In a faraway tongue, Bombay talkies

For years, as Nigeria reeled under economic crisis, its film industry haemorrhaged. That is when Bollywood entered the scene and kindled Nollywood. Sonia Sarkar reports on the vibrant Nigerian film industry and its India connect

By Sonia Sarkar
  • Published 18.03.18

OUT-OF-AFRICA: (From above) Kenneth Nnebue, who helped make the first video film; actor Stephanie Linus; Hindi films that inspired Nigerians 

When Shashi Kapoor died last year, Nigerian film websites paid moving tributes to him. And why not? Generations of Nigerians had grown up watching his films. In the news website, Daily Trust, the obituary by Gambo Dori read: "Whenever I watch films produced from Kano-Kaduna axis I clearly see the enactment of the motions of Shashi Kapoor and the like. Many productions particularly the soyayya (love story) films are heavily indebted to the golden era of the Indian cinema."

The West African republic, the continent's most populous and prosperous nation, may have a thriving 1,500-films-a-year industry - worth $3.3 billion - today, but it wasn't like this always.

In the early 1920s and 30s, Syrian and Lebanese entrepreneurs built chains of open-air cinema houses across Nigerian cities. People made a beeline to watch Chinese and Hollywood movies even though they were far removed from African society and culture. And then, in the 1960s, Indian cinema entered the Nigerian market.

Lebanese businessmen decided to import Bollywood films. They were cheaper than American ones and made better business sense. Indian hits such as Mother India, Bombay to Goa, The Burning Train, Deewar became wildly popular with Nigerian cine-goers.

"How much we recounted Amitabh Bachchan hanging from trains and fighting the bad guy as a policeman," says Nigerian director and screenwriter Femi Odugbemi.

Nigerians of that generation even coined nicknames for their favourite Bollywood stars in the local Hausa language. Dharmendra was " sarkin karfi" or king of strength, Rishi Kapoor, "mace", meaning woman, and the name for Sanjay Dutt was " dan daba mai lasin" or hooligan with a licence. This trend continued right through the 1980s.

Over time, Nigerians also came to be exposed to indigenous films such as Ossie Davis's Kongi's Harvest (1970), Ola Balogun's A Deusa Negra (1978) and Orun Mooru (1982), but the oil doom and flailing economy across Africa meant local filmmakers couldn't afford to keep up their efforts.

The Nigerian film industry in its present form was born in the 1990s. In 1992, a Lagos-based VHS tape and electronic gadgets' merchant, Kenneth Nnebue, sponsored the shooting of a video film titled Living in Bondage. Shot on a budget of $12,000, it defined the path for the new industry that came to be known as Nollywood.

The video boom, apart from powering a sleeping industry, was also crucial socially. It kept Nigerian youth away from drugs and alcohol.

"The Nigerian film industry is formed around the digital cinema technology. It started out as a straight-to-video process but has now settled into mostly working with advanced digital imaging technologies. Most films are shot with professional digital cinema cameras and very few are on celluloid," says Odugbemi.

But the Bollywood connect persists.

Celebrated Nigerian actor Stephanie Okereke Linus, who has starred in films such as Dry, Boonville Redemption and Through The Glass, tells The Telegraph in an email that during her growing up years, cinema meant nothing but Bollywood. She says, "I have vivid memories of dancing to the songs. Bollywood was one of the biggest influences that spurred my interest in acting."

Incidentally, when Akon sang Chammak Challo to SRK's Ra.One in 2011, it was said that singing a Hindi song came easy to the American singer as he had spent his childhood years in Senegal - another west African country - where Bollywood was venerated.

Films in Nollywood are made in English, Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo, among other Nigerian languages, often borrow plots, styles and music from Bollywood cinema and rework them in local settings. Among them, Hausa-language films from northern Nigeria (the Kano-Kaduna area referred to by Gambo Dori) made in Kannywood - the sub-film industry within Nollywood - are most influenced by Bollywood music. Elements of Bollywood in terms of storytelling and plot were also seen in Yoruba-language movies such as Ola Balogun's Ajani Ogun (1976) and Adeyemi Afolayan's Kadara (1980).

Says Femi Odugbemi whose Gidi Blues (2016), travelled to many international festivals, "The strength and narrative style of Indian cinema inspires many films in Nigeria, especially in the northern cities." He adds, "The biggest inspiration for Nollywood has been the strength of cultural assertion in Bollywood films."

