Making films from nothing

Afghan Salim Shaheen is the subject of the critically acclaimed Sonia Kronlund documentary that chronicles his life and work in his war-torn country

Updated - June 12, 2021 07:10 pm IST

Published - November 03, 2017 09:06 pm IST

 Salim Shaheen is called the Dharmendra of Afghanistan.

Salim Shaheen is called the Dharmendra of Afghanistan.

When Salim Shaheen, a small sturdy man with dark hair and a sly smile, presented the documentary Nothingwood to the audience at the recently concluded Jio MAMI 19th Mumbai Film Festival with Star, the audience immediately cheered. Without wasting a second to talk onstage, Shaheen instead belted out 'Kaun Hai Jo Sapnon Mein Aaya' from the 1968 film Jhuk Gaya Aasman . The Afghani actor-director has worked in films for ever for over 35 years and has directed over 100, but only one has made him famous all over the world. It’s the work of French radio journalist Sonia Kronlund, an 85-minute documentary, Nothingwood that covers Shaheen’s life and work. For the low-budget filmmaker, cinema and his home country have a special connection. It’s one that has struggled to stay alive during war under the Taliban reign. But, of course there were a few — like Shaheen — who did not give up their creative work. Here, he talks about his love for Bollywood and fuelling his passion.

You sing in Hindi in the documentary. How did you learn it?

My passion with Indian Cinema started when I was eight years old and I saw Yaadon Ki Baraat (1973). I sometimes ran away from home to watch films. And I learnt Hindi by singing Mohammed Rafi’s songs, which I saw in Dharmendra films. But I’m not alone.

So that’s not unusual in your country?

Bollywood has become popular in Afghanistan. Movies have been shot there and we even got the headline 'Bollywood came to Cannes via Afghanistan', when Nothingwood was screened [at the festival] in May.

How did you get thename'Prince of Nothingwood'?

I have many names, 'Dharmendra of Afghanistan', too. (Laughs). The Afghan filmmakers gave me the name 'Sultan', because I make two or three films a year. And Nothingwood is simple. The film industries in Hollywood or Mumbai have funds, equipment and security. But in Afghanistan we have nothing. Nobody helps us. That's why we make films from nothing.

What is cinema like inAfghanistan?

Sure, there are famous filmmakers in Afghanistan like Engineer Latif or Siddiq Barmak. About 90% of the people working in action movies in Afghanistan, once worked with me, later starting their own companies. But it is hard to get a budget and to promote your films, too. There are only a few cinemas and there is a huge black market, where films are copied and sold or uploaded by pirates.

It’s not east to make a film in Afghanistan then…

It's difficult, but I love my work and I decided long ago to continue. I try my best to keep the Afghani cinema alive. Even when it was banned, the Taliban were watching my films in secret. I’m only scared of god and if this should be the way I'll be killed one day, it is fate.

How did you family react to your career?

When I decided to become an actor, my family was against me and I was beaten by my brother. But since I got a name, everything is fine.

How did you get in touch with Sonia Kronlund?

Sonia was in Afghanistan and I guess she heard from another director about me. We met the first time in 2012 and she asked me to make a film about my life, my childhood. Two years later she came again and we shot the film.

It must have been hard forKronlund to shoot a film in Afghanistan, being a female director.

We shot a lot in the Bamiyan province, which is an hour away from Kabul. It’s a safe place. I must say, she is a brave woman and did an important job for the Afghan cinema. I am happy she completed it.

Do you have any Bollywoodplans?

I would love to [act in Bollywood]. I’ve planned an Afghan-Bollywood film but due to security issues we needed to cancel it, but I am open for new ones. Hopefully, next year I can present one of the films made by Shaheen Productions at MAMI.

Translation of Salim Saheen’s answers have been done by hiscolleague Faridullah Mohibi.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.