Move over India: How Bollywood conquered Nigeria

Nigeria has been obsessed with Bollywood since the 1950s, with Indian films leaving a considerable cultural legacy. Now Nigeria is returning the favour.


Just the Basics

  • Originally a cheap alternative to Western films, Bollywood's themes and stories resonated with Nigerians turning an import gamble into a national obsession

  • From literature to music to film-making, Bollywood has had an indelible impact on Nigerian culture

  • As Nollywood (and its regional cousins) matures, it is increasingly sending actors to India to star in Bollywood films, as well as inspiring a new generation of Indian film makers.


You find yourself meandering your way through a busy mall in Lagos, Nigeria. The familiar noises, bustling crowds and range of shops reminds you of many a mall that you have visited in the past. While there is a distinct West Africa vibe to the shopping plaza, nothing immediately identifies this as a Nigerian mall.

Then a strange sight catches your eye: a young Yoruba woman in heavy makeup wearing a sari and diadem beams at you, her hands clasped together in the traditional Indian greeting. Above the woman a frilly sign touts the name of the establishment: Bollywood Hair - now you know you are in Nigeria.

Bollywood Hair. Not ‘Hollywood Hair’ - its snappy alliteration making it a globally popular moniker - nor 'Nollywood Hair' (after Nigeria’s famous film industry) for that matter. Nigeria has been obsessed with Bollywood for over 60 years, and Africa’s most populous country is one of the Indian film industry’s best export markets. Bollywood has had a lasting impact on Nigerian culture, and increasingly Nigeria is repaying the favour, sending talent across the ocean to star in Indian movies.

How Bollywood became a national obsession despite language barrier

Nigeria’s love affair with Bollywood began in the 1950s when some enterprising Lebanese merchants decided to import Indian films to Nigeria, as they were considerably cheaper to licence than the latest Hollywood hits. Attending screenings of Bollywood films in open air courtyards and impromptu movie houses quickly became a favourite Nigerian pastime, especially in the northern region of the country.

The remarkable thing is that for decades these films were neither dubbed or subtitled in Nigeria’s various languages. Despite the language barrier, many people re-watched the same movies dozens of times, eventually learning snippets of Hindi in the process. Part of this ease in discerning the plot may be down to the polyglot nature of India itself: successful films could not rely on dialogue alone to bring success, as they would have to be translated into India’s various languages.

A great example of Bollywood's international success and ease with which it has surmounted language barriers comes in the form of a 2015 video showing Miss Nigeria and Miss Indonesia bonding over their shared love of Bollywood films, before both break into song.

 
 

Consequently, while Nigerian audiences could not understand the dialogue, the pacing and plot of films nevertheless enabled them to figure out the stories. For instance, the three hour long, 1957 classic Mother India remains one of the most popular Bollywood films of all time in Nigeria. Some fans have seen the film so many times that they have memorized the entire dialogue, despite not speaking Hindi. “I’ve been showing this film for decades, and it can still sell out any cinema in the north,” remarked one Nigerian film distributor.

Nevertheless, what would make hordes of people repeatedly watch two and three hour films in a language they could not understand? It is because Nigerian communities saw themselves in the stories portrayed by Bollywood.

“Arranged marriages, caste barriers, and the importance of morality, honor, family name and religion were all topics central to Bollywood and African societies [...] The struggle against colonialism; the poor, the exploited and the oppressed as central characters; and mythology - issues European and American cinemas completely ignored - strongly resonated on the [African] continent. Bollywood offers a model of cultural resistance and a path between tradition and modernity," explains Sylviane A. Diouf, digital collection curator at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, in Harlem NY.

The influence of Indian film runs deep in northern Nigeria

These features of Bollywood movies appealed to Nigerian communities, especially the conservative Hausa in northern Nigeria. In Kano, the largest city in northern Nigeria, Indian films are shown virtually every night in cinemas and remain among the most popular TV programs.

There is also a Sufi male group called 'Lovers of India' that sings Bollywood tunes with religious lyrics. Similarly, a host of modernized Quranic (Islamiyya) schools have adopted Bollywood music, with schoolgirl choirs singing the praise of the Prophet Muhammad in Hausa to the tune of Bollywood hits. Unfortunately, in recent years this trend has come under attack from religious extremists such as Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, although the region's love for Bollywood remains strong.

