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Cover Story

Reel Pleasures

Volume 16, Issue 3  | 
Published 03/03/2020
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By Laura Fair

Films and movie-going are the central focus of this book ‘For generations, going to the movies was the most popular form of leisure in cities across Tanzania. On Sundays in particular, thousands of people filled the streets from late afternoon until well past midnight, coming and going from seeing the week’s hot new release. Films from every corner of the globe were shown during the week, but on Sundays, it was always Indian films that stole the show, serving as the focus of these large public gatherings in city centers across the land.’

In East Africa, cinematography first came to Zanzibar and it was in the early 1900s and for much of the 20th century films were the talk of the town in Tanzania. They were a regular feature of urban night life before cinema halls were built to accommodate audiences and block off the daylight. The book describes how in a society where literacy was the preserve of the few and radio was not yet introduced, films became the focal point of urban conversation. For days, weeks and even months after a premier; animated discussions analysed the pros and cons of fashion, class, politics, romance, modernism and much else portrayed in the film.

The men (and it was men) who pioneered this industry were almost entirely South Asian and usually they themselves were avid film goers as well as being entrepreneurs. Business and pleasure were intertwined. Their livelihood pursuits had driven them to make contacts in both the east and the west, USA to Europe to Egypt and the Far East. As a result they were able to source their films from a wide range of countries and cultures. ‘Globalization’ though a contemporary word, has been going on from times immemorial and in the case of celluloid, it was Tanzanians who were driving and directing these flows. This book interweaves the local, national, and transnational. 

The cinema was where one not only learnt about global cultures and goings-on but interacted with diverse members of their own town or location. Theatres brought together young and old; rich and poor; male and female; Muslim, Christian, Hindu, and Parsi; and African, Asian, Arab, and the occasional European.

By the late 1950s, Tanzania had more cinemas than any country in eastern

and southern Africa—with the notable exception of South Africa—and one

of the richest African and Asian movie going cultures on the continent. At

the end of the colonial era, Tanzania boasted nearly forty theatres. On the other hand, Kenya which was a far richer colony, had only half as many theatres. 

On p5 see map of cinemas in TZ 

The author puts this anomaly down to the relatively higher rate of urbanisation in Tanzania. Movie going was an urban phenomenon. Zanzibar, which is considered the primary source of film distribution in East Africa, had the most urbanised population in sub-Saharan Africa – more than 50,000 people staying in towns BEFORE the British even got there. These people considered the town as home. In Kenya, less than 8 percent of the population was urban at independence, which partly explains why many Africans only began going to the cinema in the 1960s (and many actually never went at all). 

In addition in the settler colonies, the African did not have easy access to the towns where they were treated as migrant labour and made to feel unwelcome. We were surprised to read that in Nairobi, Africans needed a special, government-issued permit before they could buy a ticket to a show. If that was not bad enough, a patronizing list of rules and expectations—detailing a dress code and mode of comportment while in a theatre—handed out with the special pass also hampered Africans’ desire to go to a film. The presence of white settlers who included Boers from South Africa led to a much stricter and blatant form of racial segregation and discrimination in Kenya than in Tanzania. In the latter the authorities did attempt to exclude Africans but both cinema patrons and owners protested and won the day. Also the fact that the cinema was usually owned by a local resident, as opposed to being one in a film distributing chain, meant that the owner did everything possible to maximise his audience attendance. Excluding movie goers because of race or class would have been counter-productive. From the earliest days Africans comprised the majority in cinema audiences. In Dar-es-Salaam the cinemas were located in the city centre and therefore away from the ‘African zone’ but regardless of that thousands of Africans went to the movies totally ignoring the ‘administrative imaginary lines’. 

Sunday shows were in Tanzania, as in Kenya, family shows when wives got to spend time with their husbands who also used the opportunity to bond with their children. It was a weekly event that was eagerly anticipated as apart from the film itself, meeting with other movie goers, munching snacks, secret rendezvous and exhibiting the latest fashions were just some of the added perks. As the author writes: ‘Cinema halls were not lifeless chunks of brick and mortar; they resonated with soul and spirit. They were places that gave individual lives meaning, spaces that gave a town emotional life. Across generations, cinemas were central to community formation.’

 The women-only shows, or zenana as they were known, gave women and their children a space of their own to let their hair down in. In Zanzibar, women from the royal family joined with hundreds of less prominent citizens to watch Indian and Egyptian films. Wearing purdah or not, for those two hours or so women could claim this public space away from the usual patriarchy ever present in their lives. 

Films can often have an impact not even envisioned by their producer. In the 1970s a group of young men illustrated a popular meeting spot in Zanzibar as ‘Jaws Corner’ following a showing of the blockbuster hit Jaws (Spielberg, 1975). They painted the first shark on a wall and christened the area Jaws Corner. Forty-some years later, this area is still referred to by that name, and the symbol of Jaws is still regularly repainted on the walls of the buildings to mark the territory. Given Zanzibar’s turbulent politics post-revolution; the Jaws metaphor was used by the opposition to represent ‘the crushing power of the state’. 

Previously in colonial times, apart from the duty imposed on films entering the country, the government did not impose any further taxes on their usage. After independence the cinema industry was brought under state control and following the Arusha Declaration in 1967, it was nationalised. The cinema buildings were nationalised and film distribution was monopolised but the industry continued to be managed by the original owners. These, however, were often accused of being ‘blood-sucking capitalists’ as they were nearly all of South Asian descent. 

Regarding the Asian community, the author focuses on two aspects: one is the common tendency to lump all South Asians as dukawallas meaning ‘conniving shopkeepers’. While without doubt there were some of this kind, this approach completely ignores the class, religious, occupational, educational and cultural diversity of this community. Two is the practice by political leaders in Uganda, Tanganyika, Zanzibar and to a lesser degree Kenya to target this minority in order to distract attention from the Government’s failings. What is interesting is that the cinema owners were well-known and integrated in their local social settings; so much so that the majority of them stayed on in Tanzania long after their compatriots went into exile. Reel Pleasures elucidates ‘how South Asian immigrants and their children developed not only businesses but also social and cultural institutions that built bridges rather than divides’. 

Most interviewees said they went to the movies once a week but there were quite a few who went two or three times a week. When asked why, the general response was, ‘the desire to learn about new people and places and see how others lived’. An old Swahili maxim said, ‘Travel to learn/open your mind’. Film offered a slice of the traveller’s vision to those who never left home. In the audience were those who marvelled at the upholstered seats, the electricity, the air-conditioning and who felt like royalty as ushers politely escorted them to their seats and made sure they were comfortable. And you were exposed to the latest in film production via global standards of technology and sound. 

To conclude, newspaper ads in the 1950s and 60s show a preponderance of Hollywood movies but in reality it was Indian movies which caught the imagination of Tanzanian movie goers. Stars were known by their names and the tunes of popular songs were hummed even though the meanings of the lyrics were not always clear. At this time East Africa was the most lucrative overseas market for Indian films in the world and this is where Bollywood really went global. 

This short summary is an introduction to a fascinating and highly informative book which readers are urged to delve into. AwaaZ is grateful to the author, Laura Fair, for permission to quote from her book, Reel Pleasures – Cinema Audiences and Entrepreneurs in Twentieth-Century Urban Tanzania. 

Laura Fair is the recipient of the African Studies Association ‘Ogot Book Prize’ November 2019 

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