“Besharam is going viral in Egypt right now! Extremely, more than you can imagine. I am listening to it on a loop. Every DJ is playing Besharam. We love Bollywood too much,” exclaims Cairo resident Maiosh Khafagi who is planning a large watch party at a cinema when Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Pathaan releases in Egypt.
“Shah Rukh, I love him! I watched My Name Is Khan six times in the cinema. He has big (many) fans in Egypt. I also like all the movies of Aamir Khan. But Amitabh Bachchan – Big B – oh my God! I memorised all the songs and dialogues of Mard without knowing the meaning,” she adds.
A young Amitabh during his visit to Egypt.
(Photo Courtesy: Facebook screen grab from Egyptian Bahaa Hagazay)
Like Khafagi, there are millions of passionate fans of Indian movies all over Egypt, a country that itself has long been considered the cinema giant of the Arab world. Even though Hollywood films dominate the cinemas in the North African nation, the Egyptians’ love for Bollywood is unmatched.
“We know some Hollywood actors, but we don’t talk about Hollywood much except that the actresses are beautiful. But we love Indian films and India,” says Mohamed AbdelKarim, co-owner of a popular travel company Wings of Isis, named after an ancient Egyptian goddess.
Such closely tied are India and Egypt cultures that Egyptians believe Indian movies are talking about them and their culture. AbdelKarim says people in Egypt are fans of Akshay Kumar, Kareena Kapoor Khan, Hrithik Roshan, Ranbir Kapoor, Katrina Kaif, Salman Khan, but the popularity of Shah Rukh and Amitabh is above everyone else's.
“Coolie, I love it too much! Shah Rukh is the best that came after Amitabh."Mohamed AbdelKarim
Coming out of Cairo’s bazaars and monuments, Indian travelers are pleasantly surrounded by affectionate chants of ‘Amitabh Bachchan, Shahrukh Khan!’
“Everyone on the streets seems to know the name Amitabh Bachchan. Our young travel guide also turned out to be a Bollywood fan,” says Yash Varshney, an Indian who visited Egypt in December 2022, referring to their Egyptologist Mohammed Hussin who clicked pictures while guiding them through centuries old pharaonic history, proudly including the exact locales where ‘Katrina Kaif danced to Jee Karda’ at the Karnak temple in Luxor.
When Amitabh Bachchan ‘Converted’ to Islam
Indian cinema is understandably popular in countries with significant diaspora populations, but Egypt is an exception. The chairman of the Indian Community Association in Egypt, Ashish Walia, says, “Bollywood in general is big here even though there are only approximately 5,000 Indians in Egypt.”
Walia is a steel industry entrepreneur and has been living in the country with his family for over 17 years.
Egyptians got hooked to the traditional Indian formula movies with a villain, a heroine in distress, a hero who saves the day, interspersed with songs and dance, many decades back.
“There was a time around the 1970s when people used to wait the whole week for the prime Friday evening slot. The TV station in Egypt would air an Indian movie, like Doordarshan’s Sunday evening movie slot in India.”Ashish Walia, 49
Going back a little, Karim remembers everyone around him waiting for months for them, “When I was 5-6 years old, whole of Egypt would wait yearlong for Eid and the fasting Eid, the only two days in a year when Indian movies were shown. It was like a celebration. The whole country would watch movies of Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra.”
AbdelKarim, who is in his early 40s, laughingly shares an anecdote when his family started believing that Amitabh Bachchan had converted to Islam.
“One day my grandmother called my mother. My brother and I were playing chess. As soon as she hung up the phone, my mom started shouting with joy – Amitabh Bachchan has become a Muslim! She spread the news to everyone in the whole building and on the entire street. Everyone was so, so happy," says AbdelKarim.
"We believed it for 6 months till we realised that it was only because of a scene from a movie in which Amitabh was running away from bullets, entered a mosque to hide, a flag covered him, saving his life," he adds.
When Traffic Came to a Standstill for Big B
Walia reminisces an unexpected but not surprising scene from the actor’s Cairo visit, when he was to escort the ‘megastar’ to an event: “When I brought him from his hotel room down to the lobby, at least 25 Egyptian women were standing in front of the elevator. They swooned over him, rushed to touch him. They were all shouting in Hindi: ‘Amit ji mein aapko bahut pasand karti hun, Amit ji aapka swagat hai (Amit ji, I like you a lot! Amit ji, we welcome you)’. He was very gracious and found time for pictures with everyone.”
Bachchan was invited to Cairo by the Indian embassy for the launch of the ‘India by the Nile’ festival in 2015, a cultural experience feeding on Egyptians’ inexhaustible thirst for Bollywood.
Cinemas were running latest Indian hits till 1990 but halted when the Egyptian government made it unprofitable for distributors, attempting to boost the local film industry. However, this did not dim the shimmer of Indian film stars in Egypt.
