Indian Cinema In Mid-1940s Nairobi

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

By Neera Kapur-Dromson

The age of cinema arrived – even in Nairobi – all the way from Bombay (Mumbai), which had not yet gained the famed status of Bollywood. It seemed like love at first sight. First came the silent English films. Then the long, melodramatic Indian motion pictures with at least ten songs. My mother tells me that they were mesmerized, most of all her younger brother Surinder. Apparently, even my maternal grandfather, Lala Lajpat Rai, was seduced. He ordered a projector from India, along with some films for their personal use. Private viewing! This was when they still lived in their duka-house on River Road. Grandfather's herbal medicine store was in front and their very tiny apartment, with even smaller three bedrooms at the back. So the viewing of the films would have to be on the roof.

At first mum (who was about 10 years old then) and her siblings were happy just watching slides of the Taj Mahal or the Lal Kila (Red Fort). Or even a bear dancing to the tunes of his master. A hooded cobra or a naked fakir -- stereotypical images of India. But when grandfather Lajpat screened the first Indian film Raja Harishchandra, the slides were immediately forgotten. This was a path-breaking film of the silent era. Now, they were being treated to the tale of the truth-obsessed king, a film that had been released in Bombay just before the First World War, at a time when they were not even born, when my grandfather Lajpat had not yet met his future wife-to-be, Yashoda, when he had not even arrived in this part of the world. Yet, even now, so many years later, they were mesmerized by this silent film.  It had characters who communicated with each other through dialogue cards. The Indian director Phadke could not find a female actress, having been turned down not only by ‘respectable’ women, even prostitutes would not be seen on screen.  He had to be content with small, slim young boys to play female roles. By the time our family in Kenya had the pleasure of seeing the first Indian talkie, Alam Ara, that had been released in 1931; the film was already history in India. For them, however, the talking-singing-dancing was still a novelty.

All lights were switched off as grandfather Lajpat Rai started the projector. It made a whirring noise. A ray of light bisected the dark space. The white bed sheet pinned on the wall to serve as a screen flickered alive. Their necks were already strained waiting for the show. Many children sat on the floor in half-lotus positions - those from other families had been charged ten cents on the quiet by mum's brothers - for ice cream later on - grandfather Lajpat never got to hear of it! The children clapped enthusiastically as the first images came up. For the next half-hour (before reel change), they watched in silence until the lights came on again. Then they cheered in joy. The vicarious thrills of the fantasy world had engulfed them. And when mum's father ordered Yamla Jaat (the crazy farmer) for screening at the Theatre Royal (the present day Cameo), the real love affair with cinema bloomed. 

Theatre Royal had been built sometime in 1912.  It was one of the first entertainment spots in colonial Nairobi. Here the British elite welcomed new arrivals. During the two World Wars, it was used to raise funds for war efforts and to entertain mostly British and Kaburu South African soldiers. In the 1960s, the owner Teddy Meddicks sold it. Completely renovated and refurbished, it became the Cameo Cinema. From noon, with continuous shows until midnight, very often the same film, it soon gained popularity, especially as you had to pay only once and no-one threw you out if you decided to stay on until the last séance!  It then became a restaurant but that didn't last too long before its hall was used for church services. Now it has another life - that of a casino.

Allauddin Qureshi, a connoiseur of Indian performing arts in Nairobi, tells me that in the era of silent films, during reel change, local Indian musicians would sit on stage in front of the screen with their instruments - to play, sing and entertain the viewers. He could still recall a silent film about the arrival of a train at the station and a girl with her hair that literally shot up. This was at the then Green Cinema on Latema Road. In the 1950s, Green Cinema was demolished, and in its place was built the Embassy.                                                                                                     

In the early 1950s, Allauddin went to watch an English film, King Solomon's Mines at the Playhouse Cinema.   Opposite the present City Market, this cinema was run by Sir Ernest Vasey's New Theatre Ltd. It screened mainly British films. Indians could and did sometimes hire the hall for theatre plays, but Indian films were not screened here. Moreover, there was segregation in seating, with the whites on one side of the aisle and coloureds (Indians and Africans) on the other side. Segregation was of course extended to the toilets.

