Bollywood Films in Kenya

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

By Mohinder Dhillon


In 1945, two years before I emigrated to Kenya I watched a silent film in India. The projectionist screened the film on a hand-wound projector. This would not be possible with a film with sound which must run 25 FPS (frames per-second) to avoid any distortion of the sound. This means that there are 25 pictures being projected in one second with a break between the pictures. There is a momentary gap when the frame has to change to the next one. It happens so fast that you get a continuous motion hence the name ‘motion’ films. 

The screen was a white sheet nailed to the wall. We sat on small rickety benches with no back support - very uncomfortable even for a youth! At the time I did not know about the king of silent movies, Charlie Chaplin, but I met him later in person in Kenya. I was then the picture editor of an African Wildlife magazine and I have a cover with Charlie Chaplain reading it. 

It was in East Africa in the 50s that I watched a film with sound for the first time.  Unlike Hollywood, the Hindustani films are post synched as they have full control inside a sound proof studio, shutting out unwanted sounds like a plane in the sky, traffic noise and heavy winds. To film technicians this is not acceptable. The actors have to be inside the recording studio to lip-synch which is an art. Also one misses the ambience sound on location, doors banging in the background, etc. and it felt wrong.  

We were intrigued by the posters and photographs announcing the forthcoming films. Posters and pictures in the foyers of cinema halls would be competing with each other, often bearing comments made by hand with a marker. Outside one cinema hall was a poster about movie Aag (fire) and the other had a movie running Barsaat (rain). Handwritten on one poster was: ‘First came Aag putting the place on Fire, now we have brought Barsaat to extinguish the fire!’ 

Amongst the big names of female stars were Nargis, Hema Malini, Zeenat Aman, and Beena Roy. Madhubala known as the ‘Dream Girl’ adorned the cover of Life Magazine. Suraiya Begum with a long nose was a natural singer and recorded her own songs in the film - she was considered as the queen of acting and the first melody queen. 

We as boys were not allowed to go to the movies and had to be back by a certain hour every evening. Boys will be boys and we would skip part of school to buy tickets first, then watch a movie. Our mothers protected us. If we were late coming home my younger sister would smell my clothes and start singing loudly – ‘caught a cheat red-handed’ - so that my father would hear her. My mother would try to cover up for me. This was out of jealousy because girls were not allowed to go to movies at all so this was a sort of revenge by my sister. The compromise was that I would narrate the story to her and my mother and they listened attentively asking questions.  Parents in those days never went to the cinema, this despite the fact that female stars were always decently dressed. Much later, my father and mother would not even watch films at home on TV in case an embarrassing scene like two actors embracing tightly came on. 

In 1961, I graduated from taking still pictures for my new company Africapix Media to shoot 16mm films for TV, followed by 35mm newsreels for cinema for the British government which supplied free newsreels to cinemas in all Commonwealth countries including Kenya. They had the hidden agenda of promoting their products like farm machinery, etc. Hollywood feature producers occasionally hired me as a second or third unit cameraman. I always got a thrill  watching my films on the big screen. 

One day a medical doctor from England, Dr Malik, rang me saying he wanted to shoot educational wildlife films for Indian cinemas and he had persuaded the Indian government to waive the entertainment tax. He said he had bought short-end 35mm Eastman colour films from a short-end stock-shop in Wardour Street, London. Both Hollywood and later Bollywood shot on 1,000 feet rolls which they then sent to Labs for overnight processing. Quite often they would not use up the entire 1,000 feet and the balance e.g. 200 feet, would be canned by a camera assistant and sold cheaply to a short ends shop. There would be nothing wrong with the films. 

I was lucky as I had some fantastic wildlife shots and this side show was 30 minutes long. Luck plays a big part in getting unusual shots. This success upgraded me to DOP, Director of photography cinematographer. Every film I made would not only be shot efficiently but would meet the production budgets. Every game park in Kenya has camping sites and I used my own tents. I hired a professional hunter friend of mine, Mohamed Akbar, who was unemployed due to the hunting ban. He jumped at the idea and it helped to get him out of an oncoming depression.  

One sunny day I had a phone call from Bollywood producer Sher Jang Singh Punche that he wanted to shoot a film, a carbon copy of a Hollywood film,   Hatari (danger), which had a star cast of well-known actors like John Wayne, Elsa Martinelli, Hardy Kruger, Red Buttons and others. This film was a very big hit in India, in fact in the whole of the Far East, Middle East, Africa and other countries. It put Tanzania on the world map. 

