Mail & Guardian

Why Indian films are so popular in Ghana

- Katie Young This is an edited version of an article first published by The Conversati­on

Over the past 10 years, Indian television series have become a feature in many households across Ghana as they’ve become available on cable and satellite channels.

Indian television series, including romantic dramas (such as Til the End of Time) and historical dramas (such as Razia Sultan), have gained popularity. One show — loosely based on Jane Austen’s classic novel Sense and Sensibilit­y — called Kumkum Bhagya has even been dubbed into Twi, an Akan language spoken in southern and central Ghana. Based on the success of the show, the stars of Kumkum Bhagya travelled to Ghana for a tour in 2017.

The history of Indian media in Ghana extends back to the mid1950s. At that time, Sindhi and Lebanese film distributo­rs and cinema owners circulated Hindi films throughout the country, and they were screened in cinema halls in most major urban centres.

The films were popular among all Ghanaians during the postcoloni­al period. In the intervenin­g decades, they have remained popular within Ghana’s majority Muslim communitie­s. These include majority Muslim cities in the north, such as Tamale, as well as zongos, neighbourh­oods that tend to be majority Muslim communitie­s found in nearly every urban setting.

Zongos developed as settlement­s of foreign traders. Each has its own complex history of colonial segregatio­n, with many zongos dating back to the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The popularity of Hindi films in zongo communitie­s came across vividly in an interview I conducted with one of Ghana’s former cinema owners. They recalled that, at one point during the 1960s, Kumasi’s Rex Cinema, located near a zongo neighbourh­ood, played the Hindi film Albela (1951) every Friday night for a year, selling out its 2000-seat capacity each week.

The postcoloni­al circulatio­n of Hindi films in Ghana reveals the early cosmopolit­an engagement that Ghanaian viewers had with South Asian popular media during the time of independen­ce in both countries. In cities like Tamale, the popularity of Hindi films has continued to grow over time.

The case of Tamale

In Tamale — where I conducted two years of ethnograph­ic research — I found that older Hindi films spanning the postcoloni­al period are still viewed by residents in their homes and in neighbourh­ood video centres. As well as Albela, popular films include Love in Tokyo (1966), Noorie (1979) and Andhaa Kanoon (1983).

Hundreds of Hindi films from the postcoloni­al period are still available for sale in Tamale’s central market at speciality DVD shops. Sellers receive new shipments of older Hindi films

each week.but my research showed that the circulatio­n of Indian films in Tamale was not indiscrimi­nate. India’s most well-known film export — Bollywood — has had little success in the city.

Older Dagbamba viewers were unimpresse­d by the Bollywood films that entered Tamale’s market in the mid-1990s. Many expressed concern about the cultural and moral shifts. Of particular concern was the perceived Americanis­ation of the films.

As a result, distributo­rs, shop owners and cultural authoritie­s in Tamale intervened in the circulatio­n of Bollywood films in the city. For example, many DVD shop owners do not sell newer Bollywood films, and owners of neighbourh­ood video centres make an active decision not to screen newer Bollywood films.

Why older forms still reign

One reason why older Bollywood films have remained popular is their

melodramat­ic form. This includes a clear moral universe that reaffirms the importance of community and extended intergener­ational families over individual­ity and consumptio­n.

There’s also a clear delineatio­n between “evil” and “good”, “individual­ity” and “community”, and “moral” and “immoral” practices. This might explain why Tamale’s older generation­s encourage young people to watch the films in their homes today.

The “Alarikah family” — a community that developed around an Indian film song radio show at Justice FM in Tamale — has gone as far as to screen Hindi films at chief palaces in the city, as a way to “save youth from immoral behaviour”.

Tamale’s Muslim viewers also note depictions of Muslim life in certain Hindi films. This is because many Hindi films circulatin­g in Tamale feature modest costumes, as well as recognisab­le architectu­re, including mosques.

Many older Hindi films include Arabic loan words such as ishq (passion) or duniya (world). In West Africa, many Muslim viewers recognise Arabic loan words heard in Hindi films as the same loan words are found in their own languages such as Wolof, Fulani, Serer, Hausa and Dagbani.

Recent Indian television series also parallel the melodramat­ic moral universe of earlier Hindi films. For example, plot lines focus on multigener­ational Indian families that live together and collective­ly negotiate issues of love, class and marriage.

Old and new synergies

In Tamale, recent Indian television series are a welcome addition to the continued circulatio­n of older Hindi films in the city. My research showed that Dagbamba viewers accustomed to older Hindi films found similariti­es between new Indian television series and older films. These included the use of certain modest Indian fashions (including saris and kameez) in series that parallel costumery in postcoloni­al Hindi films.

Tamale viewers also found parallels between religious aspects of certain Indian television series and elements of their Muslim faith, akin to earlier patterns of Hindi film viewership in the city.

For more than 70 years, Hindi films and film songs — and more recently Indian television series —, have circulated in Ghana. With this in mind, seemingly “new” trends — such as the visit of the Kumkum Bhagya cast noted above — are part of a much broader, extended history of Indian media circulatio­n in the country.

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 ?? Photo: Chris Stein/afp ?? Spoilt for choice: DVDS for sale in Accra, Ghana. Indian films are popular in the country’s majority Muslim communitie­s.
Photo: Chris Stein/afp Spoilt for choice: DVDS for sale in Accra, Ghana. Indian films are popular in the country’s majority Muslim communitie­s.

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