by Prashant Rao
BAGHDAD (AFP) – Adil Hamid Khalaf is like many Iraqi traders, with his tiny store stocked to the brim with VCDs and DVDs. What sets him apart is he can extol, in halting Hindi no less, the glory of 1950s Bollywood classics.
Khalaf’s high prices for new movies — he charges as much as $10 (7.85 euros) whereas others offer knock-offs for 40 cents — and passion for Indian films from a bygone era mean sales are fewer than ever.
Unfazed, however, the 65-year-old wistfully recalls what he believes was a better era for Bollywood cinema, and life in Iraq, while excitedly relaying anecdotes from his latest meeting with Indian film legend Amitabh Bachchan, whom Khalaf refers to as a “good friend”.
“Lambu! Lambu!” Khalaf exclaims, using the Hindi word for tall to describe the six-foot, two-inch (1.88-metre) actor, with blown-up photographs of their near-annual meetings at Bachchan’s Mumbai home plastered across the walls of the three-metre (10-foot) by one-metre shop in Baghdad’s Najah cinema complex.
He shows off a Rado watch he says was gifted to him by Bachchan on a recent visit, and quickly pulls out a fading photograph of him standing alongside the actor and his then-young son Abhishek, now 36 and a film star himself.
Khalaf originally met Bachchan in 1978, after convincing an acquaintance who worked in another actor’s offices to take him there.
He now visits Bachchan as often as he can and speaks to him in Hindi, which he has learned by watching Bollywood films countless times over the years.
But after recalling his meetings with Bachchan and other age-old Indian movie stars — photos alongside Rajesh Khanna, Dharmendra, Mithun Chakraborty and Amrish Puri also adorn the walls of his shop — he returns to his lament that Indian cinema has suffered by becoming too Westernised.
“Old Indian movies taught you how to behave with others — they taught you manners, they built your character,” he says, speaking in Arabic. “They taught the viewer how to be good to their parents, to touch the feet of their mothers and fathers.”
“Nowadays, Indian movies are filled with action, drugs, knives, pistols, bullets. They are teaching people to kill, not teaching people to behave well.”
His complaints over Indian cinema mirror those he, and many of his customers, have of modern Iraq.
Khalaf’s business began as a venture with four friends who, after enjoying Indian films at Baghdad’s cinema halls in the 1960s, began selling cassettes of movie songs.
At the time, movie theatres in the capital did good business broadcasting Arab, Indian and Western films, with some cinema halls dedicated solely to showing Bollywood flicks.
Now, no halls dedicated to Indian movies remain and the capital’s movie theatres are widely derided by Baghdad’s residents as dens showing pornographic movies and places for gay men to meet, a reputation the industry has struggled to shed in a country where pornography and homosexuality are taboo.
Khalaf branched out on his own in 1978, setting up his shop, which he named Wassan after one of his daughters whose picture he has also posted on his shop wall. It features her standing alongside, predictably, Amitabh Bachchan.
Ever since, he has made regular trips to India to buy music and movie cassette tapes, before moving on to video CDs and DVDs.
He now visits India once a year, mostly to Mumbai — he explains in Hindi, “Koi faidha nahin hai, Delhi ko janay kai liye”, meaning there is no point in visiting the capital, New Delhi, because all he wants to do is buy movies and see Bachchan.
“We used to sit and listen to Indian film songs through the night,” Khalaf, who has lost touch with the friends he set up the first store with, says of life in Baghdad in the 1970s and 1980s. “Not anymore.”
“Back then, people knew how to behave in cinema halls — You could take your family there, you could take your daughters there,” he says. “Now, you cannot do that anymore.”
Khalaf also laments the decline in security in the Iraqi capital which, though much improved from its worst in 2006 and 2007, remains tenuous and violent.
As a result, he can no longer keep his store open until midnight as he used to, and is keen to get home soon after closing the shop at around 4:00 pm.
Now, he reckons he has around a third of the customers he used to, victim to lower prices from competitors and the fact that many of his clients, mostly older men, have died over the years.
As a result, he spends much of his day idle in his shop, chatting and sipping tea with customers, who sit with him and re-watch old Bollywood films on his 14-inch CRT television.
They eschew newer movies that Khalaf says he rarely watches.
His favourites instead are the 1959 black-and-white movie “Kali Topi Lal Rumal” (Black Cap, Red Handkerchief), and 1957′s Oscar-nominated “Mother India”, along with song compilations that blare out as he sits behind his desk, smoking.
Many of those who still come to the store share his view of decades passed.
“When I am longing for a film from the 1960s or 1970s, I come here to get it from Abu Wassan (father of Wassan),” says Bassim Mohammed Jassim, a 61-year-old cigarette vendor.
“I watch the film, and I feel comforted,” he adds. “When I watch it, I am reminded of the good old days, when the situation was nice, when there were no problems.”