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Cover Story

The Movie Scene in Kenya

Volume 16, Issue 3  | 
Published 03/03/2020
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By Manu Savani

The Beginning of Mohanlal Kala Savani’s Business Journey

The growth of the Indian film business in the history of East Africa is also a chapter in the history of the Savani family in East Africa.

When the late Mohanlal Kala Savani (commonly known as ‘Samji Kala’, based on the name of his reputable trading company) disembarked in Mombasa in 1918, East Africa had a very different socio-economic environment altogether. Most people had not even seen a photograph; so seeing a motion picture film was beyond their wildest imagination.

At the young age of 18, Mohanlal Kala arrived in Mombasa after an epic long journey from Porbander, India.  With rudimentary education and few shillings in his pocket, he came to East Africa with an immigrant’s determination and a dream to achieve success in business.

Between 1918 and 1922 he ventured into the local grain and textile trading industries, in partnership with his brothers Samji Kala and Nanji Kala who were based in Bombay (Mumbai).

In 1917, before leaving India, Mohanbhai had seen the success in India of Babashaheb Phalke’s silent movies. With struggles and challenges, he gradually achieved success in the textile business and by 1922 he became the first person to import films from Bombay to East Africa.

In his efforts to showcase movies, he also imported a portable hand-cranked projector.  In a rented warehouse space, he made a makeshift arrangement to exhibit films. At first, he imported a couple of films a year - silent films were usually short in length but their popularity was building up. Though Mombasa was his primary market he expanded to Zanzibar which at the time was also a lucrative market for films. He formed a liaison with traders in Zanzibar and Nairobi to form a syndicate to exhibit the imported films. 

Expansion of Business – the opening of Majestic Cinema

As his business expanded, Mohanbhai Kala did a successful barter of Indian film exporting with the import of Arabic language and Egyptian films from Zanzibar. As luck would have it, in 1931 two brothers Janmohamed Hasham and Valli Hasham built a theatre in Mombasa on Salim Road (now Digo Road) and called it ‘Regal’. The Regal Cinema started showing English movies and at other times rented the space for live plays and performances. Their clientele was mostly the expatriate British.

In that same fateful year of 1931, India made its first talkie film Alam Ara. Mohanbhai Kala imported it and rented show times at the newly opened Regal Cinema in Mombasa to exhibit Alam Ara

Mohanbhai was convinced beyond any doubt that the time had come to bring his dream to reality: build a full time, easily accessible cinema in Mombasa. He was already active in building and developing properties and had a plot empty on the then bustling Princess Street, now called Nehru Road. Princess Street had shops which were already thriving. Samji Kala realized this was a prime location for showing Indian films. It was walking distance from the South Asian residential and shopping district.

Mohanbhai realized from day one that a film without a cinema was a useless investment. That prompted him to plan to build a luxury cinema. His mission was loftier than the sky. Family, friends and the local people were very doubtful of the success of such a fantasy business. But Mohanbhai was confident of the present and future potential. In 1933 Samji Kala’s dream was finally realized in brick and mortar. A luxury cinema was built. It was given a royal name: MAJESTIC CINEMA.  The name suited the era of the British in Kenya Colony

Taking Chances and Finding Success

At the time of Majestic Cinema’s opening, Mohanbhai was 32 years old. One of his friends Moti D Hira had imported a couple of New Theatres’ films such as Jhoola, Kangan, Bandhan and other classics. With no experience in show business, he decided to build a 700-seat cinema which could also host live shows. The idea seemed remote but he formed a team of able and ambitious close partners. While he took a majority interest, he invited his close friend Maganlal Sanghvi, a local lawyer, to join. Maganlal Sanghvi was skeptical on the project but had immense faith in Mohanbhai’s business sense so he joined him to form Majestic Theatre Co. Ltd. and the cinema was called Majestic Cinema. It opened with an English film Trader Horn, a film on the subject of a hunter in African jungles. The film was a big success. The Indian film which opened the cinema was Shirin Farhad, which had 18 songs! The movie was a huge hit and that set the ball rolling for Majestic and the Samji Kala group.

Until then, the movies were still without sound and so the theatre owners made special arrangements for musicians to sit under the stage with instruments to give sound effects to the films. Mohanbhai in Mombasa and his elder brothers Samji Kalidas and Nanjibhai Kalidas Savani now had one more enterprise. Nanjibhai started buying Indian films and Mohanbhai had a theatre in Mombasa. To this day, I wonder what prompted them to go into this unknown business!

As typical of all his trading practices, Mohanbhai Kala did not gamble. The plot where Majestic was built was a very prime location. He decided that he had the following alternative options in case if his cinema failed:

  1. If movies did not attract enough audiences, he could rent the theatre to live stage productions for plays, or nataks as they were called.
  2. If that too failed, he would remove the chairs and use the theater as a go-down for his textile storage purposes.

