Defying the Taliban, a (bad) film at a time
JALALABAD, Afghanistan— In real life he’s a pharmacist, a polite young man who dispenses antibiotics and advice in a tiny Jalalabad shop barely 40 miles from where Osama bin Laden disappeared into the mountains.
But when evening falls, when Zhaid Khan shuts the pharmacy’s gates and sends his assistant home, he becomes someone else. Then he’s a lover (albeit a chaste one). He’s a singer (or at least a lip-syncher). He’s a fighter, a hero, a defender of the powerless. Zhaid Khan is a movie star. The quiet pharmacist is the romantic hero of the minuscule Pashto-language vision of Hollywood set amid the towns of eastern Afghanistan. It’s a region where American drones regularly hover overhead, Taliban attacks come all too regularly, and it takes more than a little courage to be an actor.
Khan is famous across Jalalabad, and fans sometimes come to the pharmacy to gawk at him and ask for autographs. Sometimes, though, the Taliban seek him out, too. They leave him notes in the night, warning they’ll burn down his shop and kill him. One day, he fears, they’ll follow through on their threats.
But a handful of Afghan actors are making a cinematic stand. They do it with movies that are sold here only on DVD, will never make it to Western cinemas and can withstand only the gentlest of criticism.
There are shaky camera angles, wildly awful hairpieces and dialogue with the cadence of a news conference.
Each film is a patchwork of themes — romance, thriller, weepy family drama — knitted together by martial arts battles and lots of squirting sheep’s blood bought from local butchers. The bad guys all seem to have scars, limps or both. The good guys often wear white.
The films are often made with little beyond a camcorder, a couple of workshop lights and some pirated editing software.
In a country where most people live in desperate poverty, the movies show fantasies of middle-class Afghan life alongside the action and adventure. There are people with steady jobs, helpful government officials, uncorrupted police.
“We are changing how people think,” said Khan. “Young people see our movies and they know that Afghanistan is not just AK-47s and war. There’s something else here, too.”
Actresses tend to be rarities in Pashto-language films — few families allow their daughters to enter the movie business, so nearly all actresses must come from Pakistan. Sex isn’t even hinted at.
Song-and-dance scenes, which are at the heart of most South Asian movies, steer clear of risque moves, with actors often lip-synching to music lifted from Pakistani movies.
The Taliban hardly exist in these movies. Religious extremism is sometimes hinted at, but most bad guys are generic gangsters or drug smugglers.
To the Taliban, though, the moviemakers are evil.
The Muslim extremists detest all forms of public entertainment, particularly any depiction of the human form, which they say is forbidden by the Quran. When the Taliban ran the country, movies were forbidden, cinemas were closed and videos could only be watched in secret. After they were forced from power, that quickly changed.
“One week after the Taliban were gone, we were filming again,” said Farooq Sabit, a onetime kung fu master who runs a small Kabul photography studio and has directed a halfdozen or so movies. He works in Dari, Afghanistan’s most widely spoken language. The Dari film industry is better off than the Pashto movie world. The Taliban have far less influence in Dari-speaking regions.
If the Pashto speakers have the pharmacist to thrill to, the Dari film world has Saleem Shaheen, who might be the country’s biggest star. He also has the ego of a Hollywood mogul.
“My interviews are very interesting,” he said, sitting down with a visiting reporter. “More people will read your article because of me.”
Through a small acting school, relentless self-promotion and even more self-confidence, he has been a force in Afghan moviemaking for decades.
If nothing else, Shaheen makes a living at it. That makes him a rarity in Afghanistan.
Many, particularly in the Pashto-language industry, don’t get paid at all.
“We call them and say ‘Come on, we’re shoot- ing,’” said Mohammad Shah Majroh, a Jalalabad bureaucrat who oversees film permits. “If it’s lunchtime, we feed them.”
Stars such as Khan are lucky if they make more than a few hundred dollars per film, which are shot for anywhere from $1,000 to $20,000 and sold on DVD in markets for about $1 apiece.
The handful of Afghan movie theaters that survive are reserved for Bollywood song-anddance films from India. They are easy-to-follow spectacles that include what Afghan movies do not: good production quality, heaving cleavage and beautiful women in skimpy saris.
“The Indian women and those clothes,” Majroh said, sneering. Bollywood’s filmmakers, he added, don’t face the dangers of the Afghan movie industry.
Shafiqullah Shaiq knows about those dangers.
The wealthy Jalalabad businessman began making movies a couple of years ago. First the Taliban left him notes, telling him to abandon the film business. Then they attacked his office with grenades and sprayed it with machine-gun fire. Then they attacked it again.
No one has been injured yet, but he now rings his office compound with gunmen.
“I barely leave anymore,” said Shaiq, who wrote, directed and starred in “Black Poison,” an anti-opium movie, and later made a sequel. He acknowledges their quality was far from ideal.
“I know these movies were not really good enough for the rest of the world,” he said. Then he added, with more than a touch of cinematic noblesse oblige: “I made them for the poor Afghan people.”