When you think of Uzbekistan, the first thing that comes to mind is how the influence of different leaders has changed the country over a period of time.
And although leaders like Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan left a mark on the region, the personality that seems to be embedded in the minds of most of today’s Uzbeks is that of infamous Indian actor Mithun Chakraborty, who came to the country in 1980 to shoot Ali-Baba and the Forty Thieves. The movie, shot by an Uzbek film studio in collaboration with India, was one of the biggest international projects filmed in Uzbekistan during the Soviet era.
Obid Karimov, a local in Tashkent, says the ‘great movie’ also starred legendary Uzbek comedian Asomov and was one of the best-selling movies of all times in the Soviet Union in the 80s, and was watched by millions of viewers in USSR alone.
Although the country always embodied aspects of different cultures, what seems to be gaining popularity today are Bollywood hits — and this trend is alarming the Uzbek government and the blossoming Uzbek Film industry.
The ex-soviet state administration sees this as an awakening threat which is detaching Uzbekistan’s youth from the state’s ideology. Obid says that Indian movies are shipped to Uzbekistan from India and are translated into local languages. These movies are not just being showcased in cinemas but are also taking up airtime on local TV channels. “We watch Indian movies at home on TV and listen to Indian songs on the radio all the time,” he says.
The proliferation of this infectious Bollywood glitz and glamour that continues to embed itself in the hearts of Uzbek women, men and youth is not going unnoticed by the government. President Karimov’s government is currently chalking out strategies to promote Uzbek movies at home over Indian movies. The government has written scripts and engaged the entertainment industry in its effort to reintroduce Uzbek youth to the country’s indigenous culture.
Today there are more than 50 private film studios in Uzbekistan that produce about 50 films a year. The government strictly controls the entertainment industry and even bans artists if it has to. Uzbek performers now are forced participate in the promotion of the image of the country and patriotism.
But though the government has take measures to try and protect the industry, Uzbeks are still drawn to the choreography and bright cinematography of Indian cinema.
“Bollywood is fantasy, and we love being a part of the journey, even if it’s just for a few hours,” says Obid. The Uzbek film industry, in an attempt to keep its audiences’ interest, has in fact started to elements of Indian films in their own productions. “The characters [in some recent Uzbek films] are larger than life just like in an Indian movie, but the ending is usually sad like a Russian drama,”adds Obid.
An official from the Pakistan Embassy in Uzbekistan says that the influence of Bollywood is “huge” and that Indians are investing heavily in Uzbekistan. “We tried really hard to try to promote the Pakistani entertainment industry here…” he says. “But our movies are of really bad quality and not worth watching. We tried to play Shoaib Mansoor’s Khuda Ke Liye here, but the government did not allow us to because of the subject the movie was based on.”
So, mirroring Pakistan’s own one-time struggle with Indian TV channels, Uzbek cinema too is struggling to deal with Indian influence. Although Uzbek film production is now growing every year, and locally produced movies are sometimes even more popular than Hollywood blockbusters, according to locals in Tashkent, Bollywood is here to stay. “Men love Indian actresses like Aishwarya Rai, Priety Zinta, Rani Mukherjee, and actors like Shahrukh Khan and Amitabh Bachan are really famous in Uzbekistan. If they ever came here they would definitely attract a crowd,” announces Obid.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, May 8th, 2011.