Bachchan Superman —
Hindi Cinema in Egypt, 1985-1991

by Claire Cooley

In 1988, superstar Amitabh Bachchan (b. 1942) made an appearance in an Egyptian commercial film Dreams of Hind and Camelia—potentially without his knowledge. One of Pakistani-Egyptian filmmaker Mohammed Khan’s most popular films, Dreams of Hind and Camelia curiously includes several sequences of Prayag Raaj’s 1985 Hindi film Geraftaar (“Arrested”) in which Amitabh Bachchan co-stars. In keeping with his interest in portraying characters enjoying everyday life, Khan directs a scene in Dreams of Hind and Camelia in which best friends Hind and Camelia see Geraftaar in a theater. In fact, the depiction of cinema-going was one of Khan’s trademarks. Yet Dreams of Hind and Camelia proves exceptional in the way it devotes an entire minute to Geraftaar and Amitabh Bachchan in particular.

Dreams of Hind and Camelia is an example of New Realist Egyptian cinema, a movement in the 1980s that sought to expose through cinema the detrimental effects of al-infitāh (Anwar Sadat’s “Open-Door Policy”) on Egyptian society. Through a quasi-documentary style, filmmakers narrated the bleak reality of middle and lower-income families struggling with unemployment, greed, and debt. Khan’s decision to include a clip of Geraftaar and scenes of Bachchan in his film index the star’s popularity in Egypt at the time. Bachchan’s presence in an important film of Egyptian New Realism proves helpful for tracing how a globally circulating Hindi cinema addresses concerns and fills absences within an Egyptian society that is adjusting to changes associated with economic liberalization.

Bachchan’s presence in Dreams of Hind and Camelia is part of a decades-long cinematic exchange between Egypt and India. Bachchan, whose fame has been virtually unmatched in the 90-year history of Bombay cinema, achieved superstar status in India with a series of films from the mid 1970s to 1980s that that combined elements of melodrama, music, action, and romance. These components of Hindi cinema would later resonate deeply with Egyptian viewers; Bachchan skyrocketed into Egypt’s cinema star constellation with films like Geraftaar and Mard (1985) that viewers saw in theaters or watched on videocassette in private and public spaces. Back in India, Bachchan’s films from the late 1980s did not attract audiences like they had at the peak of his stardom, when he was known as the “Angry Young Man.”[1] [open endnotes in new window] But the later films still had enthusiastic fans in Egypt.

In subsequent decades, Bachchan, his films, and their soundtracks continued to reverberate in the Egyptian memory of 1980s cinema. In 2015, Bachchan returned to Egypt to attend the third annual “India by the Nile Festival,” a week-long celebration of Indian culture and cinema. During the festival, Egyptian TV host Mona El Shazly dedicated an episode of her talk show to Amitabh Bachchan. In informal interviews included in the show, fans stopped on the streets of Cairo recounted memories of watching Bachchan’s films in the ‘80s. In one conversation, a man fondly explained how he and his friends used to consume Bachchan films. Speaking in Egyptian Arabic, he said,

"Very few people had a video player. We used to listen to [Bachchan’s films] in the café. Every Thursday we would get together there and stay up late and listen to Amitabh Bachchan’s films.”

This fan’s use of the verb “to listen” rather than “to watch” indicates the favoring of sonic over visual elements in consuming Bachchan’s films. His comments indicate a unique relation between Bachchan’s stardom and sound and video technology in the 1980s. Through video tapes shown in various private and public spaces, viewers listened to Bachchan on weekend nights while socializing with friends and neighbors. Made increasingly available through the dissemination of video tape, the soundtracks of Hindi films filled spaces like cafes with catchy music and voices usually (but not always) translated by subtitles. Sound, in addition to providing a medium that expresses meaning through language, has “direct sensorial effects and affects, as with smells, tastes, and gestures… it is not an object but an event, not a coded representation but a medium, not a thought but a feeling.”[2] Viewer interaction with Bachchan’s and other Hindi films involved a particular affective, sensory, and social experience for them that currently prevailing notions of how cinema and stars are consumed do not adequately encapsulate.

In this article, I investigate Amitabh Bachchan’s fame in Egypt 1980s and 1990s and connect that superstar’s popularity to the parallel socio-economic effects of wider economic policies of the time, in both Egypt and India. Drawing on Russell Meeuf and Raphael Raphael’s argument that stars’ bodies provide sites for mediating class, national identity, race, gender, and sexuality,[3] I ask what Amitabh Bachchan, his voice, and the characters he portrayed embodied for Egyptian viewers/listeners and for Bachchan’s female fans in particular. Taking as a point of departure the fan who remembers “listening” to Bachchan’s films on video in the neighborhood space of the café, I propose a concept of “sonic stardom” to explore how sound provided a key vector in Bachchan’s stardom in Egypt. In both India and Egypt, Bachchan’s deep, posh baritone voice and memorable one-liners sonically enhanced his ‘un-conventional’ looks and proved integral to the megastar’s persona. The songs in Bachchan’s and other films were especially important to Egyptian viewers, because the domestic industry produced no musical films during that period. As his fans watched his films repeatedly and imitated his song and dance sequences, Bachchan, his voice, and signifiers of India permeated Egyptian cinematic imaginaries.

