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.