Bollywood in the Arab World

Sitting in an al-Qaeda encampment in western Syria, the chief of this fighting unit asked about Hindi films. He was an aficionado and had many films downloaded on his laptop. It was his distraction from the perils of close combat. “Who is your favourite film star?” he asked casually. To fill the uncomfortable silence, he said: “Should I tell you my favourite?” It went on from there, a discussion of this film and that. It was surprising that many of these men — plucked from as far afield as North Africa and from Central Asia — enjoyed sentimental Hindi film songs.

In a quiet moment, away from the others, an Algerian man began to sing a song that was hard to identify. His accent was too strong and he had garbled the Hindi words. It took a while to figure out that he was signing ‘Jaane tu ya jaane na’ from Aa Gale Lag Jaa (1973). Sung by Kishore Kumar and starring Shashi Kapoor and Sharmila Tagore dancing in the snow, this song has a lovely catchy chorus. Few would argue that this movie and this song in particular would define Hindi cinema in the 1970s. In this remote camp of hardened fighters, an Algerian expatriate wanting to talk about a film that he knew only by the first two words of its hit song — Jaane Tu .

The NAM link

The Bangladeshi filmmaker Naeem Mohaiemen and this writer were recently in Algeria to shoot his new film that showcases the 1973 Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) meeting in Algiers. We travelled across the city, meeting a range of people and visiting the sites of that historical NAM meeting. It was at this conference that the Third World countries pledged to push for a New International Economic Order. The charismatic Algerian leader Houari Boumédiène urged the NAM members to be far more confrontational on the world stage against imperialism. Boumédiène backed the freedom fighters of his time, from the Palestinians to the South Africans. These were fighters from a different era, sharing only the gun with the al-Qaeda guerrillas along the western flank of Syria. The line that runs from people like Boumédiène to the al-Qaeda leader in Syria, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, is broken. Mr. Mohaiemen’s film will recover the period when that old order in the Third World began to fray and the current malignancies began to emerge.

Everywhere we went in Algiers, people would ask if we were Indian. Mr. Mohaiemen is used to this misidentification. He would correct people, but then — with a shrug — move on. It was common for people of a variety of ages to break into song — Jaane Tu . Those were the two words. They expect visiting Indians to know the rest of the lyric. The film is popular in Algeria, having been shown on state television from the 1970s to the present. There is, then, another thing that unites the al-Qaeda militants with the old revolutionaries of Algeria. Both have a thing for Bollywood films.

The young Algerian filmmaker Amine Hattou made a short film about three years ago called Nostalgic Laziness . This one-minute film is shot from the perspective of a man lying on a bed with a television set in front of him. You first see a news report of the Arab Spring protests, with the reporter commenting how Algerians — exhausted by their civil war in the 1990s — had no desire for an upheaval. The man changes the channel. Shashi Kapoor appears. He is singing “Aye mere bete sun mera kehna” from Aa Gale Laj Jaa . It is as if the syrupy nostalgia overcomes the political protest. The father tells the son to listen to him, a warning against chaos. Mr. Hattou is now making a full-length documentary called Searching for Janitou .

The line that runs from people like former Algerian leader Boumédièn, who supported freedom fighters, to the al-Qaeda leader in Syria, al-Golani, is broken

Vijay Prashad’s most recent book (with Noam Chomsky) is The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of US Power (New Press, August 2022).