Actually, Hatari was planned to be shot in Kenya but the chief game warden refused to issue a license on the grounds that it will be cruel to the animals. So to Tanzania we went. This was a bonanza for Arusha where grocers, butchers, vegetable and fruit sellers; service providers such as dry cleaners, barbers and transporters benefitted for almost a year. The film sets were later donated for development services like hospitals, bungalows used by the stars became houses for doctors and other professionals.  

The budget of Hatari was generous and Howard Hawks is one of the top producers who would not compromise on anything. In comparison Habari (news) had a shoe string budget.  The onus was on me to produce a very good film on that shoe string budget. With my contacts I got them free accommodation in all the expensive lodges, use of a helicopter where the production company paid for fuel only. We did not have to do expensive recces as I knew all the animals. In 1973 there were no endangered species. I knew where to film certain species like Gerenuk, Gravy Zebras and Reticulated Giraffes which were found in Samburu District in Northern Kenya. 

Back to drawing board and I sat with the Director (Punche) and worked out a new plan and script,  Punche wanted to play safe and did not want to risk any injury to the hero, Mahendra Sandhu, and the actress, Preeti Sapru. The story line was that of a Game Warden fighting to keep the poachers at bay.  The poachers killed Parkash Gill who was demarking Game Parks allotting more land to Wildlife Sanctuaries, making it difficult for the poachers. Mafia Godfather Sapru sent his key man Narendra Nath with a bag full of money but Parkash refused. He was tied behind the poachers’ Land Rover and driven through the rough terrain of the Game Park and brought to his house where they killed both Parkash and his wife, Salma Shamsudin. 

I got involved for I loved being in the wild; no money was involved. I shared offices with Bholi Mangat who ran Greyline Safaris which supplied all the transport at a special price. Apparently in India they will announce a film with its star-cast, and investors will invest heavily if the stars include big names like Shahrukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai, Dharmendra or Hema Malini. The hero Mahendra Sandhu was as handsome as Dharmindra and Preeti Sapru was a new face, good looking with blue eyes. Her mafia type god father, the Poacher, was played by her real father well known actor DK Sapru of  Pakeeza fame. Child star Raju was a simple, good-looking boy who could plead for animals and could cry without having to put tear drops in his eye. And Mohammed Rafi and Kishore Kumar rendered tuneful songs. The cinematographer captured very good footage of wildlife at its best, I had got him to shoot the wildlife earlier and this was then cut into the film. 

Although I had no business arrangement or contract, being an outdoor man I wanted to contribute with all good intentions. But very early in the shooting I had to walk away from the film having objected once politely. Indians have this penchant for changing costumes after every two lines of a song. I was told that the changes are made to fit certain lines in the song, the weather and atmosphere of the landscape.  I thought it resulted in a lack of continuity. It made me mad; here was a golden opportunity to make this film a box office hit. Instead it was a flop. I felt let down as I wanted to portray Kenya as a Mecca of unique wildlife in abundance in its very natural surroundings. 

Sadly another opportunity too was missed by compromising when there was no reason whatsoever to compromise. The lion had eaten just before he was darted by Kenya National Parks veterinarian, Dr Ngethe. I found Punche in a panic: ‘Let us shoot the scene in a hurry, the lion is breathing heavy and going to die.’ Dr Ngethe explained: ‘He is not going to die. I have checked his heart rate and respiratory system and he is all clear of any danger. Heavy breathing after a large meal is quite normal.’ This assurance by the vet did not have any effect on the director. The child star Raju was all charged up to plead with the poachers not to take away his lion. I requested Punche to let Raju hang from the side bars of the helicopter, only a few feet from the ground and the poacher could hit his hand to let him drop from the chopper. Then cut to the next scene where Raju is pleading looking towards the rising helicopter with the poachers laughing, Raju pleading, get a close up of Raju’s tearful face to drive home a powerful message. Punche’s refusal was the last straw for me, I continued consulting and did not care if they took my advice.

In my lifetime I have noticed the change in Bollywood’s modus operandi. The   films of the 1940s were simple, shot in studios, using painted landscapes, mostly painted trees, doors and windows. Now no romantic scene is complete without beautiful scenes, hero and heroine rolling in the snow embracing each other, scenic valleys at Simla Hills which guarantee plenty of snow hanging from tree branches.  Then came family drama, mothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, bad behaviour, tragedies often overdone. Some women used to say that if the film did not make you cry, it was no good. But of late, Bollywood films like Jodha Akbar and others are of international standard and are in great demand.

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