The presence of Bollywood films in Africa has a long history, one embedded in larger cultural and commodity exchanges between the continent and South Asia. “Bollywood” is a modern signifier for older film industries located in colonial and postcolonial India, with the largest export being commercial Hindi-Urdu movies produced in Bombay. Their circulation played out distinctly in different parts of Africa, based on colonial connections, Indian diasporic networks, regional trading linkages, and audience tastes. East Africa first saw the arrival of Indian films in the 1920s, imported by diasporic Indian entrepreneurs who opened movie theaters and screened Hollywood and British films as well. Indian and African communities both consumed Bombay movies and they increasingly came to lead East African box office shares for decades, even as moviegoing declined toward the end of the 20th century. Bollywood films reached South Africa in the 1930s and later were the preserve of isolated Indian communities under Apartheid in cities like Durban, home to a large South Asian population as a result of colonial indentured labor flows. Hindi and Tamil movies formed a cultural touchstone for settled diasporic populations who engaged with representations from a perceived homeland, although Bollywood films were mainstreamed in South African society in the 1990s. In West Africa, lacking robust Indian diasporic networks, Lebanese traders introduced Bollywood films in the 1950s. They became immensely popular among African audiences in places like northern Nigeria and Senegal. As in East Africa, West African audiences interpreted foreign films in line with localized cultural and political values. By the 1990s, Nigerians were making some movies that riffed off popular Indian films in a global milieu of cultural mixing. In North Africa, distributors first marketed Indian movies in the 1950s to Egypt, where they attained a cult following. Bollywood stars and paraphernalia gained social prominence, although the public screening of films dwindled in the 1990s, forcing Arab fans to rely on alternate circulations, which continued into the early 21st century throughout the continent thanks to satellite television and other media technologies. The long-standing popularity of Bollywood in Africa should be no surprise given the worldwide spread of Bombay films from their inception, a tradition of exchange between South Asia and Africa, especially across Indian Ocean and imperial worlds, and Africans’ historically vigorous participation in regional and global cultural economies.
To most Western scholars, “East Asian cinema” calls to mind either a small number of globally recognized art house auteurs or specific genres that have found cult audiences in the West. However, this overlooks the enormously complex history of the popular film industries in the region. The tendency to group together films from the region as East Asian cinema can elide some important differences in the film industries and cultures in individual parts of the region, but, at the same time, the “national cinema” framework fails to appreciate the interconnectedness of these cinemas both to each other and beyond the region. The earliest film screenings in China, Japan, and Korea were in the last decade of the 19th century, within a few years of the Lumière Brothers’ first demonstration of their new invention in Paris in 1895. Japan and China both developed robust popular film industries by the mid-1920s. Colonized by Japan in 1910, Korea nevertheless also developed a popular film industry by the mid-1920s, albeit one that was dominated by business interests (if not necessarily talent) from Japan, and subject to the censorship laws of the colonial government. It is impossible to extricate the networks of commodity and artistic exchange from the history of colonialism in the region—both the colonial designs of Western powers on East Asia, and the reach of the Japanese Empire, whose ascendance coincided precisely with the first half-century of film history, and whose shadow has continued to have implications for cultural exchange within the region ever since. Major geopolitical events such as World War II and the Cold War have also played an important role in shaping film production, and its circuits of exchange, in the region.