Dhishum-Dhishum Hero

Inside the world of an Afghan film star

Real, Afghan-style action. PHOTOGRAPHS BY ASAD HUSSAIN
01 November, 2011

SOMEWHERE IN THE SUN-DAPPLED greenery of the Shomali plains, an hour’s drive out of Kabul, Salim Shaheen stands ankle deep in mud, urging on two men in a shallow stream who are locked in a grim clench. “Fight you guys, fight,” he urges, in a voice that is almost painfully hoarse, but carries further than a megaphone. The blows rain down as Shaheen builds up to a crescendo. “I implore you, for the love of cinema, hit him hard, hard, hit him like an Afghan, man, not a sissy foreigner.” Finally, with a thumping punch to the jaw, the actor flips his costar into the water with a dramatic and almighty splash that soaks most of the production team huddled around them, and nearly wets the camera. The crew and the watching crowd break into applause, and Shaheen wades into the water to exclaim over and examine the punched face. “See how beautiful it looks, behenji,” he yells out to me on the other side of the stream in that ill-used voice, “swelling up for real. Not like in Mumbai where they only pretend to hit each other. Watch how we make films in Afghanistan.”

This last line is something of a recurring theme in conversations with Salim Shaheen, one of Afghanistan’s leading heroes, directors and producers. Portly, bombastic and with enough energy to run a small power station, Shaheen seems at first glance an unlikely candidate for Afghanistan’s poster boy. But for an entire generation of Afghans who watched his blood-soaked, action-packed movies, he is the quintessential dhishum-dhishum hero; the hyperbolic, gun-toting, fist-smashing, song-singing hero who gets the girl and pulps the villain—all in the best traditions of masala Hindi movies from the 1970s and 1980s. And while in recent years he has taken to flaunting a bizarre collection of hats in his films to disguise his receding hairline, and has started playing uncle or elder brother to the heroine rather than the lead, his presence is still the pivot around which the drama revolves, he is still undeniably that rare and wonderful being—an Afghan movie star.

Like in most other places, cinema in Afghanistan is made up of several strands: popular entertainers, family drama, art house fare. Shaheen, who works in Dari—the form of Persian spoken by almost half the population (mostly in the north, western and central regions)—is one of the older players in the game. But he is still just one part of a larger, diverse scene that includes productions by the state-run Afghan Film, edgy experimental features by young Afghans, the popular Pashto films made in Jalalabad as well highly aesthetic social commentaries of the kind seen in Osama, Afghanistan’s Golden Globe winner for best foreign language film. In this landscape of ferment and exploration, however, Shaheen has his own, very particular niche.

The poster for Sarzameen e Dilawaran, a film about a group of fighters who escape from prison and defend their country.

The first time I meet him is at a preview screening of a new film at his office. To get into the house, I walk past a wall covered with pictures of Shaheen posing with what seems to be every film star, TV star, or minor bit player ever to flit through an Indian screen. The audience, I am told, includes several senior government officials as well as various advisers to the government, some with their entourage of armed bodyguards. We sit in the open courtyard, watching the projection on a white wall. The film is preceded by videos of Shaheen dancing with a young heroine to old Manoj Kumar numbers. Though the movie is entirely in Dari, I don’t need subtitles to follow the very familiar plot. At a riveting moment in the film, the light from the projector illuminates the faces of the audience and I see the bodyguards watching slack-jawed and spellbound, leaning casually against their guns. After the movie, there is a lavish dinner, with mountains of pulao and kababs, served by the actors from the film. As I leave, Shaheen requests a photograph along with my companions. The next time I visit, that picture is on the wall along with those of all the movie stars.

Salim Shaheen directing a fire scene.

Clearly, speed is of the essence in keeping up with Salim Shaheen. He talks constantly, rapidly, in a Hindustani that derives more from the filmi dialogues he has internalised than from any real lexicon, with frequent bellows and orders to the constantly buzzing hive of people around him. “I work all the time, it’s a habit with me, like eating or drinking. Even when I’m talking to you, I’m thinking of what I’ll shoot tomorrow. I’m like an ashiq, in love with my work. Like Dev Anand sahab, I never rest,” he laughs, the first of many comparisons with Indian screen gods. But the first parallel, the foremost idol, is always Dharmendra, ‘Dharma ji’, Shaheen’s ‘Indian father’. “My name is Salim Deol,” he says, handing out his visiting card that has a picture of him with his arm around Dharmendra and his other son, Sunny Deol. I flick the card over. On the reverse is Shaheen with Amitabh Bachchan. “They all give me izzat,” he says, “but it’s for Afghanistan.”