Beyond providing an example of the global flow of popular culture, Bachchan’s sonic stardom in Egypt also points to the dissonances of cultural exchange. Despite his wide popularity, for example, Amitabh Bachchan claims not to have known about his fame in Egypt in the 1980s.[4] I interrogate the claim of ignorance by examining the ways in which his films traveled to and within Egypt, the spaces in which they were screened, and the media technologies with which they were associated. In addition to their exhibition in cheaper theaters, often in poorer neighborhoods, Bachchan’s films circulated on videocassette. Given videocassettes’ contemporaneous association with copyright infringement, I explore how this mobile medium had an ambivalent cultural status; as Michael Newman reminds us, a medium’s cultural status shifts and depends on “ideas about value, authenticity, and legitimacy” at a particular time.[5] Even though Indian musical cinema is widely popular in Egypt among all segments of society, there is a prevailing association between Hindi cinema and “lower” classes.[6] With this in mind, I argue that what seems to be Bachchan’s conjecture and performative ignorance of Hindi cinema in Egypt is related to video’s sometime low-brow status. I contextualize this ‘ignorance’ within the history of Indian-Egyptian cinematic exchange and film criticism.

On a wider scale, this essay aims to contribute to scholarly discussions concerned with re-writing Hollywood’s dominance in film and global media studies.[7] Indian cinema’s importance in Egypt has largely been overlooked by scholars and critics. Walter Armbrust describes this (in)visibility as the “the ubiquitous non-presence” of Indian cinema in Egypt, which he attributes to a power dynamic between national cinema and Hollywood and Europe—in addition to accusations that Hindi cinema is low-class. [8] In film scholarship, there is a tendency to focus on art-house films in studies of “world cinema,” and comparative work that considers Egyptian cinema along an East-West axis has also precluded serious focus on Indian cinema’s integral presence and impact in Egypt.

Indian cinema in Egypt: dissonance of cultural exchange and the videocassette’s ambivalent status

Amitabh Bachchan’s popularity in Egypt is part of Indian cinema’s decades-long affective  presence in Egyptian films and viewers’ imaginations in the complex history of interaction between the two. Indian cinema and related signifiers have had a presence in Egypt and its domestic cinema since the 1930s.[9] And yet Indian cinema’s status in Egypt has largely depended on the Egyptian government’s policies towards the local film industry in terms of support or funding and its protectionist or laissez-faire stance towards imports. It has also changed according to the socio-political context at the time—such as non-alignment under Nasser and Nehru in the 1950s and 1960s. An article in Egyptian star magazine al-Kawakib reflects official feelings towards Indian cinema at the time. The article notes enthusiastically how “the ties that bind Egypt and India are deep-rooted, marked by strong contacts in politics, commerce, and culture,” and asserting the importance of cultural exchange between the two countries through Indian films.[10] An article in The Times of India in 1961, meanwhile, discusses the exciting possibility of a co-production between the Egyptian and Indian film industries.[11]

With Sadat’s presidency and the implementation of his Open-Door Policy in the 1970s, official attitudes in Egypt towards Indian cinema shifted. Sadat’s decision to open the economy set Egypt on a new ideological and political trajectory. In 1971, the Ministry of Culture passed regulations in order to protect the Egyptian film industry. In addition to requiring a certain amount of screen-time for domestic films, a ministerial decree imposed exhibition regulations that restricted and ultimately banned the showing of Indian films. Given their ubiquity and appeal to audiences, Indian films were considered a box-office threat.[12] During Hosni Mubarak’s presidency, the state maintained Sadat-era policies exerting control over cultural production without actually devoting significant resources to promoting the domestic film industry. A 1983 ministerial decree establishing quotas that required the showing of Egyptian films during Muslim holidays was one of the only steps taken to directly Egyptian cinema.

In the 1970s and 1980s, musical films were largely absent from Egyptian theaters, despite the fact that they had historically been the biggest hits at box offices in Egypt.[13] Critics often understand Egyptian cinema in the transition from the Nasser to Sadat presidencies and into the 1970s as being typified by crass commercialism and low quality. This characterization indicates a particular elitism in Egyptian cinema criticism; at the same time, cinema did suffer setbacks in the level of state support and from major changes in the film industry. During these years, many Egyptian feature films in theaters were melodramatic soap-operas or slapstick comedies designed for mass appeal and attracting large audiences.[14]

Alongside this trend in mainstream cinema, Egyptian New Realism emerged in the late 1970s and 1980s in response to the socio-economic changes of the time. Unable to rely on production studios due to small budgets, New Realist filmmakers used Cairo as a backdrop, striving for a “level of realism never before seen in Egyptian cinema.”[15] Even though it offered the predominately middle-class perspective of its filmmakers, New Realism focused on problems of the urban lower-class and centered its critiques on the nouveau riche. [16] Films drew associations between the new wealthy classes and corruption, moral depravity, a lack of traditional sense of community, uncontrolled materialism, and criminal practices.[17] While these films depicted the efforts of the nouveau riches to acquire money and property as signs of materialistic moral decay, they attributed morality to the quasi-religious, ‘traditional’ ideals of community loyalty, generosity, honesty, and the family.[18] Common themes linking films of the Egyptian New Wave include a focus on congested, seemingly inhospitable urban spaces and on telling stories of characters who struggle with moral questions and problems associated with open-market economics.