As time progressed Majestic became an established cinema on the Kenya coast. The owners of Majestic also became full fledge film distributors with links stretching, to start with, to Uganda and Tanganyika.                                                            

Mohanbhai had a sharp business acumen – which led to rapid growth and expansion. He built a strong hold in Nairobi with local partners HR Bhatt and Pandit. In Kampala, he had existing ties with his nephews Dhanji Kala and Popatlal Kala. In Kampala, he took over a cinema called Central Cinema. In Zanzibar, he formed a syndicate with Hassanali Hameer Hasham (commonly known as Hameer Gozi), a local distributor of Arabic films. Thus, the teamwork expanded their foothold in other Tanganyika towns including Dar es Salaam, Mwanza, Tanga, Tabora, Moshi, and Arusha. Likewise, in Kenya, the Majestic group showed their strong presence beyond Mombasa and Nairobi by expanding in Nakuru, Eldoret, Kisumu, etc.

His motto was: ‘Without cinemas, films were unproductive and likewise without films, the cinemas were empty.’ Thus, incorporating film distribution and exhibition under one umbrella made sense.   Majestic grew not only in the number of films imported from India but also in the number of screens all over East Africa. Quality of films was another major success for Majestic. Mohanbhai believed in acquiring films objectively. Meaning, a film maker was as important, if not more important, than the stars. By 1940s there already was competition in the film distribution business but the strength of Majestic lay on being both film distributor and exhibitor simultaneously.  

The 1940s: A Man of Vision

Mohanbhai, a man of vision, started making ‘output deals’ with Indian studios such as Imperial Films, Ranjit Studios, Prabhat Films Co. and V Shantaram’s Raj Kamal Studios. Unknowingly, Mohanbhai had entered a very glamorous line of business, but to him films were only commodities. He acquired rights of films extremely carefully so that his risk was minimal.

A major stepping stone for Majestic/Samji Kala was the film, Kismat (1943), starring Ashok Kumar and Mumtaz Shanti.  It ran for three years and eight months in Calcutta. It set new records not only in Kenya and Uganda but also in Tanganyika and Zanzibar. The acting of the young and dashing Ashok Kumar and the hit songs created a new frenzy amongst the Asian communities.

In the 1940s, Majestic imported and released such landmark titles as Ratan, Dulari, Shahjahan, Dastaan and Jadoo. In 1949, the Indian film industry (‘Bollywood’) had its first expensive film - Gemini’s Chandralekha. The film cost 3.5 million Indian Rupees in production. Mohanbhai took a calculated risk in acquiring rights for the whole of East Africa. Chandralekha had huge sets and the look of an epic movie. The film was a huge success all over. 1949 is also remembered for Raj Kapoor’s own production: Barsaat which starred the hottest star pair of the time, Raj Kapoor and Nargis. Besides the music, the film impressed the audience with the romantic pair who were already heart throbs.  Majestic had paid an exorbitant price to acquire rights of the film.

Innovating in the Industry

In 1951 came a relatively a small film which conquered the box office: Bhagwan’s Albela. The movie again ran for weeks all over East Africa. Being always innovative, showman Mohanbhai decided to get hand colourized prints of Albela. This again gave a boost to the film as the audience had never imagined an Indian film in colour. Though only the songs were colourized, it was sufficient to carry the film through again. If research is ever done to find out when non-Asians and Africans got interested in watching a Bolllywood film, the answer would surely lead to Albela. It had songs and music which were a cross breed between Indian, Latin American and Middle Eastern tunes. Had subtitling been done in those days, the film would have attracted even more non-Asians to the cinemas.

C Ramchandra’s hit songs sent the audience into waves of hysteria like never seen before in the history of movie going in East Africa. Albela was truly an unpreceded excitement. It ran with HOUSEFUL signs outside the cinemas. The film created for the first time a new parallel business: Ticket black marketing.          

Black marketing of cinema tickets became a nuisance. For a popular movie for a popular show, the ticket prices sometimes went up 10 to 15 times the actual ticket price. In spite of Police enforcement, it persisted. The black marketer discouraged  family audiences from coming to the cinema. The time came when all the theatre owners jointly decided to announce a ceiling on how many tickets one could buy. The limit was put to 10 tickets per buyer. The black marketers tried to beat the system by putting a dozen  buyers in line when the box office opened for advance booking. Thereby a cat and mouse game continued.

The distributors and exhibitors jointly decided to share a film with simultaneous release of a film. Thus, a film would open at more than a single cinema. By the 1960s, films were imported and released with two or three 35mm prints. Therefore, when a film opened simultaneously in different cities, the practical solution was to ‘cycle’ the reels of a film from one cinema to another with one hour time gaps. Here was a classic example of theatres who were competitors jointly making money. The system worked like clockwork, mostly!

The growth of cinemas boosted the business of shops near the cinemas as they catered to the cinema audience with coffee, tea, paan (beetle leaves), fast foods and soft drinks.