Mum's brothers sometimes went to the Playhouse to see an English film, but my grandfather would not allow his teenaged daughter (my mother) the freedom of going with the elder brother, especially when he went with his friends. It was almost taboo. As a result the first English feature film that my mother saw was after her marriage - accompanied by my father, of course! This, despite the fact that my maternal grandparents were considered more liberal than many other Indian families of the time who did not allow their female members (wives and mothers included) to go to the cinema at all. Watching a film was in some families considered immoral; it opened your mind to foreign and seditious ideas!

Rattan, a landmark film of 1944, was to influence my mother's sentiments and emotions in many ways.   It awakened her imagination and involved her emotionally. It unnerved her, touched her, deranged her with its very moving story. It opened her door to romance. She began to mimic the film as in real life. Mum said she cried for days, could not sleep many nights disturbed by  the image of the lovers who could not consummate their love, took their lives by putting 'pan' into each other’s mouths. Pan, betel leaf, in the Indian culture, is considered an aphrodisiac, a symbol of love and of pleasure. Mum's younger sister was highly influenced by fashion trends of the day through Indian cinema. When having two hair plaits, for instance, was considered too fashionable and too liberal in our community  after having watched a film where the lead actress donned her hair in this fashion, my aunt too defied the rules.  After leaving home, she would open the tight one plait that her mother had combed and reshaped it into two plaits - just as in the films!

The business of cinema and cinema hall construction flourished in the 1950s in Nairobi. The Odeon Cinema came up on Latema Road, a short distance from the Embassy Cinema. There was the Empire Cinema, where the IPS building now stands (next to the New Stanley Hotel), Film India that became the Casino Cinema, a little further on. Grogan Road (now Kirinyaga Road), River Road, Bazaar Street (now Biashara Street) were the hub of the Asian dominated areas in an apartheid city.   These were also the locations of mostly Indian cinema and cinema-goers of the day. The Embassy especially catered largely to Asian audiences, the films coming mainly from Bombay.

Allaudin Qureshi tells me that sometime after India and Kenya became independent, films from Pakistan began to be shunned by the Kenya Film Censor Board. He thinks this was so because the board had a large number of Hindu members. When Kartar Singh, a Pakistani film was banned in the early 1960s, the Muslim Youth League of Nairobi protested strongly, eventually succeeding to bring in one of their members on the censor board. The film was eventually screened at the Liberty Cinema in the Pangani area, and other Pakistani delegations began arriving soon after together with their films, to be screened mostly at the Liberty and at the Shan Cinemas. However, films from Pakistan never made it big here, as did those from India.

No matter which film was being screened, their Sunday evening seats were reserved. My grandfather Lajpat always made arrangements for booking seats in advance. It was an elaborate affair. Dressed in their best, Amma Yashoda, my grandmother, mum and her sisters looked forward to an evening of the latest films from India. My grandmother would become so hooked that she took to attending even the mid-week afternoon special ladies’ show. The spectators were Hindu women in colourful saris, burqa-clad Somali women, and many Sunni Punjabi Muslim women. Men were strictly prohibited in the séance. The women’s long black veils would come off; they would shout in joy and excitement. They screamed at the moving images. They clapped at the good guys, they yelled their own dialogues at the bad characters, they sang with the singers. They refused to name their children Pran as the actor Pran who more often than not had the role of a villain (and was very good at it), yet he was despised - and when he was beaten up, the applause in the cinema hall was thunderous. They even threw small coins toward the screen to express their happiness, especially during dance scenes. Sometimes, fights broke out. It could happen that in the dark hall a woman had stealthily  opened the bag of her neighbour in the hope of pilfering her money!

Half a decade reeled under the impact of the serendipitous forties. Action-packed stories and idolized stars ruled the minds of the movie-goers. There was the beautiful Anglo-Indian actress Ruby Myers and her handsome Parsi paramour-acting partner D Billimoria. Then, Sohrab Modi’s Sikander, immortalized by the great actor Prithviraj Kapoor. Alexander, the Macedonian king, became their new mythical hero as the movie showed them horse-ridden battles, court scenes, and of course his romance with the beautiful Persian Ruksana. There was Jhansi ki Rani - one of the first Indian films in technicolour - leading her army against British forces in 1857. This film, together with some other Indian films, would be banned by the British colonial authorities during the Mau Mau episode, as they were deemed too revolutionary! 

