The ‘soft power’ of Indian Cinema in Africa

Indian films have been exhibited in cinemas in many parts of the world since the early 20th century. They were an accessible source of Indian culture for the Indian diasporic communities, including those residing in African countries. At that time, contact with the homeland was limited, and voyages back home were expensive. Thus, films provided insights into the latest social and cultural values, fashions and culinary trends.

In cultural imperialism theory, the focus has been on the North-to-South and West-to-East circulation of media products. Possibly due to the Eurocentric nature of the cultural imperialism thesis whereby the South-to-South media circulation did not easily fit into the binary analytical framework it was, therefore, excluded. Over the last two decades, the focus has turned to the South-South circulation of media products. The recent UNESCO report 2021 – The African Film Industry: Trends, Challenges and Opportunities for Growth is an example of this trend.

Scholar Daya Thussu and politician Shashi Tharoor have both written about Indian cinema as India’s ‘soft power’. The phrase ‘soft power’ was coined by Joseph Nye, a political scientist at Harvard, in 1990. Hard power is associated with economics and the military, and soft power is concerned with culture, foreign policy and political values, which have a broader reach and impact. Shashi Tharoor, a former minister in India has advocated for India’s soft power for over a decade. Soft power is somewhat tricky to measure, writes Daya Thussu, in the context of cinema. However, this has not prevented many countries from incorporating it into their foreign policies.

Indian film has moved from cinema exhibitions to video streaming platforms such as Netflix, Showmax and YouTube, among others, as well as traditional television and satellite channels. In turn, the global reach of Indian cinema has vastly increased since India started exporting films in the early part of the 1900s starting with Dadabhai Phalke’s silent films and later the Bombay Talkies.

Hindi films became more popular with the availability of sound production equipment from the early 20th century. Eric Barnouw and S Krishnaswamy describe them as based ‘exclusively on music-drama forms’; since in post-independence India, most of the films seemed formulaic in that they consisted of ‘a star, six songs and three dances’. These films also influenced lifestyles with extensive product placement, such as household goods. Singing would occur in a car, on a motorbike, sometimes on a speedboat or even skiing; such images were profitable for the film producers. The films were successful not only at Indian box offices but in overseas markets in Africa, the Middle East, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Carribbean Area and the Fiji Islands.

In the early days of Indian film distribution, films arrived mostly through cinema owners who wanted to exhibit films beyond the offerings of Hollywood or Colonial Britain. Indian films proved cheaper to show and were popular with Africans and South Asians living in African countries. The Indian government had not taken on board the potential income from the export of cinematic films – It viewed the function of cinema as educational and informational, rather than of providing entertainment.

Most Indian films from the 1950s to the 1980s had a predictable narrative in which the plot pattern was resistance to feudalism, rich landlords and business people. Further, there were portrayals of the lower income classes in the urban and rural areas resisting exploitation. The narrative usually ended with a hero – avenging the poor who were being exploited by the rich. Most of these films were financed by private investors.

The film narrative changed when the government, in the early 1990s, adopted free market economic principles. In other words, these neoliberal policies which persist to the present resulted in the recognition of Indian film production and exhibition as an industry, and bank loans were available to fund film projects. Additionally, in the neoliberal frame, the Indian government allowed Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Indian films. Thus, major US corporates like Columbia, Disney and Paramount, among others, were investors in Indian film production and distribution. Indian companies like Eros International, UTV Motion Pictures, Mukta Arts and others expanded activities that engaged with Indian cinema. Satellite channels like B4U, Sony, Star and Zee helped by making Indian films accessible to many parts of the world through their channels.

Further, in the 1990s, the middle classes in India began increasingly to adopt Western lifestyles in most aspects of their daily lives. At the same time, South Asian diaspora communities that had settled in various parts of the world became an important source of revenue for Indian films. Indian cinema responded with films like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (The Brave Hearted Will Take the Bride) (Dir: Aditya Chopra, 1995), Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (Sometimes There Is Joy, Sometimes There Is Sorrow) (Dir: Karan Johar, 2001) and Pardes (Foreign Land) (Dir: Subhash Ghai, 1997).

Until recently, there were limited studies on the impact of Indian films across the African continent. It may be that data on the distribution and exhibition of Indian movies are hard to come by as, until recently, they were a ‘grey market’ that escaped official notice. Studies are beginning to emerge in this area that point to some key issues mentioned below.

Starting in North Africa, Indian films appeared in the 1930s in Egypt, and the film magazine Al-Kawakib (The Star) often discussed them in a somewhat negative tone. The popularity of Indian cinema in Egypt was due to the commonalities between the two cultures. At the same time, Egypt had a successful film industry of its own. The 1940s to 1960s is often referred to as the Golden Age of Egyptian cinema. Technological changes began with the arrival of video cassettes, which shifted the viewing of films to the home, was also a period when Amitabh Bhachan became a household name followed by Shah Rukh Khan. Indian films that have chosen Egypt as a location for some scenes include Singh is Kinng (Dir: Anees Bazmee, 2008), Kabhi Kushi Kabhie Gham (Dir: Karan Johar, 2001) and Jeans (Dir: S Shankar, 1998). In January 2023, the Times of India newspaper hailed Bollywood as a bridge between Egypt and India.

Morocco historically experienced Indian films as part of the Moroccan cinema owners’ bundle of films received from Egyptian distributors. The films were popular despite the absence of subtitles in the early years; the success of Indian cinema was due to the animating music and dance performances and the very human interactions. Later, the films were translated and dubbed into Arabic, making them more accessible. Indian films are equally popular in Tunisia, and in 2020, the country put itself forward as a potential location for Indian filmmakers.