Shaheen’s affair with cinema began, according to him, in his mother’s womb. “Even when I was in her stomach, I was fighting. My mother said, a hero is on his way, and I was born,” he says grandly. His first encounter with films was at the age of eight, when he watched Lalkaar, with Dharmendra and Rajendra Kumar, at Baharistan Cinema in Kabul. “At the end of the film, when Dharmendra died, I cried all the way home and told my mother, ‘Be sure to wake me early tomorrow, I have to go for his funeral.’” A few years later, while running a video rental library, Shaheen made his first film, shot over four days and edited on VCRs. “We made a black and white poster for it, with me holding a gun, with blood on my head. Almost immediately, people came and said, ‘Give us this film.’” It was two days before Eid. Smelling an opportunity, Shaheen made 10 copies and charged 500 Afghanis for a three-hour rental—an astronomical sum for the time. “After the [Eid] holiday I counted my money. We had made almost two lakh Afghanis in four days. I said, this business is good, bhai. Lets make movies.”

Shaheen talks to the media at the premiere of one of his films in Kabul.

Shaheen began making movies in 1984 and hasn’t stopped since. Learning the ropes as he has gone along, he is an entirely self-taught filmmaker with a canny ability to figure out the tastes of his audience and a relentless love of publicity. (Of the initial resistance from his family, he quips irrepressibly, “My relatives said, ‘Shaheen to deewana ho gaya hai.’ [Shaheen has gone mad] Now I say, ‘Arre deewanon, mujhe pehchano’ [Hey crazed admirers, recognise me],” a line from the popular Amitabh Bachchan starrer Don). As Afghanistan continued its descent into civil war, Kabul, which had been relatively removed from the fighting, eventually found itself on the frontlines. From 1992-96, while the capital was pounded into dust by warring factions of mujahideen, Shaheen continued to work on his movies. In 1993, a rocket fell on his office and killed eight of his crew waiting in the courtyard, including an actress and a six-year-old girl. Shaheen was upstairs making breakfast for them. “The kind of problems we faced making films during those years are impossible to explain,” he says, with uncharacteristic understatement. Yet he went on to complete that film, and make others. His persistence might be explained by something he said during a radio interview a colleague recalls hearing during the war. “The presenter asked him, Mr Shaheen, why do you make cinema? And he said, ‘Because I love it, it keeps you busy, and then you have no time for things like drugs or nasha (intoxication). If you want to be in a state of nasha, come, let’s go make a film.’”

Shaheen’s production house remained in business until the Taliban seized power in 1996 and closed the cinemas, banning the viewing of films and cracking down on TV and other forms of entertainment. Naturally, he has a thrilling story of the encounter between the hero (him) and the bad guys. “The Talibs saw my posters with the guns—they thought they were real. Two of them came and told me to give them the weapons,” he says. “I said, OK, you wait here, I’ll go get the ammunition. The house had two gates. I slipped out the other door, and left them waiting at the first gate. That’s the kind of hero I am,” he chuckles. Following this nifty exit, Shaheen fled to Pakistan, where he spent several years in exile. Again, he turned to making movies, for his sense of self as well as for money, since “that was all I knew how to do”, he claims. The films he made in Pakistan included Shikast e Ishq (The Defeat of Love), one of the biggest hits of his career, where he played an Afghan in exile. The film gave him his most famous screen name, Qais, which stuck to him like ‘Rahul’ to Shah Rukh Khan, or ‘Vijay’ to Amitabh Bachchan. It also gave him several crew members who are part of his core team even today—like Zaki Intezar, a soft-spoken man whom he found selling vegetables in a bazaar, and cast as a villain. After the defeat of the Taliban regime in 2001, Shaheen returned to Kabul to reopen his production house.

Today, by his own estimate, over a career of almost 30 years, he claims to have produced 103 films, tempering this grand number with a lukewarm disclaimer that it “includes documentaries and archival footage”. He maintains that he makes three or four films each year, says he doesn’t spend more than 20 days on a shoot, often works on two scripts simultaneously and churns out a completed film in three to four months. “Other producers come, make one film, lock up the office and disappear,” he mocks. “Only at Shaheen Films the door is open all year round.” Would that make him the top producer of Kabuliwood, I ask in jest, but he shakes his head seriously. “Not Kabuliwood, its Besywood”, he says, a pun on the Dari word besood, an enterprise without profit, something of no use, being without money, running on empty. “It’s an illusion, what we do, making something out of nothing.”

