Bollywood in India produces feature on Taliban regime

Monday, February 17, 2003

BOMBAY, India -- A Hindi-language movie with actresses swaying to lilting music may not seem like the ideal vehicle to tell the tale of the Taliban's violence against women. But Bollywood has taken on the challenge.

It has produced "Escape from Taliban," on the treatment of women by the hardline Islamic regime that once ruled Afghanistan.

Anticipating there would be international interest, the movie was shot in English and Pashtu, the language of one of Afghanistan's major tribes, and later dubbed into Hindi.

"I can't deny that Sept. 11 brought the Taliban into world focus," director Ujjal Chattopadhyaya said. "But I was keen on this subject long before and my project was finalized before the terrorist attacks on Washington and New York."

The two-hour Hindi-language version, which opens this month in India, has five song-and-dance routines. But the songs were cut from the English and Pashtu versions that producer Ashok Khemka hopes to show in Afghanistan as well as other countries in Asia and the West. The film's promoters believe foreign audiences will tune out when actors start belting out songs and swiveling their hips.

Foot-tapping dances pop up with startling frequency in most Bollywood movies for no apparent reason and often with no connection to the plot. Hindi-language movies usually feature lavish costumes, melodramatic dialogue and an overdose of songs in the standard girl-meets-boy plot that's the staple fare of some 800 films a year produced in Bombay, India's film capital also known as Bollywood.

This film aims to break the mold with a novel plot. Well-known Hindi movie actress Manisha Koirala, who plays the lead in "Escape from Taliban" says the movie is unusual for Bollywood since it's based on a true story.

"I have a feeling when Afghan women see the film, they will identify with it," she told The Associated Press by telephone from Bikaner in western India.

Koirala, 32, plays a Hindu woman who marries an Afghan Muslim moneylender despite her family's opposition. She lives in Afghanistan and runs a pharmacy that is destroyed by the Taliban regime.

Koirala researched the part by meeting several times with Sushmita Bandhopadhya, the Indian woman who inspired the movie with three books she wrote about her experiences under Taliban rule.

The books, written in the Bengali language, are "Kabuliwala's Bengali Wife" (1997), "Taliban, Afghan and Me" (1999) and "Not a Speck of a Lie" (2000).

Bandhopadhya, also the film's scriptwriter, fled Afghanistan in 1995 after the Taliban issued a death sentence against her for refusing to convert to Islam.

"I was beaten mercilessly and abused," said Bandhopadhya, who now lives in Calcutta with her Afghan husband.

She says Afghan women and her husband's first wife, who still lives in Afghanistan, helped shield her from the Taliban.

"Before the Taliban, women and men worked side by side. Women drove cars, went to college," said Bandhopadhya, who lived with her husband and in-laws in Afghanistan's eastern Paktika province.

"One thing I have tried to show through the movie is that a girl should be prepared for a lot of change after marriage. But whatever happens, whatever the pressure, wherever the girl lives in the world, she should never lose her identity," said Bandhopadhya, 42.

The Taliban forced women out of jobs and schools and into long robes called burqas.

"It is a fact that the Taliban were very harsh to the minorities, especially minority women," said Saher Saba, a member of the women's group the Revolutionary Afghan Women's Association.

The organization is known for secretly filming the Taliban's public executions of women, which shocked the world.

"I think this movie will be received very well by women in Afghanistan. To reach them will be crucial," Saba said in a telephone interview from Islamabad, Pakistan. She said Afghan women would be motivated by the story of a strong woman.

"The Taliban's atrocities against women, especially those who dared to work, should be made known," Saba said.

Bollywood movies on video are popular in Afghanistan, and actresses such as Koirala are household names. Hawkers at street corners do brisk business selling posters of Bollywood stars along with cassettes of Hindi movies.

Koirala, who has acted in 50 films since her debut in 1991, hopes the movie will inspire "some woman somewhere who is a victim to come out of a situation."

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