Indian American Neha Dewan, the VP of Operations and General Counsel for Indiaspora, a prominent international network, was surprised at how ‘invested people were into Bollywood’ when she visited Egypt in 2009. “Every shop I visited had an old Amitabh Bachchan movie playing in the background, and if not, when I entered, they would scream Amitabh Bachchan’s name,” she says.
‘India by the Nile’ brought Indian movies back to Egyptian cinemas after 25 years. Even though it had been decades from his angry young man days, Egyptians gathered in large numbers wherever Bachchan went.
“Traffic came to a standstill for Bachchan in Giza,” AbdelKarim remembers the visit. “We invited him to the see the sound and lights show at the pyramids. We had a traffic jam because a record number of Egyptians went to see him.”
Bollywood Music and Parties in Egypt
Khafagi, who says she assisted the embassy with the ‘India by the Nile’ festival, fondly shares that she saw Big B five times on that trip. “Big B is a slogan (icon) for us yani my childhood,” says an excited Khafagi, sharing that her love for Bollywood and longing for India started early.
The Indophile, who used to rent one movie a day during summer vacations, started dreaming of visiting India early in her life. The event organiser’s desire materialised in 2012 when she put together a group of 14 travelers.
“I felt that my heart would stop beating. Oh those 10 days in Delhi, Jaipur, Ranthambore, and Agra! I was really crying at the Taj Mahal! I feel a different energy when my plane lands in Delhi,” says Khafagi, who is now in her 40s.
She has now ‘become famous’ in Egypt for visiting India 27 times since then.
Along with cinemas in Egypt screening the latest, there are round the clock Bollywood film and music TV channels plus films and soap operas online. Historical dramas and conventional formula features are favoured over realistic gritty movies. Despite the language barrier, generations of Arabic-speaking Egyptians feel affinity with the ‘culture and drama of family relationships’ in Indian flicks.
Songs, dance, and costumes flow into local celebrations, says Khafagi. “People play at least one or two Bollywood songs at their weddings. The ‘Mundian’ track [from Baaghi 2] is a big hit at weddings these days! It’s a must to have one Bollywood track during gym and Zumba.”
Egyptians enjoy Bollywood style dance groups that perform at local events – Holi parties are a rave. Popular on social media, Khafagi organises ‘India-themed’ events in Cairo which have included another Holi party at the Indian embassy.
Kriszta Veres, co-owner of travel company Wings of Isis, is ‘deeply influenced’ by Chingari - a Sushmita Sen and Mithun Chakravarty starrer. “I have seen that film over and over, some scenes more than a hundred times for their Kali dances and transformation. It took me on a powerful journey of how to deal with sacred anger and not get swallowed by it,” says the Hungarian who has made Cairo her home.
Bollywood and Food
Indian films and their stars also find their way into desi food. Next only to “Egyptian and Lebanese food we prefer Indian over Western, Mexican, or Chinese,” says AbdelKarim. The sought-after ‘Maharaja’ restaurant has 12 outlets in the country, besides other Bollywood-themed eateries.
Indian tourists can find comfort in vegetarian daal-roti-subzi, non-vegetarian north Indian delicacies and masala chai, as the Varshney family did.
“An Indian restaurant we found in Luxor was run by an Egyptian. It was heartening that the manager mentioned ‘garam-garam rotis’ while serving us freshly cooked ones as we ate.
In Alexandria, the ‘India Gate’ restaurant by the Mediterranean Sea, had Shah Rukh Khan painted on the wall overlooking our table with Shahrukh-Khan-Chicken on the menu,” says Yash.
Exterior India Gate restaurant in Cairo.
(Photo: India Gate Restaurant)
The well-liked ‘India Gate’ has five locations in Cairo. Some restaurants serving Indian food even have a photo booth with desi costumes where guests can dress up and pose for pictures.
India-Egypt Ties: Endless Opportunities
India and Egypt have many things in common – historically and culturally. Both are advanced ancient civilisations, are now developing countries with growing populations, and their friendly ties go back to the non-alignment movement. But Egyptians are quick to point out the difference in economic progress. The Egyptians are not just ‘obsessed” with Bollywood, but are also impressed with India’s economic growth.
Raising his hand upwards, Mohamed AbdelKarim gestures, “Our president [Abdel Fattah El-Sisi] is very impressed by India and the Indian Prime Minister [Narendra Modi]. He wants Egypt’s economy to go up like India’s.”
Referring to the rekindling of India-Egypt synergy, recent Indian ministerial visits to Cairo and the Egyptian President as the guest of honour this year at India’s Republic Day celebrations, Ashish Walia says, “President Sisi has warm regards for India. Egypt is perfectly poised. Now it is going to go up from here.”
The stars will have much to shine for.
(Savita Patel is a San Francisco Bay Area-based journalist and producer. She reports on Indian diaspora, India-US ties, geopolitics, technology, public health, and environment. She tweets at @SsavitaPatel.)