In May 2005, when Afghan actor Salim Shaheen decided to take leave of his Indian friend, filmmaker Sanjay Srinivas right outside the latter’s departing aircraft, the security at the Kabul international airport let him sail through with a smile. Once in the aircraft, the actor simply informed the cabin crew that the filmmaker was a good friend of his and that they should take care of him. Then he left. In no time the Indian friend was upgraded to business class.
Such is the star power, respect and adulation that Shaheen, actor, producer, director, and writer of over 100 films, commands in Afghanistan today. You could easily dismiss his low-budget, low-on-production-value films whose stories remind you of ’70s and ’80s Bollywood potboilers, but the fact remains that Shaheen is the oldest practitioner of the movies in a country where, for the longest time, films were banned for being un-Islamic.
Last week, Shaheen was in Mumbai to enlist help from Bollywood for the Afghan National Cinema Festival, which will be held in Kabul shortly. He was here to invite our film stars to attend the festival which will showcase films made in Afghanistan in the last decade, after the Taliban regime came to an end in 2001.
Shaheen hopes that the cinemas of the two nations will help foster close ties between the people of Afghanistan and India. “The people in Afghanistan love Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan and Dharmendra. In fact, Bollywood films fight for eyeballs with films made in Pashto and Dari,” he declares bombastically in broken Hindi learned from the movies.
“Oh! Emraan Hashmi ka picture aaya tha abhi Kabul mein!” the 40-plus actor proudly reveals, referring to a pirated version of Jannat 2 which released in a cinema hall there on the same day it released in India. The adulation for movies seems natural when he shares that it was Bollywood filmstar Dharmendra who inspired Shaheen to become an actor 30 years ago. “I became an actor because of Dharmendra. When I was a young boy, I happened to see his film Samadhi (1972) aur main Dharma ji ki aashiq ho gayi (sic) (I became a fan of Dharmendra),” he says.
It was only seven years ago that Shaheen flew down to Mumbai to met his matinee idol Dharmendra. Producer-director Umesh Mehra helped organise the meeting. Shaheen’s father helped producer FC Mehra (Umesh Mehra’s father) exhibit some of his films in Afghanistan in those days. On most visits to India. Shaheen manages to meet Dharmendra. This time, garam Dharam was out of town but Shaheen informs with great pride, “I was taken good care of and treated to a good meal by his manager. Dharamji had called home to check up on me.” And now his Facebook profile pic (Yes, Facebook has invaded Afghanistan too!) has him kissing Dharmendra on the cheek!
Shaheen first faced the camera at the age of nine and, today, is the owner of two film companies in Kabul and even runs a video library. Obviously, this three decade-old journey has not been easy. “Bahut mushkil mein film banaya hai. There were life threats from the Taliban to stop making films. I have been injured several times and my equipment was destroyed. Eight people in my company lost their lives in a rocket strike.” Even during the Russian invasion before the Taliban rule, things weren’t easy for Shaheen. “The Russians were very strict. One could not make a film without proper permits. And they dictated that films be made to their liking and terms.”
He says Afghans are a cinema-loving people, but you will hardly find women frequenting cinema halls. “The only time women throng a cinema hall in hundreds is during a film premiere (accompanied by men) but these women belong to the upper echelons of society. The rest rely on TV or watch it via DVDs.” He informs that, today, approximately 12 films are made in Afghanistan annually, three of which are produced by Shaheen himself. Interestingly, at one point, Afghanistan boasted 25 cinema halls before the Taliban took over. Today, there are merely five cinema halls, all of which exist in Kabul. “The Taliban destroyed them and I don’t know why the government does not reconstruct them. Many have been converted into hotels and shops,” he laments.
Not to be put down for too long, he bellows, “Cinema meri jaan hai! Why should I stop making films? It’s not mentioned in the Koran that cinema is a bad thing. In fact, cinema can serve as an educational tool for the country and could bring them closer to Allah!”