x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Iraqi champion of classic 1950s Bollywood regrets passing of bygone era's reel values

Trader sees parallels in rise in on-screen violence and Iraq life.

Adil Hamid Khalaf stocks classic Indian movies and music albums in his Baghdad bookshop dating from the 1920s to today.
Adil Hamid Khalaf stocks classic Indian movies and music albums in his Baghdad bookshop dating from the 1920s to today.

BAGHDAD // Adil Hamid Khalaf is like many Iraqi traders, with his tiny shop 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.

Mr Khalaf's high prices for new films; he charges as much as US$10 (Dh36) whereas others offer knock-offs for 40 cents, and passion for Indian films from a bygone era mean sales are fewer than ever.

Undeterred, 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 the Indian film star Amitabh Bachchan, whom Mr Khalaf refers to as a "good friend".

"Lambu, Lambu" Mr Khalaf exclaimed, using the Hindi word for tall to describe the actor who stands 1.88 metres, with blown-up photographs of their near-annual meetings at Bachchan's Mumbai home plastered across the walls of the shop in Baghdad's Najah cinema complex.

He shows off a Rado watch he said was presented 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.

Mr Khalaf 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 learnt by watching Bollywood films countless times.

But after recalling his meetings with Bachchan and other age-old Indian movie stars - photos alongside Rajesh Khanna, Dharmendra, Mithun Chakraborty and Amrish Baghdad 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 said, 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 about Indian cinema mirror those he, and many of his customers, have about modern Iraq.

Mr 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 to showing Bollywood films.

Now, no hall dedicated to Indian movies remains 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.

Mr 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.

Mr Khalaf said he could not count how many films he has in his shop, with movies dating from the 1920s to ones as recent as last year's Don 2 starring Shah Rukh Khan.