Films And Music In My Life, Then And Now ……

Volume 16, Issue 3  | 
Published 03/03/2020

By Valli Jamal

The Drive-In was the place to be on a Sunday evening when Indian movies were shown.  Teenage boys and girls, parents, even grandparents would do the pre-film ritual walk around the City Square in their best linens and silks. The 1% would show off their Mercs and BMs. In consequence the Sunday outing was the only time there was a traffic jam in Kampala in those days. Idi Amin got caught in one of them, driving back to Entebbe with his foreign minister Wanume Kibedi. ‘Where are we?’ quoth the President, ‘In Bombay?’ And the expulsion happened, right? Well, let me not exaggerate, but South Asian wealth was on display on the Sundays accompanied by their notions of exclusion, and let us not forget that those two variables – income inequality and racial arrogance – figured heavily in Amin’s decision to expel us.

The announcement was made on a Saturday. It was at first taken as a joke. The next day people went to the Drive-In as usual. Picnics were laid out and beauties admired off-screen. Khilona was the Film of the Year and the eponymous song the ‘Song of the Year’. I give a full page to it in my book, The Uganda Asians – Then and Now, Here and There, We Contributed, We Contribute. And who was the ‘Actress of the Year 1972’? Mumtaz Begum, Mrs Mayur Madhvani, no less. I have this scenario in my mind that at the launch of the book a mixed Indian-Ugandan band will perform songs of our past and then at the climax launch into Khilona, in Hindi and Luganda. I have this dream that Mumtaz Begum will come to the stage and sing a solo stanza.

The Drive-In continued to function after the expulsion. Dr Mukhtar Ahmad recalls in his story for the book that he and the High Commissioner of Pakistan would go to the Drive-In with the family to watch movies [sic]. They’d see two-three on any evening – i.e. after each roll the operator would (unknowingly) put on a roll from another film. The Drive-In is gone now but the screen still stands, mouldy from rain and fungus-attacks.

Cinemas do not exist either, as people just watch movies at home on large-screen TVs. In those days there were four theatres – Norman, Odeon, Neeta and Delite. Odeon was the people’s favourite. Those of the upper-classes would arrive just before the call-bell rang out and take their dedicated seats in the fourth row. The hall would fill up with perfume on their arrival, the ladies in sarees matching those of the actress on the screen. Yes, our textile importers made sure the ‘Saree of the Week’ was flown over by them for the premiere. Awara is probably the most remembered film. People came from the bhur (villages) for the first show. One newly-married couple coming from Jinja drowned as their car overturned at a culvert bridge and fell into the stream. That landmark was forever remembered as the Awara Bridge by most Asians and the story figures in the book in many accounts. Odeon was special and is fondly remembered for its bar on the second storey. It was run by Ramzan Mamdani (Ramju). He himself was a teetotaller. He recounts several youths who started their drinking habit at his bar. They’d be seated in second-class and those seats would begin to rock after the interval. There was a third-class, almost exclusively patronized by African boys. They knew all the Bollywood songs and would even sing along with the playback on the screen.

Talking of ‘rock’, how could I forget the screening of Rock Around the Clock! I mention this to highlight the fact that the next generation of South Asians born around 1945, were by the mid-1950s very much into western films and music. RAtC was screened at the Norman Cinema. We had a Saturday half-morning session and trooped into the cinema, with Pepsi in hand. We knew teenagers in England and USA were dancing in the aisle straight from the first tune and we did the same. The older generation mostly continued to watch Indian movies.

Affection for Indian films by East African Asians worked both ways: We were important to Indian film moguls. Almost the whole galaxy of Indian stars visited East Africa as did their top playback singers. Jagjit Singh’s career took off after a performance at Machakos. He was brought over to perform in Kampala but just at dawn Amin’s coup took place and the group left hurriedly, past a scary road block at Mabira Forest. Sarv Daman Gautama recounts the story in my book. Sarv Saheb hosted Raj Kumar and the two did a car race to Safari Lodge where Raj was staying. Why such a lot of attention by the Indian film industry (the ugly derivative-expression ‘Bollywood’ did not exist then) to East Africa? It was ‘all about the Benjamins’ - we were per capita the richest collection of people of South Asian origin in the world then. The Gulf came much later.

It has gone now – from Uganda, but also from the www (whole wide world). Bollywood just doesn’t make movies like that anymore. It’s now song&dance and the hero particularly has to know Michael-Jacksonesqe steps. Acting consists of looking into the heroine’s eyes with his own eyes misting over. That signifies eternal love now in Bollywood movies. The hero will quite likely be filming three-four movies on any given day and he doesn’t know which one he is acting out at any given moment. Misty eyes will do for all! Films about poor people are not going to be made anymore as the ruling party wants to depict India as a heaven for the middle-classes, which it is, with the poor people left behind. No more are we going to see actors of the likes of Dilip Kumar, Nargis and Raj Kapoor. No more singers of the likes of Mohamed Rafi, Talat Mahmood, Mukesh and Lata. No more will movies be made about Mughlai culture because that is just frowned upon. Because love has been banished from Indian movies.

So, we of the gone generation forever sing Jo Wada Kiya. We sing Suhani Raat; Tu(n) Kahe Agar; Mere Mehboob – because that is how we fell in love and because there are no love songs written in Bollywood anymore.

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