Indian films have been shown in West Africa since the 1950s.In the 1990s, Brian Larkin found that in Kano – a major city in northern Nigeria – Indian films were screened five nights a week, compared to one night for Chinese and one night for Hollywood films. As Larkin wrote in 2019, ‘…. the literature examining cowboy, gangster, Indian and other film genres, points to the ways in which newly urbanized peoples forging identities for themselves, found powerful resources in the flows of foreign media that were part of the broader cinematic ecology of urban life.’ In Senegal, Indian films were imported from other African countries and the Middle East. They were popular in Senegal among the Indophiles – those who admire Indian films, music and dance. As in Nigeria, the attraction of films from India is in the similarities between the Senegalese and Indian cultures.

In East Africa, cinema had already impacted the population in urban areas. Particularly in Tanganyika (now Tanzania), in the 1930s, cinema theatres existed in the capital Dar es Salaam and the smaller towns throughout the country. By the 1950s, Tanzania had around forty cinema theatres, while Kenya had fewer. Laura Fair explains that this is mainly due to the expansion of urbanization in Tanzania. In Kenya, a comparatively richer country, the pace of urbanization was slower. In the urban centres, the white settler government often restricted the movement of Africans. Therefore, access to cinema theatres which existed mainly in the cities and towns, was impossible as passes and permissions were required. However, Tanganyika was managed by the British after WWI. It was a League of Nations Mandated Territory, and Zanzibar was a British Protectorate. Neither were colonies. This distinction meant that the Africans in Tanganyika and Zanzibar had some freedom of movement in that people could go to cinemas for entertainment.

The entrepreneurship of the local business people in the East African countries created cinema theatres exhibiting films to bring the diverse population to watch in a common space. In other words, it was a social space where everyone could access entertainment as a collective activity. An earlier issue of Awaaz covered the topic of Indian Cinema in East Africa in 2016 (Vol.XVI, issue 3).

Cinema theatres had tiered seating – the most expensive were the balcony seats, followed by two tiers in the main cinema hall, with the cheapest seats close to the screen. The tiered seating created racial and class segregation as Africans usually bought the cheapest seats. However, despite the tiered seating, viewing the film was in a shared space.

South Africa had the largest Indian diaspora community in Africa and, therefore, a large market for Indian cinema. The Indian community was not homogenous but consisted of former indentured labourers from different parts of India with whom they had limited links. They were not allowed to mix with the white and African populations in the pre-apartheid and apartheid eras. The Indian community was predominantly based around the urban area of Durban, where cinemas began to appear in the 1930s. Segregated and isolated, the Indian community had to find its Indian identity through film, music, religion, dance and other symbols of culture. But with sanctions on cultural products in apartheid South Africa, films arrived indirectly. In practice, the Government of India could not impose its policy of banning film exports to South Africa as they were not subject to export licensing regulations.

Meanwhile, Indian cinema owners in South Africa wanted the government to allow Coloureds, Africans and other non-Indians to watch films. The government eventually relaxed its rules and allowed entry to the cinema in 1959 to communities beyond the Indian diaspora. However, under the frame of apartheid, there was segregation of seats, toilets and entrances. This arrangement continued until the fall of apartheid, and the new South African government decided to experiment with showing Indian films – no longer banned – to all communities. The success was immense with the film Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Some Things Happen) (Dir: Karan Johar, 1998), shown subtitled in English in some cinemas. The film was also shown by popular demand in some white areas – Haseena Ebrahim describes this phenomenon as ‘from the “ghetto” to the mainstream’. Since 2004, the South African Broadcasting Corporation has broadcast Indian films with subtitles. More recently, with developments in digital technologies, the audience accesses Indian films from various platforms. Indian films that have used locations in South Africa include Cocktail (Dir: Homi Adajania, 2012) and Race (Dir: Abbas-Mustan, 2008).

What are the takeaways from the ‘soft power’ of Indian cinema? Historically, the presence of Indian cinema in many parts of Africa has impacted audiences for at least a couple of generations. Under colonial supervision, cinema theatres brought people from various communities together under one roof. However, segregating the audience resulted in unique architectural design features in cinema buildings to accommodate this separation. Secondly, the appeal of Indian films is much wider than amongst the Indian diaspora communities living in African countries. Their popularity is in identifying similar values within family, social relations, religious beliefs and so on. The charm of song and dance is associated with the entertainment aspects of the film.

In the 21st century, in the framework of ‘post-imperial affinities’, there seems to be alliances between film industries and producers between countries. Recent co-productions like Namaste Wahala (Hello Trouble) (Dir: Hamisha Daryani Ahuja, 2021) and JUDE (Dir: Chukwuma Osake, with Bollywood’s Parvin Kurma as Asst Dir, 2012) point to the possibilities that may become a common feature in South-to-South media circulation. These co-produced films could tackle new themes previously not covered – issues faced by young people in emerging developing countries, access to employment and travel in developed countries, and popular issues concerning love, religion and class. The co-productions could also focus on building bridges by focusing on the similarities of cultures between South Asian and African communities.


  • An independent researcher. She previously taught communication and media studies at London Metropolitan University, the University of North London and City University, in the UK. Before that, she worked in broadcasting audience research at the UK's Independent Television Commission and the Independent Broadcasting Authority.

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