer was a great success that definitely enhanced the career of super-star, Amitabh Bachchan, and it has remained a major classic of Bollywood – to the extent that a remake is currently being shot, expected to come out in 2013. It also immortalised the image of the Pathan as somebody living on the edges of ‘respectable’ society, but capable of selfless affection for friends. But there were other on-screen opportunities for Afghans to come, although the changing political scenario would make itself felt. War in Afghanistan, and the growing international traffic in narcotics and weapons feeding into the Mumbai underworld – where Pathans were fairly represented – was taking its toll on perceptions and scripts (in Teezab, Acid, 1988, the Pathans even become the bad guys).

So in that masterpiece of Bollywood ‘80s gangster movies, Hero (1983), a whole ensemble of Afghan musicians appear in the villains’ lair – although the head-singer, claiming to be a refugee from Afghanistan, is a police officer in disguise. It is remarkable how the presence of the rubab (together with that of daira and handkerchiefs) among the musical instruments is often used to evoke the idea of Afghanistan and Afghans. And this not only by Bollywood: even in the highly acclaimed Indian TV serial on the life of 19th century poet, Mirza Asadullah Ghalib, – an opera filled with some of Jagjit and Chitra Singh’s finest ghazals – there is just such an impromptu cameo for a Pathan, apparently with the only purpose of inserting a rubab in the scene.

Muhabbat ka Dushman (The Enemy of Love, 1988) belongs to the cloak and dagger current, and relies less on plot than on an extraordinary cast (among others the veteran Pathan impersonator, Pran, plays an old fencing-master in the service of Rahmat Khan – an elderly but solid Raj Kumar). Set in a hilly, rugged and coniferous landscape which is definitely meant to resemble the North-western frontier of pre-Partition India, and featuring a 99 percent Muslim character list who sport fancy turbans and waskats, it could already be considered a Pathan movie. But it is again the rubab which works as an unmistakable code to spot the Afghans: Rahmat plays it dreamily after having met his love interest, and the instrument is later his gift to her when their love story faces one of its many obstacles (the birthday party song where this happens is indeed a triumph of rubabs, and the bearded fellows who don’t have one enjoy instead a round dance throwing dairas in the air!).

A more realistic and historically contextualised portray of Pathans’ life in 19th century India comes from the so-called “parallel cinema” of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Junoon (Folly, 1978), based on Ruskin Bond’s novel “A Flight of Pigeons”, portrays the Indian rebellion of 1857 through the experiences of a Pathan household in Rohilkhand (the portion of the Gangetic plain northeast of Delhi where Rohilla Afghans had settled as landholders and petty rulers from the early 18th century). The central Pathan character is again torn between his ‘crazy obsession’ (that’s the title) for a young Anglo-Indian girl whom he has brought to his house in the aftermath of the slaughter of the English residents, and his promise to her mother not to force a marriage upon her before the destiny of the besieged Delhi – and of British India for that – is decided. Shashi Kapoor is not always as comfortable with a turban as he would be in the uniform of a honest cop patrolling Chowpatty Beach, but he manages well embodying the moral laceration of the altogether peace-loving Jawed Khan – and the movie is further enriched by superb Shabana Azmi playing his jealous wife. Indeed, all the nuanced network of family relationships shown in the movie is a great treat and offer a very interesting perspective on the pivotal role that women played in extended households – except in time of crisis like, say, a call to jihad.

Quite understandably, the Anglo-Afghan wars did not appeal as settings for Bollywood movies, and except for a brief prologue in Mangal Pandey: The Rising (2005), the topic has never been touched on. Military episodes from the Frontier history become of interest to Bollywood only starting from the epoch of the Independence struggle, where the several tribal or religious leaders who agitated the Frontier tribes against the British authorities did so often in cooperation with the freedom fighters from India. In Palay Khan (1986), Jackie Shroff portrays a definitely romanticised version of the real Pashtun rebel leader Palay Khan Khosti, who in the 1930s carried out an armed struggle in the area of Zhob, Baluchistan (back then Fort Sandeman). The exotic costumes and setting are far from accurate, but they certainly satisfy the sofa wanderlust of the public (enjoy a song from the movie here); the levels of violence and torn love are at their most high, and the nasty Englishmen move around in clumsy tanks and resemble Nazis, or better, the Mexican counter-revolutionaries of Sergio Leone’s Duck, you Sucker! – whom the director may had seen and liked.(4)

Time to move into movies set in modern Afghanistan, and actually also shot here. Dharmatma (1975) was the first ever. Strongly wanted (produced, directed and interpreted) by Feroz Khan, one of the proudest Afghans of the Bollywood stardom system (his father hailed from Ghazni and his brother, Sanjay Khan, is another noted actor/director), the movie is, from the very title, a Bollywood adaptation of The Godfather – only enriched by beautiful scenes filmed in Afghanistan. The Afghan setting here takes the place of Sicily in The Godfather, where young Michael/Al Pacino takes shelter from his enemies in AmericaOnly in the Bollywood version, Feroz Khan’s hero is much less ambiguous than Al Pacino’s character, and he mainly exiles himself in Afghanistan to avoid mixing with his father’s illicit activities. For the rest, the two movies go quite the same, including the protagonist’s falling in love with a beautiful maiden from a local gypsy tribe (Hema Malini), marrying her, and burying her (better, cremating her), after she’s killed in a car-bomb by the mafioso enemies of his family. Also, in contrast to the original Hollywood movie, there is a happy and upright ending with the police fixing everything. Afghanistan however takes the upper hand. Feroz Khan looks closer to Ahmad Zaher than to Al Pacino, and the Afghan portion of the movie eats up the rest, barely leaving space for anything else. Afghan scenes feature a realistic ram-fight, some staples like the buzkashi match and the handkerchief dance (no need to mention a sprinkling of rubabs here and there), but especially a gorgeous song location at Band-e Amir.

