September 27, 2005

Bollywood and Mr Bean battle it out in Afghanistan

By Terry Friel

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - In the city that spawned
Afghanistan's Taliban, music and TV were crimes punishable by
beatings and jail just a few years ago.

Now, India's Bollywood and its raunchy song and dance
numbers and wet saris compete with Mr Bean and women's
wrestling in the Sadat music and film market, a chaotic
cacophony of sound where it's always night inside and it's
always packed.

"I like Mr Bean, he is very funny," says 12-year-old
Mohammed Rahim, from behind the counter of his father's Ariana
VCD Center.

"I watch him all the time."

Ariana is one of the dozen or so shops in the market. Rahim
says he sells 50 VCDs of British comedian Rowan Atkinson's
famously bumbling Mr Bean every week.

A VCD costs about 100 afghanis, or $2, still a lot of money
in Afghanistan, a country ravaged by decades of war and chaos
and with a shattered economy.

Many people, too poor to buy, come just to watch the video
discs that are constantly and loudly running in every shop, or
to play the video games also on display.

Bollywood movies such as "The Rising," about the 1857
mutiny or first war of independence, "Policewala" and "Salaam
Namaste" - a daring tale of sex without marriage - pack the
shelves under posters of Bollywood pin-ups such as Shah Rukh
Khan -- a Muslim -- and Aishwarya Rai, once voted the most
beautiful woman on the planet.

"Bollywood is great," says 18-year-old student Nur
Mohammed. "The stories are so good. And Aishwarya is so
beautiful. I enjoy her."

He buys one or two VCDs every week. That is all he can

Afghan, Persian and Arabian music CDs, with busty, scantily
clad women on the covers also sell quickly.

This now bustling trading city on the road from southern
Pakistan to Kabul is where the hardline Taliban began. They
took over the city in 1994 and ruled until they were driven out
by U.S.-led forces in 2001.

They banned music and television, closed schools and put
women under virtual house arrest, not allowed to step outside
without a male relative as an escort.

Now, with the Taliban gone -- leader Mullah Omar's
sprawling and luxurious compound now a U.S. base on the
lunar-like landscape on the edge of town -- and the end of a
seven-year drought, the city is booming.

But it is still a deeply conservative place, the
pomegranate and Chinar gardens of saint Baba Wali park just
past Mullah Omar's compound are packed every Friday, but
strictly men only.

"Hollywood and Bollywood and Mr Bean give us something
different," says Rahim. "Then, it's not like we're here at