Thirty years ago, when posted at Dakar, capital of Senegal in West Africa, I was going up in the lift to my office when a young lady joined me. After some hesitation she asked if I worked at the Indian Embassy. On my saying yes, she enquired if Mohamed Rafi was dead. I said I had heard so. Her face lost color and she started sobbing. When I enquired if I could do anything, through tears she replied that she had come only to confirm if the tragic news was true. There were many messages of condolences.
There was even a Mohammed Rafi Club in Dakar, which held annual singers competition to crown the Mohammed Rafi of Africa. So popular he was among Senegalese, but I marveled how a person so chosen was declared the best in the whole of Africa!
Rafi was one of the triad of singers my generation grew up listening and humming to his songs. The two others were Mukesh and Talat Mahmood. While Mukesh got clubbed with Raj Kapoor and for long, many in the Soviet Union, where Raj Kapoor’s films were very popular, thought that Raj Kapoor sang his film songs. In the autumn of 1998 when travelling along the old silk route from Andijan, in Ferghana valley and birth place of Babur to Tashkent, Samarkand, I stopped for a cup of tea before reaching Bukhara. The owner of the Chicane, played a Mukesh song sung by an Uzbek, who he announced proudly, was the Mukesh of Uzbekistan. Of course he would not accept any money for the tea.
Talat with a crooner’s lilt in his soft voice was perhaps the finest singer of Ghazals, before they became a rage in India. Of course later there were other singers like Hemant Kumar, Manna Dey and Kishore Kumar, the last then surpassing almost all of them in popularity.
Born in 1924 near Amritsar, Rafi died on July 31, 1980. Trained in classical music, apart from Bhajans and Qawalis, he sang in a dozen Indian languages other than Hindi.
Before Indians grew rich, could travel abroad and large number of engineers, scientists, doctors and managers migrated to North America, UK and Western Europe; Indian films were popular everywhere except for North America and Western Europe.
But Senegal, a former French colony was perhaps the most amazing of all the countries in its love for Hindi films. The Senegalese have no film industry of their own, although they produced a filmmaker of world repute, Ousmene Sembene, who like Satyajit Ray, wrote his own stories, produced and directed them apart from being the art, decor and music director. He headed the Jury at India’s 1979 Film Festival.
The Senegalese are not too fond of French films except for a small French elite and some Franco-phone Senegalese. The Arabs or rather the French speaking Christian Lebanese, mostly traders migrated to Senegal, Ivory coast and elsewhere to escape the conflicts in Lebanon and for better life, occupied the same position as Sindhi and Punjabi community does in East Africa. There were two theatres exhibiting French films and another few screening Lebanese or Egyptian films. But the majority of cinemas screened Indian films. Every week there had to be two fresh releases. The state monopoly which imported, distributed and exhibited films in its theatres, made 80% of its profits from Indian films.
The Senegalese had almost adopted the Indian film industry as its own. The pecking order in popularity was like in Bombay. At the height of Amitabh Bachchan’s popularity, when a film showing him as the brother of the heroine was screened it was an instant flop. They will have him only as a hero. Smitten girls in Senegal and neighboring Gambia would spend little fortunes trying to contact and speak to him on the telephone, then a luxury. Discussion about Indian films was common with Senegalese even at odd places, e.g. while waiting for ferry to go to the island of Goree, from where Africans were exported to Americas by white slavers. Certainly, various Kumars, beginning with Dilip Kumar, Rajendra Kumar and others like Dharmendra were very popular. ‘Mother India’ was a popular hit, so was ‘Yadon ki Barat’, which I had not seen and viewed only decades later on TV.
It was quite an experience for me and my children during their vacations in Dakar to watch Senegalese watching Hindi films in awe and wonder, clapping when an actor made his entry in the film the first time, even Mukri or Sundar. They lapped the Indian masala films and others with their legends and myths, like if you killed a snake, its alive mate will take revenge, the family fights between the couple and their in laws being the stuff of their daily lives. Like all Africans, fond of music and dance, Indian films had all they wanted - a total experience of life.
I went regularly to countries of my concurrent accreditation i.e. Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Cape Verde and Mali; in the last I visited the fabled. But in Dakar with not much to do, after cocktails, I would go and tuck in a film. During my tenure of 28 months (1978-81) I saw more Indian films than in my 28 previous years put together. By the time I left I could differentiate between some of the Kapoors, Khannas, Kumars and even between Rekha and Rakhee.
The Senegalese love for Indian films and what they could embrace from it as Indian culture blossomed into music clubs and groups. Apart from the Mohamed Rafi Club, there was another club named the Rajasthan Club, for some inexplicable reason. I attended a commercial show of ‘Dosti Bandhan’ club, house full even with entry ticket being around $ 2. Apart from singing of Indian film songs, it was a valiant attempt at reproducing dances from Indian films, with young Senegalese boys and girls dancing and miming the words with a LPs playing in the background. The ‘piece de resistance’ was a dance by a tall willowy ebony colored Wolof male with rubbery flexibility gracefully replicating very slowly whatever he had imbibed from Indian films of Bharat Natyam, Oddissi and Kathak, all put together in a most sinewy way, outdoing even Sri Devi in Nagin. It was unbelievable (I later learned that he was performing at Paris’s famous night spot Moulin Rouge).
I invited the group for a reception one evening. Coming from middle class conservative families, they did not approve of Indian heroines and others donning western dresses; skirts and jeans and aping them. They were happier with Saris, Lehngas and Salwar Kameez. I presented to the groups LPs of Indian films and folk music. The video film was still in infancy. The Senegalese love and understanding of Indian culture through Indian films had a comic tragic example. A young Senegalese boy, who came to study at Poona’s Film and Television Institute, thought singing to Indian girls in the streets could charm them. It ended with not very happy experiences.
Our efforts to canalize export of films through Indian government agency failed, because they could not match the perks of smooth Sindhi film dealers in Morocco and elsewhere, selling far more copies than licensed in too many territories. Although AB Vajpayee was then the Foreign Minister, a proposal to open a Cultural Center in Dakar to teach Indian classical dances and music did not yield any results. The humble Bollywood masala film with its dances and songs can be used as a very powerful weapon of cultural diplomacy, through missions, Doordarshan, and Radio.