Imagine Madhuri Dixit and Shahrukh Khan making an appearance in one of the Kabul theatres or the Tora Bora Mountains preaching enlightenment, moderation, non-violence and tolerance and the Taliban suddenly start feeling their hearts melt for American soldiers and Indian road contractors. Don’t throw it away or laugh it off as a weird thought but it did exist at one point in time. The USA seems to have been under the impression that Bollywood heart throbs are so much worshipped in Afghanistan that their presence could make a lot of difference. US diplomats suggested stars of India’s film industry could be sent to Afghanistan to help stabilize the troubled country, according to a leaked cable published Friday. The Express Tribune has reported that the confidential US document from March 2007, released by the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks, said that high-profile Bollywood actors could play a key role in India’s “soft power” assistance in Afghanistan.
“We understand Bollywood movies are wildly popular in Afghanistan, so willing Indian celebrities could be asked to travel to Afghanistan to help bring attention to social issues there,” it said.
Bollywood, based in the western city of Mumbai, is a two-billion-dollar industry which has become increasingly popular abroad, not just among the Indian Diaspora but in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Gulf states. In Afghanistan, Bollywood films are regularly shown on television, though with the bare midriffs and plunging necklines of its sari-wearing actresses pixellated for a largely conservative Muslim audience. Movie soundtracks are also popular.
The suggestion, which did not come to fruition, was part of a role envisaged for India in what US diplomats called “people-to-people” assistance. Others included “symbolic” exchange programs in areas like sports or business. US diplomats in New Delhi described India as Afghanistan’s “natural ally” and advocated using its vast wealth of well-trained, and cheaper, expertise to build capacity in areas including the civil service and electoral bodies.
But it warned that a key obstacle to increasing Indian influence would be Pakistan, which fears being encircled by its larger, powerful neighbor and traditional rival. India has committed $1.3 billion to Afghanistan since the US-led invasion toppled the Taliban regime in late 2001. Thousands of Indians are building roads, sanitation projects and power lines, while India is also building the new Afghan parliament. But India’s involvement has come at a cost, with a number of deadly attacks on its interests in the country, including at its embassy in Kabul.