The cast is interesting in that, notwithstanding the fair representation of ‘Indian Afghans’ (apart from the protagonist Feroz Khan, also Imtiaz Khan, brother of the more widely known Bollywood star, Amjad Khan – the undisputed king of villains through the 70s and 80s), it is Indians who play the Afghans. Danny Dengzongpa, a Sikkimese actor, comes in handy with his features which allow him to pass himself off as a Hazara or a Uzbek, and, in fact, he would go on to play a prominent role in the other great Bollywood classic mainly set and shot in Afghanistan: Khuda Gawah (God Witness, 1992).

This movie, which features Amitabh Bachchan in the leading role of a proud Pathan, and which remains a favourite for many Afghans who watched it as kids, manages to overcome the exoticism of its location (although this is duly exploited with one of the most crazy buzkashi sequences in the history of cinema) and to get back in touch with some themes relevant to the country and its inhabitants, stereotyped or not. The cycle of revenge, honour, imprisonment and distance in the movie reminds one somewhat of that forefather of all Afghans through Indian eyes – Tagore’s Kabuliwallah.

It is, otherwise, an escapist movie, given the time and place of its shooting, as no clear reference to the war in Afghanistan is made. Although filmed with the cooperation of Najibullah’s government (it was shot in various locations in northern Afghanistan and near Kabul in 1991), from the movie, it manifests a deep visual fascination for the proud, indomitable and coolly dressed Afghans living free in their mountain nests – that is, it just reflects the then world’s fascination with the ‘grunge looks’ of the mujahedin.

The latest in the string of Bollywood movies shot and set in Afghanistan, is Kabul Express (2006). The movie opens with a self-aware tribute to the strength of the diplomatic relations between Afghanistan and Bollywood, when linguistic barriers between the Indian journalists and Afghan militiamen are overcome by enumerating a list of famous Bollywood actors. The movie keeps only a few of the old stereotypes alive (well, buzkashi, of course), and even features many real Afghans acting. This leaves the place for a fairly realistic representation of natural, human and political landscapes, only marred by a completely unneeded and clumsily discriminatory gaffe with respect to the Hazaras.

But that’s recent history…and, by the way, the director, Kabir Khan, can hardly be excused for this lack of tactfulness, as he himself claims Afghan origins.

(1) Indian TV serials, on the other hand, are far below the mostly high standard of cinema products. After the boom of TV serials in post-2001 Afghanistan they enjoyed an advantage for a while, and only few years ago, the dramas of Tulsi pioneered a new path for tele-novelas in Afghanistan, but they have considerably lost ground since to competition from other countries. Recently, for example, the better and more varied storylines ofFatima Gul (Tolo) and Harem-e Sultan (Channel 1) have done a lot to increase the amount of soft power wielded by Turkey in Afghanistan.

(2) Bollywood has been literally packed with ‘Afghan’ actors. It would suffice to mention the early stars – Madhubala (alias Mumtaz Jahan Begum – the scion of a branch of the Mohammadzai royal family exiled to India in the 19th century) and Dilip Kumar (Muhammad Yusuf Khan, born in Peshawar), without whom Bollywood could hardly be conceivable. More recently, all of the “three Khans” who dominated Bollywood cinema throughout the ‘90ies and up to now – Shahrukh, Salman and Amir Khan – claim Afghan ancestry, and have even done some genealogical research to ascertain this. A fourth Khan, who recently became as prominent as the others, Saif Ali Khan, is the last in the line of the nawabs of Pataudi, a princely seat established by a Barech Pashtun adventurer in early 19th century. Veteran actor and director, Kader Khan, is an Afghan tout court, having been born in Kabul in 1935.

(3) ‘Afghans’ clearly identified as such settled permanently in the heart of Northern India plains at least from the mid-13th century. The term ‘Pathan’ came later to be employed along with Afghan, following numerous waves of migrations (particularly during 1450-1550, and again during the first decades of the 18th century) which brought Afghans to almost every corner of India. The primary historical reference of the term, Pathan, was of course to members of Pashtun tribes (it is a corruption of the Eastern Pashto plural ‘Pakhtana’), but it was applied to some other groups who were not included in the Pashtun tribal genealogies but who shared geographical origin and a close political cooperation with them, like the Persian-speaking Farmuli and Baraki of Ghazni and Logar, and the Ormuri of Waziristan. During Mughal times Herati, Badakhshi and Hazara identities had been perceived – and characterised – distinctly in India, but this got blurred after the foundation of the Afghan state in 1747. The term Pathan came later to indicate a class of people (often suggested as one of the four ashraf, nobles, among Indian Muslims’ social groupings) only a part of whom had a real Afghan origin. For this blog only Indian actors/directors whose descents have a realistically close or important Afghan connection have been considered.

(4) There also exists a Pakistani TV serial (13 episodes!) about Palay Khan’s exploits. AAN would be very interested in acquiring it for the purpose of further research…

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