We are in a small town bazaar in southern Xinjiang. It is full of dust, donkey carts and motor bikes. Uyghur girls pass by in brightly coloured head scarves. On sale are melons, farming implements, rolls of synthetic sequined dress fabrics …
Rolling over all this is the incongruous sound of a disco beat with the lyrics, ’Hello little darling, I love you!’ delivered in a distinctly South Asian accent.
Hindi films are everywhere, shown at roadside stop-overs in the Taklamakan desert, by restaurants serving ‘laghman’ noodles, even ice-cream stalls in the bazaar. TV adverts for locally made soap use cover versions of Bollywood hits. Hindi film songs are big with the drivers of tiny beat-up local taxis who terrorise the peasants on their donkey carts.
Uyghur enthusiasm for Hindi film songs has moved from consumption to production. ‘Hebbeli’ is a popular bootlegging which skillfully juxtaposes Hindi film videos with Uyghur pop songs. We see a suave Amitabh Bachchan, the Bollywood megastar, fronting massed lines of scantily-clad chorus girls, lip-synching to the Uyghur with uncanny accuracy: ‘Khanimlar, ependiler, diqqet … mushundaq yashash kerek!’ (ladies and gentlemen, observe .... this is how to live!)
Even in the heart of the Uyghur countryside you can hear local singers, accompanying themselves on the dutar long-necked lute, singing Uyghur-language cover versions of Bollywood classics. One major influence was the 1951 classic ‘Awāra’ by Raj Kapoor, a love story between the vagabond Raj and rich girl Rita.
This was one of the first films to be shown in the Uyghur region post-Cultural Revolution when its core theme of class-contradictions was deemed acceptable by the authorities. It was shown in villages across Xinjiang, projected onto sheets hung outdoors. But class struggle was not what audience took from this film. Instead it gave them their first taste of melodrama, romantic love and tragedy, and it filled an aching need for such things after the emotional wasteland of Cultural Revolution.
“It was the first film I saw that wasn’t Chinese revolutionary propaganda”, says Aziz from Shahyar. “They showed it in our village, and we boys climbed up onto the courtyard wall to see it. We sang the title song ‘Awāra Hoo’ all the time”.
Raj Kapoor’s films have been called the Eastern alternative to the Hollywood dream machine, and they were hits across China as well as other third-world and socialist countries. Mao Zedong was said to be fond of Awāra, and novelist Vikram Seth has described his astonishment when travelling in China in the 1980s to find that Chinese musicians knew all the hits from this film when he sang them at a karaoke session in Nanjing.
This affection for the Bollywood classics is shared by people across the border in the former Soviet States. Kapoor’s films were also dubbed in Russian and widely distributed around Central Asia, marking a period of warm relations between India and the Soviet Union. As a result, a generation of Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Kazakhs were brought up with Hindi films and songs, especially those of Raj Kapoor, as household names.
A recent BBC report on the filming of a new Bollywood blockbuster recalled this history. Scenes from the epic Indian independence drama ‘The Rising’ were filmed in the Tajik village of Aychi, near the Afghan border, in summer 2006. Bollywood is big business in Tajikistan today and, as in Xinjiang, there is a brisk trade in bootleggings.
Bollywood posters on display in Dushanbe market (from the BBC website)
The BBC report quotes people on the streets: "I love Indian films. They're so romantic," said one woman selling fruit in a Dushanbe bazaar. "The old ones are best, with stars like Raj Kapoor," says a taxi driver.
Uzbeks like to trace the enthusiasm deep into history, and the Moghul conquest of India. "There are many things that our two peoples share from that time. They say the domes of the Taj Mahal had their inspiration in Central Asia. The first Uzbek theatre switched between action and song just like Hindi films do now," says Saudarkh Hojaiwa, a leading film critic in Uzbekistan. "There are lots of other traditions that we have in common, too. We both have the same respect for the older members of our society and for the role of the family. And just like many Indian films, we'd never show a couple kissing".
But such attitudes are hardly confined to Central Asia, and neither is the enthusiasm for Bollywood. What can explain this global popularity? Keila Diehl, writing of the craze for filmi songs amongst Tibetan refugees in Dharamsala, speaks of the "unrestrained appropriation and juxtaposition of Hindi film songs … lush violins, reggae, tabla, melismatic vocal slides into electric bass, disco, jazz flurries … true to no tradition in particular, the songs celebrate all traditions".
The songs seem to have an uncanny ability to be all things to all people, indeed they seem to crystallise desire: they represent freedom for Tibetans, they stand for roots for East European Roma; and for Uyghurs in early 1980s they truly represented the possibility of the return of romance and emotion.