New Realism also served to foster the notion among elites that Indian musical cinema was escapist and of inferior class status.[19] Thus, in Egyptian Arabic, film hindi as a general category denotes melodrama, and “Hindi” in colloquial speech is used to label things that are strange and silly.[20] The 2016 Egyptian film Gaheem Fil Hind (“Hell-Bent in India”) demonstrates a continued tendency to exoticize India in Egyptian cinematic culture. In telling the story of a group of Egyptian musicians who have been mistakenly tasked by the Egyptian government with saving the Egyptian ambassador to India, the film portrays India as strange and different in a demeaning way with the inclusion of cannibal tribesmen and gorillas in its plot. Yet Hell-Bent in India is also a tribute to Indian musical films, and thereby complicates facile understandings of cultural influence and the popularity of stars such as Amitabh Bachchan in Egypt. The film draws on racist codes in its humor, but it also includes a well-made song dance sequence in which its Egyptian actors sing in Hindi. During the highly anticipated post-Ramadan cinema season in 2016, Hell-Bent in India was the most successful film in Egyptian theaters and smashed box office records.

Indian cinema’s status in Egypt has also depended on in changes in film technology. In addition to exploring the class status and melodramatic valence of Indian cinema in Egypt, I argue that contempt towards Indian cinema in Egypt partly stems from video’s ambivalent cultural status. Michael Newman calls cultural status “socially circulating identities informed by [particular] technological and social factors.”[21] With the emergence of video, Indian films circulated internationally at considerably higher rates.[22] Home video led to a significant shift in Indian film’s international reach and expanded relations between Indian cinema and viewers abroad.[23] The film business in India has long-standing connections with the informal, “black” economy, and these connections grew stronger in the 1970s and 1980s as filmmakers struggled for funding amid high production costs and faced contentious relations with the government (the industry was not given official status until 2001). [24]

With domestic regulations and export restrictions in India standing in the way of Indian cinema’s connecting with enthusiastic viewers abroad, Indian cinema’s relationship with the informal economy became stronger, especially as the videocassette emerged.[25] In articulating the concept of a “shadow economy” to explain the interplay between formal and informal economies of film distribution, Ramon Lobato describes

“informality as a negative state, outside the formal realm… characterized by handshake deals, reciprocity, gift economies, theft, barter and other modes of exchange and redistribution which bypass institutions.”[26]

In this sense, video’s association with piracy and the black market led the medium to take on negative cultural connotations.

The introduction of video cassette technology spurred questions related to the medium’s ability to travel along unofficial and difficult to regulate channels in both Egypt and India. Joseph Flibbert notes that piracy emerged in Egypt in the 1970s with the rise of video technology, as manifest in the concern U.S. producers and distributors reported over the circulation of Hollywood films. Flibbert does not write specifically about Indian films in Egypt. But it is likely that Indian films—not just U.S. films—were traveling to Egypt and being reproduced illegally.[27] Although official film regulation in India did not necessarily encourage export activity in the 1980s, conditions in Egypt were favorable to piracy until a stronger copyright law with increased penalties for violations was adopted in 1992.[28] Yet an almost 20-year hiatus of the official film distribution of Indian films to Egypt theaters likely contributed to the continued pirating of Indian films. The decree restricting Indian films was lifted in 2013 with the screening of Chennai Express in Egyptian theaters.

Video’s cultural status was also likely influenced by the spaces in which they were screened. As Barbara Klinger writes, in comparison to celluloid film projected in a cinema, video is considered “a regrettable triumph of convenience over art that disturbs the communion between viewer and film and interferes with judgments of quality.”[29] Video perhaps seemed of lesser quality in relation to the more ‘authentic’ celluloid and the seemingly purer experience that the theater created for viewers. Moreover, those who could not afford a VHS player often attended informal screenings at coffee shops in what were considered lower-class neighborhoods in Cairo.

While celluloid traveled along “official” routes of distribution, it was usually the lowest tier of cheap theaters in baladi or “low-class” areas that screened Indian films in the 1980s and 1990s.[30] By the 1980s, movie theaters in many neighborhoods of Cairo had “lost favor in the eyes of cultural gatekeepers as youth had taken them over.”[31] This connection between Indian films and cheap theaters with outdated or poorly maintained technology is indicated by Bachchan’s appearance in Dreams of Hind and Camelia. But such an association under-serves both Hindi cinema and Bachchan’s resonance among Egyptian viewers.