In Jalalabad, a vibrant film scene has emerged since the fall of the Taleban. Movies are recorded on mobile phones. Illegally copied DVDs are sold for low prices. Filmmakers are requesting the government to build a cinema. And even governor Sherzai has produced songs for a Hindi movie. But one element is missing: female actors. A guest blog by Afghanistan Today(*) contributer Naqib Ahmad Atal in Jalalabad.
Although Jalalabad does not have a single cinema, the city has become the heart of the Afghan film industry, producing thirty films within the past year. Filmmakers and actors in this eastern Afghan city are going as far as comparing Jalalabad with Mumbai, the home of Bollywood, India’s centre of filmmaking. They call their city “little Mumbai”. While 30 films might not sound much compared to more than 800 that are produced in Bollywood each year, Jalalabad filmmakers produce their movies with next to nothing and against all odds.
The problem starts with the lack of professionalism within the industry: there is neither a drama school nor a film academy. And in most cases, the director is also the cameraman, the producer, and the scriptwriter. Therefore, the quality of Jalalabad movies is not very high. Nonetheless, the filmmakers are passionate about their work and they have a big crowd of followers. The most popular movies might sell up to 10,000 copies in Afghanistan and Pashto-speaking parts of Pakistan, however Afghan TV channels show little to show them, because Indian and Western movies are still more popular.
Most filmmakers lack equipment – often they will have only one camera, if any. Basharmal Shan, one of the young actors to have made their name in the industry, says that his first movie was recorded on a mobile phone.
‘One of my friends wrote a script and then other friends acted it out: All we had was a great love for movies, but we did not have any equipment.’ But when the film was released on DVD, Shan, who is still a school student, became famous and has since acted in 14 films.
Jalalabad people may be keen on watching home-grown Pashto movies, but they are not willing to allow their daughters and sisters to act in one. There is a severe shortage of female actors in the business. In fact, there is not a single female actor from Jalalabad. So, filmmakers hire Pakistani actresses, film their scenes separately, without the male actors, and then paste them together. Actor Basharmal Shan says he has never acted with a woman and was quite shocked when he later watched one of his films and saw the actress standing right in front of him and him running after her.
A well-known Pashto-speaking actor from Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa region, Asif Khan, stresses that most of the actresses in Pashtun films are from the less conservative area of Punjab and are not Pakistani Pashtuns.
According to insiders, Pakistani actresses earn as much as 30,000 Pakistani Rupees (about 250 Euro) for an Afghan film, which can be quite a burden for the film’s budget.
For filmmakers in Jalalabad, the biggest challenge is economic. Muhammad Asif Bahadori, who considers himself the founder of the Jalalabad movie industry after the fall of the Taleban regime, has made 12 films with his own money, and without the support of a production company. “I did not even recoup the money that I invested,” he says and complains that the film market is firmly in the hands of Pakistani film sellers who, he says, copy movies as many times as they want and sell them in the market for low prices.
He adds that he faced problems selling his films in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, which is an attractive market for Afghan filmmakers, because the majority of residents there are Pashto-speakers, just as in Southern and Eastern Afghanistan. Bahadori claims that Pakistani prodcution companies exerted pressure on the DVD vendors not to sell Afghan movies, which has lead some Afghan actors to prefer Pakistani filmmakers. Frustrated by these setbacks, he left the film business and now works as a programme director in the Jalalabad office of Afghanistan’s national TV.
Many filmmakers complain that, with no cinema in Jalalabad, they have nowhere to show the premieres of their films. “Our poor friends can only show their movies during the two Eid holidays, when a tent is set up in Amir Shir Ali Garden,” says actor, Sayed Karim Zhwandoon. Other premieres take place in hotel lounges, but often the expenses exceed the income from sold tickets.
With no profits in the DVD market and limited interest of Afghan TV channels to show their movies, Jalalabad’s filmmakers pin all their hopes on cinema. “When it comes to making money, you can only make money if you have a cinema theater, where you could show your films”, says Shaiqullah Shaiq, the director of the Filmmakers’ Union in the Eastern Region.
Twenty years ago, the city had two cinemas, one state-run and one private. While the government closed the first one, the second one was destroyed by a car bomb during the civil war. Now many cultural activists are asking the government to reopen the cinema.
Director Asif Bahadori says that cinemas are vital for the movie business to become economically successful as in other countries. The ministry of culture has an Afghan Film Department in the province, where filmmakers have to hand in their scripts and proposed list of actors before getting a license to film. In some cases the department censors certain scenes.
Many filmmakers complain that the office does not do enough to support the film industry in Jalalabad. Well-known actor, Ajaz Malik Zia, says: “The ministry of culture is supposed to produce films with Afghan actors, train them and encourage them. But instead, the national TV broadcasts foreign dramas, just like all the private TV channels.” Malik Zia wants the government to introduce a quota for Afghan content to reduce the amount of foreign productions on Afghan TV.
The director of the Afghan Film department, Muhammad Shah Majroh, rejects the criticism and says that his department has produced five films in Jalalabad and calls it a national achievement. He also says that he has officially asked the Governor of Nangarhar for a piece of land to build a cinema.
Governor Gul Agha Sherzai is a well-known movie fan who has, on several occasions, announced that he himself composed songs for the famous Hindi film, Devdas. However, some filmmakers believe that he might be more hesitant to support the movie scene at home, as there is resistance from conservative circles and mullahs, who claim that the new movies undermine Pashtun culture and values. In particular, women shown dancing and dressed without a veil is very controversial.
A resident of Jalalabad, Fazel Mowllah, says: “How is it possible that a boy dances with a girl who is not part of his family, while Pashtun people in villages do not even allow their daughters to attend mosques and schools, let alone act in a movie? This is done to defame and disgrace Pashtuns in the world.”
Mowllah also complains that many Pastun actors are not able to speak the language properly. “They cannot distinguish between male and female, singular and plural forms. That is another disgrace.”
But the filmmakers respond that Pashtun films are much less opposed to Afghan culture than films from India and the West, which are shown daily on Afghan TV.
(*) Published with permission of the Afghanistan Today project. This article appeared here first on 11 April 2011.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020