Bollywood films have a long history in Africa, as part of greater cultural and commodity interactions between the continent and South Asia. In regions like northern Nigeria and Senegal, they were hugely popular with African audiences.
‘Bollywood’ is a modern term for the earlier film industry in colonial and postcolonial India, with commercial Hindi-Urdu films produced in Bombay being the most popular export. Based on colonial links, Indian diasporic networks, regional economic linkages, and audience tastes, their dissemination took varied forms in different parts of Africa.
Indian films originally arrived in East Africa in the 1920s, thanks to diasporic Indian entrepreneurs who opened movie theatres and also screened Hollywood and British films. Even as moviegoing dropped near the close of the twentieth century, Indian and African communities both consumed Bombay films, and they increasingly came to top East African box office shares for decades.
Bollywood films first arrived in South Africa in the 1930s and were eventually restricted to isolated Indian populations in areas such as Durban, which had a substantial South Asian population due to colonial indentured labor flows. Although Bollywood films were mainstreamed in South African society in the 1990s, Hindi and Tamil films served as a cultural touchstone for settled diasporic people who connected with representations from an imagined homeland.
In the 1950s, Lebanese smugglers introduced Bollywood films to West Africa, which lacked strong Indian diasporic networks. In regions like northern Nigeria and Senegal, they were hugely popular with African audiences. West African audiences, like those in East Africa, evaluated foreign films in terms of localized cultural and political values. In a global context of cultural mixing, Nigerians were making films in the 1990s that riffed on popular Indian blockbusters.
In the 1950s, distributors in North Africa began marketing Indian films to Egypt, where they developed a cult following. Although public screenings of films dwindled in the 1990s, forcing Arab fans to rely on alternate circulations, which continued throughout the continent thanks to satellite television and other media technologies into the early twenty-first century, Bollywood stars and paraphernalia gained social prominence.
Given the worldwide distribution of Bombay films since their inception, a tradition of exchange between South Asia and Africa, particularly across the Indian Ocean and imperial worlds, and Africans’ historically active participation in regional and global cultural economies, Bollywood’s long-standing popularity in Africa should come as no surprise.
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