Defying Taleban, one movie at a time

By Tim Sullivan

In real life he's a chemist, a polite young man who dispenses antibiotics and advice in a tiny Jalalabad shop barely 70km from where Osama Bin Laden disappeared into the mountains.

But when evening falls, when Zhaid Khan shuts the pharmacy's gates and sends his young assistant home, he becomes someone else.

Then he's a lover (albeit a chaste one). He's a singer (or at least a lip-syncher). He's a fighter, a hero, a defender of the powerless. You've never heard of him, but Zhaid Khan is a movie star.

The quiet pharmacist is the chiselled face, the rippling muscles, the romantic hero of the minuscule Pashto-language vision of Hollywood set amid the towns and mountains of eastern Afghanistan.

It's a region where American drones regularly hover overhead, Taleban attacks come all too regularly and it takes more than a little courage to be an actor.

Khan is famous across Jalalabad, and fans sometimes come to the pharmacy to gawk at him and ask for autographs. Sometimes, though, the Taleban seek him out, too.

They leave him notes in the night, warning they'll burn down his shop and kill him. One day, he fears, they'll follow through.

But as Afghanistan struggles with an Islamist insurgency that has surged back since the 2001 United States-led invasion, putting broad swaths of the country under Taleban control, a handful of actors are making a cinematic stand.

They do it with movies that are sold here only on DVD, will never make it to Western art house cinemas, and can withstand only the gentlest of criticism.

There are shaky camera angles, wildly awful hairpieces and dialogue with the cadence of a press conference ("To achieve our goal we must try to attain our objectives and what we have vowed to do," a hero intones in Black Poison, an anti-opium morality tale).

Each film is a patchwork of themes - romance, thriller, weepy family drama - knitted together by martial arts battles and lots of squirting sheep's blood bought from local butchers.

The bad guys all seem to have scars, limps or both. The good guys often wear white. They are made, very often, with little beyond a camcorder, a couple of workshop lights and some pirated editing software. But, they'll tell you here, their battle is worth fighting.

"We are changing how people think," said Khan. "Young people see our movies and they know that Afghanistan is not just AK-47s and war. There's something else here, too."

In a country where most people live in desperate poverty, the movies show fantasies of middle-class Afghan life alongside the action and adventure. There are people with steady jobs, helpful government officials, uncorrupted policemen. But the films also reflect the world around them.

Jalalabad is not in the Taleban heartland but it is a part of Afghanistan's deeply conservative Pashtun belt. Osama bin Laden once had a mansion just outside the city, and he escaped US forces from his nearby mountain compound in Tora Bora.

So actresses tend to be rarities in Pashto-language films - few families allow their daughters to enter the movie business, and nearly all actresses must come from Pakistan. Sex is not even hinted at.

Song-and-dance scenes, which are at the heart of most South Asian movies, steer clear of risque moves, with actors often lip-synching to music lifted from Pakistani movies.

The Taleban hardly exist in these movies. Religious extremism is sometimes hinted at, but most bad guys are generic gangsters or drug smugglers.

To the Taleban, though, the moviemakers are evil.

The Islamist fighters detest all forms of public entertainment, particularly any depiction of the human form, which they believe is forbidden by the Quran. When the Taleban ran the country, movies were forbidden, cinemas were closed and videotapes could only be watched in secret.

When they were forced from power, though, that quickly changed.

"One week after the Taleban were gone we were filming again," said Farooq Sabit, a one-time kung fu master who runs a small Kabul photography studio and has directed a half-dozen movies.

He works in Dari, Afghanistan's most widely spoken language. The Dari film industry is better off than the Pashto movie world. The Taleban have far less influence in Dari-speaking regions, and film-makers' hurdles are more financial than physical.

If the Pashto speakers have the pharmacist to thrill to, the Dari film world has Saleem Shaheen, the unlikely sex symbol who may be the country's biggest star.

He's a round, fleshy man in his mid-40s with dozens of movies behind him as an actor, writer, producer and director. He also has the ego of a Hollywood mogul.

"My interviews are very interesting," he said, sitting down with a visiting reporter. "More people will read your article because of me."

Through a small acting school, relentless self-promotion and even more self-confidence, he has been a force in Afghan moviemaking for decades.

"In most of my movies I'm the director and the star. All the weight is on me!" he proclaimed, as rain pattered on the metal roof of his small office compound. He derides his competitors as money-grubbing arrivistes. "They are nothing," he said, once again pointing out a European award he received a few years ago.

If nothing else, he makes a living at it.

That makes him a rarity in Afghanistan, where nearly everyone is a hyphenated professional: shopkeeper-actor; factory worker-actor; policewoman-director.

Many, particularly in the Pashto-language industry, don't get paid at all.

"We call them and say 'Come on, we're shooting,"' said Mohammad Shah Majroh, a Jalalabad bureaucrat who oversees film permits and acts as the local movie world's godfather. "If it's lunchtime, we feed them."

Stars like Khan are lucky if they make more than a few hundred dollars per film, which are shot for anywhere from US$1000 ($1400) to US$20,000 and sold on DVD in markets for about $1 each.

The handful of Afghan cinemas that survive are reserved for Bollywood, the Indian song-and-dance films. They are easy-to-follow spectacles that include what Afghan movies do not: good production quality, heaving cleavage, and beautiful woman in skimpy saris.

Around here, Bollywood provokes a mixture of jealousy and bitterness: "The Indian women and those clothes," Majroh said, sneering.

And Bollywood moviemakers, he added, don't face the dangers of the homegrown industry.

Shafiqullah Shaiq knows about those dangers.

A wealthy Jalalabad businessman, he began making movies a couple years ago. First the Taleban left him notes, telling him to abandon the movie business. Then they attacked his office with grenades and sprayed it with machinegun fire. Then they attacked it again.

No one has been injured yet, but he now surrounds his office compound with gunmen.

"I barely leave anymore," said Shaiq, who wrote, directed and starred in Black Poison, the opium movie, and later made a sequel. He acknowledges their quality was far from ideal.

"I know these movies were not really good enough for the rest of the world," he said.

Then he added, with more than a touch of cinematic noblesse oblige: "I made them for the poor Afghan people."

- AP

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