Indian cinemas are popular among Somalis in the Horn of Africa region with many households which own TV sets subscribing to at least one Indian channel which airs Bollywood films and TV series.
The popularity of these shows is not restricted to the Horn of Africa but extends to Somalis living in neighbouring Kenya and Ethiopia.
The love of Bollywood can perhaps be epitomised in this quote from one of several Somali pirates who was arrested by the Indian navy in 2011 “I love India and Bollywood. I have seen India on television and started loving it. I want to visit every Indian city,” India’s NDTV reported at the time. Among the items seized from the pirates, besides weapons, were DVDs of Bollywood films.
Popular Somali TV channels frequently broadcast Indian soap operas. The films are dubbed into Somali thus enabling viewers to follow the plot without any language barriers.
Cinema halls and film stores in the region, aimed at Somali audiences, almost exclusively screen or sell Indian films.
The popularity of the films has also promoted Indian music, featured in the films, among Somalis. This music is often played at home or during weddings.
Before Somalia’s Islamist Al-Shabaab group emerged, youths in the northeastern Kenya border town of Mandera would occasionally cross over into Somalia’s Buulo Haawo to watch Indian films. This was as a result of Muslim clerics, and the local authorities, clamping down on cinema halls, which have sometimes been perceived as enticing school children into truancy.
Cinemas in Al-Shabaab-held areas in Somalia are non-operational as the Al-Qaeda-linked group considers pop culture “unIslamic”. In 2006 the Union of Islamic Courts, the precursor to Al-Shabaab, which was in control of central and southern Somalia, arrested and flogged many people for watching Indian films in public entertainment spots.
In 2014, Al-Shabaab banned the sale and use of smart phones in areas under its control. Part of the reason was to prevent locals from downloading and watching films, or listening to songs, through their phones.
Somalis are also increasingly obtaining Bollywood gossip from websites and blogs. Some of the popular websites for news and information on Indian films include Netherlands-based Fagaare.com and Raaciye.com.
A few years ago, the online Somalinet Forum, hosted a discussion on whether Somali women should be allowed to watch Indian films, with critics opposing the shows saying they would encourage them to “ask their husbands to treat them the way Bollywood actors treat their partners.”
Bollywood influence is common among students. Popular girls have often been given nicknames such as Kajol or Priyanka derived from star actresses Kajol Devgan and Priyanka Chopra. Boys on the other hand have been nicknamed after characters such as Karan and Arjun, rather than the actors themselves.
Shah Ruh Khan, Akshay Kumar and Salman Khan are among the most popular Indian actors among Somalis. Not every actor is referred to by his actual name. For example Akshay Kumar is often referred to as Mr Bond after his role in the eponymous 1992 film directed by Raj Sippy.
Another actor, Amitabh Bachchan, is popularly known as Ali Dheere – the tall Ali – because of his height. Ali is a popular Somali name and it is easier for most Somalis since his real name is difficult to pronounce. Bachchan gained popularity in India’s film industry in the 1970s and is one of the most influential Bollywood actors.
Indian films, unlike productions from Hollywood and Nigeria’s Nollywood, are popular due to cultural similarities between Somalis and Indians. Hollywood is seen as violent and full of nudity and indecency.
Amina Ali, a 24 year-old mother of one in Nairobi, Kenya, is watching Kasamh Se (The Promise), an Indian soap opera produced by Ekta Kapoor of Balaji Telefilms. The story is about three sisters Bani, Pia and Rano. After their father's death the three sisters go to Mumbai following what their fathers have said and live in the house Jai Walia, a famous business tycoon who knew their father.
Malyun, Amina’s younger sister, is fighting for the remote-control. She wants to switch it to another channel broadcasting her favourite series, Jamai Raja. Jamai Raja is the story of a young man Sidharth, who despite being a jet-setting hotelier with a growing empire to tend to, takes it upon himself to repair the estranged relationship between his wife Roshni and mother-in law Durga Devi Patel (DD). “I like watching Indian films, we do have some similarities. We wear saris as the Indian women do and they don’t show indecency films,” said Amina.
The plots usually revolve around the themes of love, family relations, and arranged marriages, which attract Somali audiences. The Indian female dress, the sari, is very similar to the Somali ‘garba saar’ while women in both societies do not kiss in public. Similarly, the fact that members of extended Indian families often live together is a trait that Somalis can closely identify with.
However, Indian films are facing competition from Yesilcam – Turkish cinemas. Turkish soap operas are also gaining popularity among this community. The films are dubbed in Somali, so there is no language barrier.
Despite Bollywood’s popularity, few realise the shared cultural connection between these two societies on either side of the Indian Ocean.