Every time I watch old movies that I had first seen during my childhood in Kabul, I can hardly focus on the plot. They unfailingly evoke memories not of the movies themselves, but of circumstances surrounding them.
Bright afternoon strolls with best friends to the cinema; spring evenings filled with the sweet scent of the acacia trees beside our neighbourhood movie house; checking out a cousin’s admirer who would sit two rows behind; giggling with my brother at our nanny’s stunned reaction to her first cinema experience.
In the mid-20th century, when Afghanistan stepped up its efforts for development and a move to modernity, cinema became an effective catalyst to open minds and ferment a desire for change. The movie screen became a window to the world and offered glimpses of other cultures. It allowed exposure to new ideas and discovery of universal human experiences.
But, cinema also became a social club. Going to a film was an occasion to meet friends and strangers outside the confines of one’s home, an outing, a social event. It was the place to see and be seen.
The first film projector – a “magic lantern” – came to Afghanistan in 1904, during the reign of Amir Habibullah Khan. The occasional shows at the palace, though, were for the ruling elite only.
Cinema Kabul, established in the late 1920s, was the first public movie house. It screened Indian and American movies. In the silent movie era, live performances by two prominent classically trained masters on the piano and the violin would accompany the movies.
The movie-going culture spread so fast in Kabul that the small cinema and its limited show times could no longer meet the high demand. Tickets were resold at two or three times the original price on the black market and at times, people would resort to fist fights to obtain tickets at the box office.
Until the mid-1950s, only men and children could go to the movies. To accommodate women and the overall increase in motion picture interest, the Kabul Municipality built Cinema Behzad. One show a week was assigned for women only.
Later in that decade, Zaynab Theatre was established in the compound of the Women’s Institution, where the daily matinee show was designated exclusively for women.
My mother, who had had her first film experience at about the age of eight at Cinema Kabul, fondly remembers her weekly movie excursions at Zaynab Theatre with her older sister and cousins, all enthusiastic teenage movie buffs.
Urban middle class
By the beginning of the 1960s, a bold move by the royal family to encourage the lifting of the veil and social seclusion of women had ushered in fundamental changes in Afghanistan.
Cinema did not remain an exclusive pastime of the city folk. Rural Afghans would travel from all corners of the country to Kabul to experience it, sometimes watching the same movie several times...
This period was also marked with a boost in development projects and the emergence of an urban middle class. Foreign scholarships and increased governmental and commercial relations with the world introduced different countries and cultures to many Afghans. For the rest, foreign movies were windows to the outside world.
Cinema did not remain an exclusive pastime of the city folk. Rural Afghans would travel from all corners of the country to Kabul to experience it, sometimes watching the same movie several times during their stay in the capital.
With the ever increasing venues throughout the 1960s, not only in Kabul but also in other major cities, Afghans were offered a vast choice of films from Iran, India, Turkey, Europe and, of course, Hollywood.
While many theatres in Kabul and in the provinces screened Indian movies, three cinemas in the more modern and affluent Kabul neighbourhoods showed mostly Western and Iranian films. These were also the venues that had become the meeting places of young Kabul residents.
Most westerns were dubbed in Persian in Iran before being screened in Afghanistan. As a result, Afghans became familiar with the Iranian dialect of Persian and could better understand the plot.
The Iranian dubbing voices for Western actors had been so well established in Afghan ears that most of us found Clint Eastwood’s or Alan Delon’s real voices unsettling when we later saw The Good, the Bad and the Ugly or Borsalino in their original forms.
Plight of the oppressed
Whether it was a spaghetti western, Greek or Roman mythology, a slapstick comedy or an epic love story, Afghan audiences were most attracted to stories depicting the plight of the oppressed and the final defeat of the oppressor.
In a culture so profoundly grounded in the ethical tales of Saadi Shirazi and satire-wrapped anecdotes of Mullah Nasruddin, movies with a message were welcomed as a modern form of timeless and universal lessons.
A vivid example of the influence of movies is the screening of the Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine’s biography of the Algerian freedom fighter, Djamila Bouhired. The film, Jamila, the Algerian, provoked angry demonstrations in front of the French embassy in Kabul with anti-colonialist slogans.
But movies also served the vanities of their Afghan audiences. Emulating Western movie stars, women of Kabul donned Sophia Loren’s hairdo and men had Sean Connery’s James Bond suits copied.
Regional actors became popular idols. Posters of Indian stars such as Madhubala and Raaj Kumar (1950s), Hema Malini and Rajesh Khanna (1960s), and Iranian and Turkish heartthrobs such as Fardeen and Fakhreddine (1960s) decorated walls of local kebab joints and teahouses and were bestselling items in shops around the country.
Indian and Iranian movies were more popular among the masses. Social issues and the way stories were told rang more familiar. Also, for the price of one cinema ticket, they provided multidimensional entertainment. The caption on the huge posters would often read: “Cinemascope, technicolor, with scenes of love, fights, drama and comedy”.
Soundtracks from popular Indian movies such as Awara and Pakiza were played loud in local restaurants; famous Iranian movie songs such as Sultan-e Qalbha (King of the Hearts) were sung by Afghan pop singers. Most of all, it was the music and dance scenes that attracted Afghans to Indian and Iranian movies.
An indigenous movie industry was launched in the early 1960s with the establishment of the governmental entity, Afghan Film. Though the main objective of the institution was production of documentaries and newsreels, it also sponsored several feature films.
The newsreels were shown at all state-run cinemas before the start of the feature film, and were then taken to the provinces to be shown by a mobile projector unit in an effort to raise public awareness.
Despite flaws and shortcomings, the handful of featured movies that Afghan Film produced up until the late 1980s, drew large audiences. The plots, reflecting existential problems of the society resonated with the viewers.
Today, while Afghans continue to be avid film enthusiasts, the movie-going culture has all but disappeared. Out of 23 movie houses that existed in pre-war Kabul, only five have been restored and are open to the public. However, due to the precarious security situation, and a return to social conservatism, the audience consists of only men.
Satellite and cable television has replaced the big screen in providing entertainment and awareness of the outside world but, alas, safe public spaces for a family outing or socialising with friends no longer exist.
Helena Malikyar is an Afghan political analyst and historian.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.