All the children as well as mum's River Road and Pangani friends were clearly inspired. They cut swords out of cardboard biscuit boxes, silver lining intact, and led their one-man armies against each other. They internalized the bold and dramatic dialogues; their language became more and more colourful, even managing to copy all the onomatopoeic sounds that went with the dialogues - the ooohs, aahs, dishyums! However, once the actress Nadia made her appearance on celluloid, their restless spirits found the perfect channel. With her, the stereotype of a passive, compliant, meek, obedient, quiet and unassuming heroine was quickly buried as she fenced with villains atop moving trains. She swung from chandeliers and whipped the bad guy. The Greek-born, Australia-bred Nadia did wondrous acrobatics without ever resorting to stunts-manship. Caged with a lion, jumping from dizzy heights, her role as Hunterwali earned her the title ‘fearless Nadia’. Fortunately, neither mum nor her brothers didn’t, rather couldn’t, try any of these tactics! Neither possessing Nadia’s energy, nor her guts. Clearly though, the chimera of films was consuming their youth and influencing their cultural growth.   

The Indian epics, the Mahabharat and Ramayana, continued to exert a profound influence on thought and imagination, particularly through the narratives as Sanskrit drama also   combined music, dance and gesture to create a vibrant world. Usha Shah, who had been a teacher for many years 1950s onward, often attended the Wednesday afternoon ladies' shows with co-teachers as mid-week there was no school in those days. She told me that the moral values she had imbibed through the Vedic teaching at the Arya Girls School, were clearly re-emphasized in her being by the films of the time. And these values she has tried to re-impart to her students.                             

Then came the era of K L Saigal. What a poignant voice he had! His nasal singing haunted them. His nomadic persona only added to his attraction, from the dark eroticism of his brooding looks to the vagrant locks of hair. Saigal was bald and always wore a wig. Conventionally, he could not have been called handsome. But whatever his looks, Kundan Lal Saigal was a star. Even before the end of his era, he had become a legend. They all took to looking like Devdas in his career-defining role based on Saratchandra Chattopadhyaya’s desperate character. They identified with the singing superstar with his sonorous sweep. His immortal songs ‘Diya jalao’ and ‘So ja rajkumari remained with them for a lifetime. My uncle Surinder saw Saigal’s films not once or twice, but eight or ten times, and took to articulating the dialogue of the drunk mourning his lost love in a perpetual abyss of despair. And to some extent, Devdas was a film about social protest against arranged marriages.                                                                                                  

For the two hours or so that they could live in this ‘no-man’s land’, it released them from limitations, filled them with a spirit of freedom and adventure. It was a world totally removed from the conventions and norms of societal rules. Here at least they could dream of another kind of life. The suspense, the drama, and the melodrama; the musical and the love triangle; this cellophane wrapped world of commercial cinema enamoured them. Noorjehan, Suraiya, Madhubala - the lives of stars and divas became theirs for a time. These so called masala films started taking on influences from other sources - Parsi theatre, folk theatre, Hollywood - to enhance elements of fantasy.

Liberty Cinema, the first cinema in the Pangani area, opened sometime in 1958.  Right next to the Liberty Cinema was situated the clinic of a very popular Indian doctor. The small waiting room was always crammed with patients. But that never deterred him from taking ample breaks to enjoy a few scenes of the film being screened, before returning back to the waiting and the ailing. In fact, very often his first question to his patients was if they had seen the last Indian successful film -- and whether they had enjoyed it. He would even recite dialogues, criticize the actors and heroines or confirm the wordings of a particular song. And of course, he gave the same antidote to all his patients - little packets with the same white pills, wrapped in newspaper! The doctor is no more, his clinic long gone, but some of his ex-patients still swear by him and the efficiency of this style of treatment!

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