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Iraq film seller laments Bollywood decline

Published Jun 24, 2012 06:37am


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Adil Hamid Khalaf recalls the 1950s, which he believes were a better era for Bollywood cinema. – AFP (File Photo)

BAGHDAD: Adil Hamid Khalaf is like many Iraqi traders, with his tiny store stocked to the brim with VCDs and DVDs. What sets him apart is he can extol, in halting Hindi no less, the glory of 1950s Bollywood classics.

Khalaf's high prices for new movies - he charges as much as $10 (7.85 euros) whereas others offer knock-offs for 40 cents - and passion for Indian films from a bygone era mean sales are fewer than ever.

Unfazed, however, the 65-year-old wistfully recalls what he believes was a better era for Bollywood cinema, and life in Iraq, while excitedly relaying anecdotes from his latest meeting with Indian film legend Amitabh Bachchan, whom Khalaf refers to as a "good friend".

"Lambu! Lambu!" Khalaf exclaims, using the Hindi word for tall to describe the six-foot, two-inch (1.88-metre) actor, with blown-up photographs of their near-annual meetings at Bachchan's Mumbai home plastered across the walls of the three-metre (10-foot) by one-metre shop in Baghdad's Najah cinema complex.

He shows off a Rado watch he says was gifted to him by Bachchan on a recent visit, and quickly pulls out a fading photograph of him standing alongside the actor and his then-young son Abhishek, now 36 and a film star himself.

Khalaf originally met Bachchan in 1978, after convincing an acquaintance who worked in another actor's offices to take him there.

He now visits Bachchan as often as he can and speaks to him in Hindi, which he has learned by watching Bollywood films countless times over the years.

But after recalling his meetings with Bachchan and other age-old Indian movie stars - photos alongside Rajesh Khanna, Dharmendra, Mithun Chakraborty and Amrish Puri also adorn the walls of his shop - he returns to his lament that Indian cinema has suffered by becoming too Westernised.

"Old Indian movies taught you how to behave with others - they taught you manners, they built your character," he says, speaking in Arabic. "They taught the viewer how to be good to their parents, to touch the feet of their mothers and fathers."

"Nowadays, Indian movies are filled with action, drugs, knives, pistols, bullets. They are teaching people to kill, not teaching people to behave well."

His complaints over Indian cinema mirror those he, and many of his customers, have of modern Iraq.

Khalaf's business began as a venture with four friends who, after enjoying Indian films at Baghdad's cinema halls in the 1960s, began selling cassettes of movie songs.

At the time, movie theatres in the capital did good business broadcasting Arab, Indian and Western films, with some cinema halls dedicated solely to showing Bollywood flicks.

Now, no halls dedicated to Indian movies remain and the capital's movie theatres are widely derided by Baghdad's residents as dens showing pornographic movies and places for gay men to meet, a reputation the industry has struggled to shed in a country where pornography and homosexuality are taboo.

Khalaf branched out on his own in 1978, setting up his shop, which he named Wassan after one of his daughters whose picture he has also posted on his shop wall. It features her standing alongside, predictably, Amitabh Bachchan.

Ever since, he has made regular trips to India to buy music and movie cassette tapes, before moving on to video CDs and DVDs.

Khalaf says he cannot count how many films he has in his shop, with movies dating from the 1920s to ones as recent as 2011's "Don 2" starring superstar Shah Rukh Khan.

He now visits India once a year, mostly to Mumbai - he explains in Hindi, "Koi faidha nahin hai, Delhi ko janay kai liye", meaning there is no point in visiting the capital, New Delhi, because all he wants to do is buy movies and see Bachchan.

"We used to sit and listen to Indian film songs through the night," Khalaf, who has lost touch with the friends he set up the first store with, says of life in Baghdad in the 1970s and 1980s. "Not anymore."

"Back then, people knew how to behave in cinema halls - You could take your family there, you could take your daughters there," he says. "Now, you cannot do that anymore."

Khalaf also laments the decline in security in the Iraqi capital which, though much improved from its worst in 2006 and 2007, remains tenuous and violent.

As a result, he can no longer keep his store open until midnight as he used to, and is keen to get home soon after closing the shop at around 4:00 pm.

"There was always good business," he says of his sales before the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq that ousted Saddam Hussein.

Now, he reckons he has around a third of the customers he used to, victim to lower prices from competitors and the fact that many of his clients, mostly older men, have died over the years.

As a result, he spends much of his day idle in his shop, chatting and sipping tea with customers, who sit with him and re-watch old Bollywood films on his 14-inch CRT television.

They eschew newer movies that Khalaf says he rarely watches.

His favourites instead are the 1959 black-and-white movie "Kali Topi Lal Rumal" (Black Cap, Red Handkerchief), and 1957's Oscar-nominated "Mother India", along with song compilations that blare out as he sits behind his desk, smoking.