Another offshoot of Bollywood’s influence was the emergence of soyayya - or love - literature in the 1980s. Inspired by the conservative and innocent depictions of romantic love in Bollywood films, soyayya books became an important tool for Hausa women in their efforts to modernize their conservative communities. An estimated 300 women write soyayya novels today, and the cheap books are as popular as ever. By combining Nigerian reality with Bollywood storytelling flaire, Hausa authors have created an entire genre of pulp fiction that readily appeals to local women.

One example is Sin is a Puppy that Follows you Home by Balaraba Ramat Yakubu, which details the challenges faced by long-suffering wife and mother of nine, Rabi. After her husband falls for another women and kicks her out of the house, Rabi eventually lands a job and manages to carry on. Her husband eventually realizes his mistake after misfortune befalls him, and pleads for Rabi to return, who despite initial resistance eventually concedes.

 
 

Yakubu is a devout Muslim, and like other soyayya authors is seeking to reconcile their faith, culture and personal aspirations for greater rights. Polygamy an accepted practice in northern Nigeria, so Rabi’s insistence that her husband only cherish one woman is as radical as giving her a job. Yakubu is not a radical by any definition, yet that makes her characters resonate all the more with local readers. Yakubu is not even a fan of the film industry that spawned the genre of her oeuvre - “I don’t like the songs and dances because it is not our culture,” mentions Yakubu in an interview.

Yakubu is not the only one who has reservations about Bollywood, as some fans in northern Nigeria wish that Bollywood would return to its more conservative roots. Critics cite the growing liberal attitudes and loosening moral standards in more modern Indian films as a negative trend. This is the same reason that Nollywood films from southern Nigeria find limited success in the north.

Kanywood's ethics scandal mirrors Bollywood drama

Bollywood’s popularity and its hitherto conservative standards even inspired the creation of Kanywood, the northern Nigerian movie hub based out of Kano. Kanywood studios sometimes make shot for shot remakes of Bollywood films, and music featured in other local productions show Indian influences. 2013 even saw the creation of an album dedicated to this trend - Harafinso: Bollywood Inspired Film Music From Hausa Nigeria.

Like Bollywood, Kanywood has not been without its moral scandals, with the recognized queen of Kanywood - Rahama Sadau - kicked out of the industry in 2016 after an onscreen hug in a music video; a violation of the Hausa movie industry’s code of ethics. Sadau was condemned by the Motion Picture Practioners Association, but has since moved south to Nollywood. Speaking on the scandal, Sadau pointed to Bollywood’s Priyanka Chopra as her inspiration: “We have similar problems and are facing similar situations because at some point, they have to accept you and appreciate what you’re doing.”

 

Cited as an inspiration: Bollywood's Priyanka Chopra

 

The popularity of films in Nigeria in general is both a boon and bane for distributors. While guaranteed an eager audience for the latest Kanywood films, distributors face obstacles from rampant piracy; with some 70 percent of distributor income lost to piracy. A 2006 study showed that 99 percent of film screenings in Nigeria take place in informal settings, such as someone’s house, garden or place of business.

This trend has recently led distributors in northern Nigeria to initially limit screenings to cinemas, instead of promoting films via cheap DVDs and video CDs. This move has led many in the region to complain, as 70 percent of the population lives in rural communities, not in major cities such as Kano where the few cinemas are located. The fact that there are only 0.4 movie screens per million people in Nigeria (versus 12 per million in India) makes a cinema-only strategy largely moot.

“When people make enquiries about the latest Kanywood film releases and we tell them that they have to travel to Kano to see it first they say they would rather buy Indian films that are readily available,” notes one video store clerk. “Indian films are currently in high demand.” So despite Bollywood’s changing standards there still seem to be plenty of fans in northern Nigeria.

Bollywood and Nollywood's increasing cooperation

It is not just northern Nigerians that love Bollywood, as even in the heart of Nollywood Indian films continue to give domestic productions a run for their money. Prior to the emergence of Nollywood, the Bollywood craze hit new heights in the 1970s and 80s. Afterwards local films began to supplant Indian ones. However, in recent years Bollywood has made a resurgence as Indian studios outpace Nigerian ones in terms of production quality and consistency. This makes some nervous that Bollywood could spell Nollywood’s demise, while others maintain that Nollywood should focus on quality, not quantity, in order to regain market share.

 
 

The film industry is Nigeria’s second largest employer (after agriculture), so the future of the sector is a serious topic. Instead of worrying about a rivalry, both Nollywood and Bollywood should look to the opportunities created by working together. In January 2015, India’s high commissioner to Nigeria announced that India would facilitate a partnership between the Nigerian and Indian film industries. In the same year, Nigerian-Indian actor Aivboraye Lawrence Osagie became the first Nigerian to feature in a Bollywood film, Love is an Illusion.