Leaving an Impact

Mohanbhai learnt that in order to cultivate a thriving movie business, he needed to expand. He developed ties with his friend in Nairobi, Himatlal Bhatt. Bhatt was also a lawyer. They collaborated to build a cinema in Nairobi: Green Cinema. Green Cinema had a monopolistic situation, similar to Majestic Cinema in Mombasa. Majestic was in the heart of the busy Indian neighborhood near River Road in Nairobi. Then came Uganda. In Kampala they took a cinema called Central Cinema on long term lease. The cinema was managed by my uncles Dhanjibhai and Popatbhai Kala.

As time went by, Mohanbhai started acquiring film rights for not only Kenya or East Africa, but for the continent of Africa. By the 1950s, the Majestic and Samji Kala group were ready to venture into film financing and thereby acquiring overseas rights. ‘Overseas’ generally meant world rights, excluding India and Southeast Asia.  Thus, to name a few, in the 60s the films acquired were colour films like Kashmir Ki Kali (starring Shammi Kapoor and Sharmila Tagore), Himalay Ki Godmein (starring Manoj Kumar and Mala Sinha), Gumnaam (Manoj Kumar, Nanda), Sawan Ki Ghata (Manoj Kumar, Sharmila Tagore, Mumtaz), Love In Tokyo (Joy Mukkerji, Asha Parekh), Ziddi (Joy Mukherji, Asha Parekh) and many many more.

Cinemas Galore!

Mombasa already had REGAL, MAJESTIC and NAAZ as fully functioning cinemas, but there was a need for one more. So in 1953, an ultra-luxurious cinema was built by Samji Kala.  It was known for being the only cinema north of South Africa that was fully air conditioned with Cinemascope screen and Stereophonic sound. It was named QUEENS CINEMA. Later the name was changed to KENYA CINEMA

Nairobi in the 1950s was emerging as a very lucrative market for Indian films. Majestic already had GREEN on Latema Road which was the heart of the Asian shopping area. Majestic also had the EMPIRE near New Stanley but as it was committed to a South African company for six days in a week; Indian films were exhibited there only on Sundays. The decision was made to pull down the GREEN and purchase an empty plot next door to build a modern luxury cinema, named EMBASSY. It was opened in 1958 with fanfare and the release of V Shantaram’s Do Ankhen Barah Haath.

In Kampala, Majestic had a small cinema house called CENTRAL and was dependent on ODEON and NORMAN to show their films. So, a cinema with nearly 900 seats and the latest equipment was built in the 1960s. It was named NEETA. In Tanzania, there were sufficient cinemas except in Tanga. So, a cinema was built with the name MAJESTIC in 1957. And, the Majestic Group also acquired the PLAZA in Moshi about the same time.

To get more mileage from the films’ run, many Bollywood celebrities were guests of the Majestic group when their movies were released, they included: Dilip Kumar, Yash Chopra, K Asif, Sunil Dutt, Raj Kumar and Asha Parekh.

Reportedly, at the release of Waqt, the director Yash Chopra and stars Sunil Dutt and Raj Kumar were mobbed and traffic came to a standstill in Nairobi and Mombasa.

Changes in the industry  

By mid 1960s, the scene was changing. Kenya Film Corporation was set up under the Industrial Development Corporation (ICDC). From 1967, all film distribution was under Kenya Film Corporation (KFC). Headed by Nyoike F Njoroge, KFC canalized the distribution business. Likewise, in Tanzania, Tanzania Film Corporation came on the scene. Majestic became a major supplier to both due to their old library and new acquisitions.

Growing Ambitions and Establishing a Legacy

With the change in distribution landscape in Kenya and Tanzania, Mohanbhai in the meanwhile was expanding into other enterprises including real estate development, industries such as blanket and towel manufacturing, imports of textiles from the Far East, import of sundries, and export of cotton.

He had groomed his six sons to continue the film distribution and exhibition business on their own.  His nephew in India Maganbhai, continued to acquire films. His sons Shanti, operated from Embassy Cinema in Nairobi, Chuni from Majestic and Raman from Kenya Cinema. Dhiru moved to the UK to independently pioneer the business there, Suryakant was based in Bahrain and I moved to New York to start movie distribution independently.  All having been  groomed by the family patriarch, the late Mohanbhai, to continue his legacy.   

In Conclusion

In 1923, the Savanis started with the Majestic Cinema in Mombasa, Kenya; and the distribution and exhibition of silent Hindi films. They went on to acquire Hollywood films along with Italian spaghetti westerns and Hong Kong martial arts films and owned a string of cinema houses in East Africa. However by the 1980s there was a change in the local entertainment climate.  This was due to the rampant video and internet piracy, declining South Asian population and competition from other ancillary medias. The Savani brothers then wound up the theatre business but continued to distribute films. I am now resident in the USA and still occasionally acquire some Indian film rights and distribute the films.

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