The day I accompany the crew of Shaheen Films on a shoot is Friday, a holiday, and they troop into a rickety bus, clutching their props in large plastic bags. There are two camera crews following Shaheen for documentaries, a fact that makes him both happy and at his flamboyant best. The road to Shomali is punctuated by Hindi film songs, mostly of an 1980s vintage, loud prayers for Mohammad Rafi’s immortal soul and handshakes at the police checkpoints along the way. At the location, the crew spreads out on carpets under mulberry trees and  eats handfuls of the just ripening fruit, washed down with large cups of tea.

The film they are to shoot is a multi-starrer set during the civil war about a group of fighters who break out of prison and defend their country. Aside from Shaheen, who plays the role of an ageing ‘true’ jihadi, the central character is played by the film’s producer, a London-based Afghan who will also be distributing the film to the newly exploited and presumably more profitable territory of communities of Afghans abroad in Europe and the US. In Afghanistan, Shaheen sells the distribution rights for each film to a single distributor for one year, renewing the contract for a fresh fee each subsequent year. While numbers are hard to obtain, it seems evident that Shaheen is one of the few Afghan filmmakers who is also a successful businessman. “My films are popular everywhere, ask anyone in the villages and provinces of

Afghanistan. They will not know your big filmmakers, but everybody will know me,” he says. He could well be right. A story is told of a trip to a northern province, where ‘big’ filmmakers from Kabul had accompanied a well-known poet for an event. A huge crowd of fans had turned up at their guesthouse. The delegation assumed it was in honour of the poet, and were pleasantly surprised at his popularity. But they soon realised their mistake. The crowd had come to see Qais, their very own movie star in a country with virtually no cinema halls, their magician with his glittering world of make believe, their showman with his tinsel dreams—flawed and tattered, perhaps, but still there, still dreams, after all.

Some part of these public expectations seem to foreshadow the shoot, with the actors intensely aware of their audience—both the notional, as well as the visible and swelling crowd watching from the sidelines. Things move quickly as the crew works with the practised ease of a familiar dance, with no missteps, treading to a music that everyone involved seems to hear. I chat with the rest of the cast, many of whom make me feel that I’ve seen them somewhere before, for the simple reason that I have. A curly haired youth who shows me his impressive headshots is introduced as “Afghanistan’s Sunny Deol”, and the producer and actor as “Afghanistan’s Amitabh Bachchan”. Shaheen himself is “Afghanistan’s Dharmendra”, while two martial arts experts do duty for “Afghanistan’s Danny”. Almost all the actors hold day jobs—‘Sunny Deol’ works as a finance officer for a large European aid agency; another actor is an engineer with Ariana Afghan Airlines, and is also related to Shaheen by marriage; and the two Dannys work as security officers in prominent embassies while also running martial arts clubs of their own. One of them shows me video clips on his phone of his students smashing bricks with their hands. “We do the action for most of the films,” he says, pointing to a complicated fight sequence he says they shot in two hours with just one camera—something of an achievement, I feel, given how many mean moves he shows. I ask if the actors get paid for their work. There is vigorous refusal and some laughter. “Its all for ‘shauq’,” explains the engineer gently. “We do it because we love it.” ‘It’ here being, presumably, the whole desperate magic of the enterprise, the mad desire for call it what you will—passion for cinema, fame, the high of being seen on screen, the strange addiction to letting off fake guns and getting slathered in fake blood in a country that has seen 30 years of almost nonstop war, or just the idea that Afghans, too, can make movies, and love making them, out of nothing, from thin air.

Shaheen calls for a cut.

Whatever the motivation, it is strong enough to make the crew work through lunch time—a fairly unusual event in Afghanistan’s ‘food first’ work culture. There is a rough and ready touch to the proceedings. Clearly, the rigid hierarchies of film crews don’t mean much here: the continuity guy scurries to check on the potatoes, the producer frets at the authenticity of the soldiers’ uniforms and the entire crew choreographs the much-loved fight and song sequences. The process of filming a song, it turns out, is even simpler than a fight. A tape recorder is set on rock, with its volume blaring. The actors appear one by one, walking towards the camera, dancing to the music from the recorder and breaking off to mouth the lyrics while striking dramatic poses. The crew includes two of Shaheen’s seven sons. (His youngest, at the time of the shoot, was a month old. He also has three daughters.) The older son is in charge of the video camera for the ‘behind the scenes’ footage, while the younger, Zahir Shah, takes stills and is sent scurrying for errands, to fetch props left behind, or to find the cans of blood from the car. (“Get the good one, o bacha, the one we imported from Holland.”) And, always at the centre of this controlled chaos no matter who is in the scene, is Shaheen, as he bellows in that foghorn voice, acting out the entire sequence for his actors, sometimes even prompting them line by line, breaking off only to rapturously exclaim, “How beautiful are these dialogues.”

