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August 06, 2008

Ethiopia's young Bollywood fans

America's pop-culture hegemony in Africa is pretty much unchallenged. Shania Twain sings on an endless loop at cafes in Addis Ababa, the ubiquitous matatus of Nairobi are plastered with pictures of 50 Cent and Ja Rule, and when I tell anyone I'm from California it's even money that a Schwarzenegger question follows.

But lately I'm seeing signs that Hollywood has serious competition from Bollywood, the prolific Indian film industry based in Bombay. With its angelic female leads, buff male action stars, elaborate musical numbers and fairytale storylines -- forbidden love, brothers separated at birth, scheming relatives, downtrodden servants with hearts of gold, etc. -- the films have a massive following beyond India. Banning Bollywood flicks was one of the earliest, and most unpopular, policies of the Islamic courts regime in Mogadishu.

Pp002bollywoodkahonaapyaarhaiposterMy Indian heritage notwithstanding, I've never been much for the films -- I can generally find more productive uses for three to four consecutive hours of my life -- but I do like some of the songs. When I was at Lake Chad recently I let a young Chadian guy listen to my iPod. He scrolled right past the American stuff and began singing along -- loudly and perfectly off-key -- to a couple of Bollywood numbers. He then tried to start a debate about the filmography of Amitabh Bachchan -- Bollywood's Clint Eastwood -- for which I was woefully unprepared.

Last weekend I took my brother, who's on a brief visit from the U.S., to northern Ethiopia. We were a big hit in the tourist town of Lalibela, where the young kids, especially boys, kept yelling in our direction, "Namaste, bapuji!" Our guide, Habtamu, explained that they'd picked up the greeting from watching Bollywood flicks at movie houses for a couple of birr apiece (about 25 cents).

And everyone's got a favorite star. One of the kids asked my brother, "Do you know Shah Rukh Khan?" No one mentioned Schwarzenegger.


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Somewhere in Africa was written by McClatchy correspondent Shashank Bengali, who covered sub-Saharan Africa from 2005 to 2009. He's now based in Washington, D.C., as a national correspondent.

Read Shashank's stories at news.mcclatchy.com or send him a story idea.


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