Many of those who still come to the store share his view of decades passed.

"When I am longing for a film from the 1960s or 1970s, I come here to get it from Abu Wassan (father of Wassan)," says Bassim Mohammed Jassim, a 61-year-old cigarette vendor.

"I watch the film, and I feel comforted," he adds. "When I watch it, I am reminded of the good old days, when the situation was nice, when there were no problems."


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Comments (13) Closed

Shamshad Jun 24, 2012 11:24am
No doubt Indian films of those days up to 1970 were very good. Shamshad
prafulla shrivastva Jun 24, 2012 09:10am
It is heart touching that Amitabh Bachhan is an Indian brand ambassador & so powerful in doing his job which very few people have done. Recently I was in Cairo for an official tour & where so ever I was entering in the office building for meeting I was getting identified as Indian by watchman & lifts man who were surprisingly calling me Indian & later on Amitabh Bachhan. It was such a pleasing surprise to me which I can not forget. Similar feelings I am getting after reading this beautiful article on him rather Indian Film Industries.
nandkishor Jun 24, 2012 10:31am
A very true article which shows that old movies were mirror of those days indian culture, and current movies reflects nowadays culture, not only india but every where in world, there are monetery centric culture, only solution is to wait for a lesson from nature by big disaster to make world a liveble place with dignity...
aaa Jun 24, 2012 09:41pm
I so agree with the decline in quality of movies, in earlier movies there was a sense of right and wrong which is missing nowadays. Though it is missing in many news articles as well it seems the person who makes the movie actually has no idea what the purpose of the movie is. In the end one is sitting there thinking 1)dressing was good, 2)make up was good 3)sets were nice 4)everything is following international trend. But where is the story? What was the message?
Joe Jun 24, 2012 09:41pm
So true. Seeing an 'old' film directed by Santyajit Ray brings deep emotions and respect for one's family. Those films aren't really so 'old' -- they are timeless.
ARD Jun 24, 2012 06:24pm
What an excellent testimony about the downfall of Indian cinema!!! I quit watching Hindi movies long time ago. With the exception of 2 or 3 actors and practically no actresses in the past 15 - 20 years can act convincingly. Golden era of Indian cinema music was over with the last of the greats - Laxmi-Pyare and RD Burman. Song writers like Sahir, Shakil, Hasarat, Anand Bakshi, Pradeep and others have disappeared. Even today, there are great singers, but composers and quality song writers have been squeezed out. Comedy with style is practically non existant. Nudity without reason is the theme. Even the fighting in the movies is not good. I think this is the result of the public demand. Producers cannot be blamed fully, public shares a big responsibility in this downfall.
Sanjeevroy3 Jun 24, 2012 04:45pm
very true, old movies are unbeatable. they are classic and masterpieces. however even now if you look beneath all that dirt , there are still few gems which may not have big stars but are still worth watching. i enjoy watching ptv dramas.
rajeev goyal Jun 24, 2012 07:21pm
there is no doubt about the fact that melody has just vanished from hindi film songs. But so far as quality of hindi films is concerned, cinematography, production values etc. have improved much over the years. storylines depict what is happening now-a-days around us.
kdp Jun 24, 2012 07:21pm
Old or new Bollywood films have no quality except of course Songs and Music
Sudhir Das Jun 24, 2012 03:50pm
Change is the only unchanging thing in this world. Bollywood is no exception. It has to cater to the changing taste of the modern day audience who are born in an era of unprecedented communication technology development. Unlike the 1960s when people's expectation of a film was different and lifestyle was different. Now Bollywood has to reorient itself to satisfy the new generation's taste of things. Khalaf may be right that he does not find the new Bollywood movies interesting. Everybody has his personal view on a work of art so does he. But I don't agree with the view that all present day Bollywood movies are of poor taste and no match to the films of the 60s and 70s.
taranveer singh Jun 24, 2012 07:34am
very beautiful article. showing love of iraqi people for indian movies. old movies and songs were realy great and meaningful when we compare them with moderns songs like das bahane karke le gye dil or mohabt hai mirchi lol
Harish bhai Jun 24, 2012 07:39am
This gentleman's views on the quality decline of Indian films is shared by perhaps millions of peoples from all over the world where ever hindi films are watched.Today's movies are a sad commentary. I hope someday Pakistani movie production will revive and they will produce movies that will resonate cultural values.
Tejash Jun 25, 2012 05:14am
The opinion Mr Halaf is too simplistic. He is comparing apples with oranges. When you say "old Hindi movies", it refers to the best movies of 60 - 70 years (1940 to 2000 tentatively). New movies refer to all the movies of last 2-3 years (maximum 10 years). To have a logical comparison compare all the movies of last one year with all the movies of any other year and see the difference.