Shaheen directs a well-trained corpse.

As the light fades, the shoot moves rapidly from a bridge to a hill to inside a ditch before ending up on a rock face by the river, with a dramatic encounter between the runways and the cops who corner them unawares. Time for some bullets to fly. Shaheen loads the muzzle of the ‘Commandant’s’ revolver with a small firecracker, lights it and takes cover behind a large boulder, stuffing his finger in his ears while yelling ‘ACKSHUN’. The crack of the pistol is loud enough to make the crowd of onlookers jump, and the next instant, a well trained corpse slumps gracefully into the water and floats in the shallow eddies, a trickle of blood coming artistically out of its mouth. Shaheen is pleased, not least because he managed the scene with a rough expenditure of a few Afghanis on the cracker. “How much would it have cost in Mumbai, behenji?” he can’t resist asking me.

Such moments are the USP of a Shaheen film, and presumably the reason behind his continuing popularity. But while it’s clear that he loves pulling out such stunts from his bag of tricks, it is hard to miss the undercurrent of resentment in his conversations at not being taken seriously as a filmmaker. While describing one ‘song situation’ to me, he breaks off to explain, “It’s business, you see, you have to put in this stuff because the public likes it.” Now, he says, the audience’s taste is shifting, and the public wants less blood and more emotional drama. For him, this latest film is a festival-ish work, a break from his earlier oeuvre. But at the same time, he is defiant about his signature style, both as a director and as the hard-headed businessman he is, under the bluster and laughter. “My ideal audience,” he tells me one evening, “is a six-year-old boy. If he says my film is rubbish, I go back and take it apart, and work on it until he sits through it without getting bored. Then I know its fine.” And then adds, “I found faults even in the Titanic, which everyone says was such a great film.”

After a late lunch, we move to the final location, a short drive away on top of a hill. The shadows are already lengthening when we reach the huddle of ruined mud houses where the last scenes of the day are to be shot. From that height, we can see green fields turning golden, and the remains of a crumbling watchtower on a hill across from us. It is an impressive location, and a lonely place, somewhat eerie in the half-light of evening. Shaheen sets up the scene, which will show villagers trying to escape when their houses are set ablaze by the bad guys. As there are no actresses around on this part of the shoot, one of the actors is bundled in a burqa and given the role of a woman trapped in the inferno with her young child. As the flames spread and the smoke thickens in the crevices of the abandoned homes, the effect is strangely moving and difficult to watch; maybe a little too real, a little too close to the past. The crowd giggles as the children hired for the scene rush out, screaming and wailing, but Shaheen shouts them down. He shoots and reshoots, and changes angles, fighting against the clock, shouting and pleading with the actors and the crowd, dousing the fire and lighting it again to get the right kind of look. In a little more than an hour the sequence is done, and just in time, right before the sun sets.

As the crew packs up and the cars start revving their engines for the drive back to Kabul, Shaheen sits for a few minutes on a rock, his face blackened and sweating, looking exhausted. “I’m tired,” he says. “I’ve been doing this for thirty years now, and its hard for me. I want to stop, to take a break.” And then, with a sudden shift in his voice, as though responding to a challenge, he adds belligerently, “But who else has the guts to do it besides me? If there is anyone, let them come into the maidan.” I ask him my stock question about where he sees the future of cinema in Afghanistan, with the political situation so uncertain and the Taliban appearing resurgent. Instead of giving me a stock answer, he tells me two stories. This being Shaheen, both are dramatic, and pack solid punchlines in their tails, like a classic Dharmendra left-and-righter. The first is about a Taliban supporter who came to him recently to complain about his ungodly films. “I argued with him, said ‘What did you give us, just kids killing each other and becoming suicide bombers,’” says Shaheen. “When I got home, I felt in my pocket. He had stolen 1,400 Afghanis from me while talking. The guy was a pocketmaar stealing from me while arguing about God! This is the state of this country.”

Salim Shaheen in his office.

The second story, clearly meant to be the clincher, is about a shoot he did recently where he doused an actor in kerosene and set him ablaze for a shot. “There were 500 girls watching him, praying for him, and he was ready to give up his life for the cause of the film. He even left behind a letter for his family. It said that if he died, they should not cry, because he would be a shaheed-e-cinema for Afghanistan. Of course, I took care that nothing should happen to him. But as long as there are people like him in this land, ready to become martyrs for cinema,” declaims Shaheen, getting to his grand climax and nearly goofing it up, before adding just in the nick of time, “and as long as there is Salim Shaheen, Afghan cinema will survive.”