A few years prior, the 2012 film J.U.D.E. became the first co-production between Nigeria and India, with Chukwuma Osakwe directing, and Parveen Kurma as assistant director. Set in Lagos and Chandigarh, Punjab the movie deals with love, race, religion, visa denials from western countries and the challenges faced by young people in emerging economies; in short, the same cross-cultural themes that made Bollywood such a hit in Nigeria in the first place. The two co-stars make a fitting metaphor for the ties between the two film industries, with Lavina Qureshi playing the Indian love interest of Nigeria’s Daniel Lloyd.

 
 

More recently, Nigeria film maker Emem Isong created Love is in the Air in January 2016, a romantic comedy starring popular actors from both Nollywood and Bollywood. Lagos' Indian Festival in 2016 also saw film industry cross-promotion, with the Indian embassy and Lagos city showcasing the best of the best of Indian and Nigerian cinema. Since then, Nigeria’s Zainab Balogun has starred in Bollywood’s Cocktail and Abbey “Crackydon” Abimbola has described his decision to move to India to pursue his dream of working in Bollywood in a 2017 interview. The Abuja International Film Festival, held in October 2017 saw 310 submissions from India alone - the highest of any single nation.

Perhaps the most meta example of the cross-pollination between Nigerian and Indian film has been the 2017 Nollywood movie ZeeWorld Madness, a comedy that pokes fun at the Nigerian obsession with the ZeeWorld Bollywood movie channel on DSTV.

“India's First Oscar-Winning Producer Will Probably Be This Chemical Company CEO From Nigeria” - that was the headline Forbes ran to highlight the latest achievement from Indian-born producer Manish Mundra and his production company, Drishyam Films. Mundra arrived in Nigeria in 2005, originally working in the petrochemical industry. His time in Nigeria and the travel afforded by his job eventually led him on an adventure “to reframe the very notion of what constitutes a ‘good’ Indian film.” His studio, Drishyam Films was founded in 2014 and since then has produced eight films, with their latest, Newton, a commercial and critical success that was selected as India’s pick for the 2018 Oscars.

 
 

Speaking on his time in Nigeria, Mundra maintains that “that worldwide exposure gave me the outlook I have for cinema. It gave me the desire to tell stories about the lives of everyday people, the challenges life confronts them with, how they’re impacted and how the overcome those challenges [...] When I was exposed to travelling and experiencing international films I felt that Indian cinema was losing that grip.”

The elements Mundra touches on are the very features of early Bollywood movies that first captivated Nigerian audiences six decades ago. Newton’s plot also speaks to these audiences: a dark comedy about a government official’s attempt to conduct a free and fair election in a conflict zone. This is a plot that Nigerians can immediately relate to, especially those in the north, where the conflict with Boko Haram makes maintaining the rule of law a daily struggle. The themes of intra-state violence, rebel groups, poverty, child brides, corruption and government bureaucracy will all surely resonate with Nigerian audiences.

The Bottom Line

Originally a cost-saving gamble, Bollywood’s introduction into Nigeria in the 1950s evolved into a cult following in subsequent decades. Throughout Nigeria, informal movie venues showing Indian films regularly sell out, buoyed by the support of loyal fans singing along in Hindi despite not speaking the language. While immensely popular across the country, Bollywood’s influence is especially felt in northern Nigeria.

Bollywood’s themes have found a loyal audience in Nigeria, as challenges faced by Indian characters deeply resonate with the life experiences of the films’ African audiences. Furthermore, from authors to actresses, Nigerian women have looked to Bollywood for inspiration. From pulp fiction to devotional songs, Bollywood has left an indelible mark on Hausa culture: it even inspired the creation of Kanywood, northern Nigeria’s film industry.

While concerns about changing standards, piracy and competition with Nigerian films worry distributors and fans alike, Bollywood’s hold on Nigeria remains as firm as ever. Moreover, Nigeria is increasingly collaborating with the Indian film industry to become a partner in, rather than just a consumer of, Indian media. The number of co-productions and Nigerian actors working in India continues to grow, and Nigeria is now influencing the development of Indian cinema, coming full circle from when Bollywood sparked the creation of Nigeria’s second largest industry back in the 1980s.

Jeremy Luedi is the editor of Asia by Africa. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, FACTA Magazine, Yahoo Finance, Asia Times. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, and the Washington Times, among others.