In "Bollywood comes to Nigeria", Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University Brian Larkin, writes, "After Maine Pyar Kiya was released, one friend told me it was his favourite movie: 'I liked the film' he said, 'because it taught me about the world'... The style of the movies and plots deal with the problem of how to modernise while preserving traditional values - not usually a narrative theme in a Jean-Claude Van Damme or Steven Spielberg movie."

What Nigerian actor-director-producer Kunle Afolayan says, builds on Larkin's friend's sentiment. Says Afolayan, "The USP of Nollywood is to create Cinema Verite [truthful cinema]. Films that are true to who we are and reflect our culture around the world."

The new films out of Nollywood are slices of African life and culture. For example, Tunde Kelani's Thunderbolt focuses on the disunity among Africans, sexual politics in Nigerian society and conflict between modernity and African traditions. Daniel Oriahi's Taxi Driver: Oko Ashewo is a dark comedy thriller about Lagos at night. The industry has experimented with themes such as occult, prostitution and child abuse. Social issues such as the kidnapping of Chibok girls by Boko Haram militants and Ebola also featured in films such as The Missing Girls (2015) and 93 Days (2016), respectively. And Chukwuma Osakwe's J.U.D.E. hinted at the racial discrimination Africans face in India.

Osakwe, who learnt acting at the Mohali-based Mad Arts, the late Jaspal Bhatti's film school, says, "In the film, a young Nigerian advertising professional is shown travelling from Lagos to Chandigarh to chase his dream of filmmaking. He faces hurdles but doesn't give up."

Nollywood is now the world's second largest film industry in terms of number of films produced every year after Bollywood, and the third largest in terms of revenues, after Hollywood and Bollywood. If it had at some point drawn inspiration from Bollywood, it is now looking to collaborate with it.

Director Odugbemi talks about the professionalism of Bollywood and the strength of its infrastructure and value-chain globally as the ambitions of Nollywood in the foreseeable future.

US-based journalist Emily Witt is more prescriptive. In an email to The Telegraph, she says, "Nigeria could also benefit from learning how Bollywood has maintained a thriving cinema-going culture while possibly facing some of the same infrastructural challenges, and how to bring cinema not only to middle class audiences but to lower-income populations as well."

An average Nollywood film with a budget of around $50,000 is shot in three to four weeks. There has been a universal complaint about the quality and standards of these films but some have made their mark internationally. Films such as The Wedding Party (2016), Taxi Driver: Oko Ashewo (2015), 30 Days in Atlanta (2014) and Thunderbolt (2000) were showcased in various film festivals including the Toronto International Film festival. Afolayan's October 1 and Robert Peter's 30 Days in Atlanta have found international audience on Netflix too. African digital content start-ups are also giving a financial boost to the industry.

According to Nigerian filmmakers, after oil and agriculture, Nollywood is one of the thriving industries, creating over a million jobs every year.

In 2015, India's acting high commissioner to Nigeria, Kaisar Alam, said the commission would facilitate collaboration between Nollywood and Bollywood. Lagos-based film regulatory consultant Obiora Chukwumba says, "Alam's vision of collaboration reflects some of the desires in Nollywood. Authorities within Nollywood have severally reached out to platforms within Bollywood for sharing knowledge."

Once again in 2015, when the former managing director of the Nigerian Film Corporation, Danjuma Wurim Dadu, visited the 46th International Film Festival of India in Goa, he urged Indian filmmakers to shoot in Nigeria and co-produce films with Nollywood. Not long ago, the Nigerian government provided a grant to the film industry to send about 300 actors and producers to Bollywood for technical training.

Last year, Indian film financers participated at the Creative Industries Summit in Lagos to examine the Nigerian film market. And more recently, Linus participated in the Global Entrepreneurship Summit at Hyderabad, where she discussed a few joint projects with a leading Indian media magnate.

Anthropology professor Larkin points out that the Nigerian audience is not happy with the contemporary "westernised content" of Hindi films. The general sentiment that pervades is that it is against the Indian traditional societal values they were exposed to in the Hindi films of the past. But none of this has come in the way of the evolving partnership. Nollywood sure knows how to leverage Bollywood's strengths.