'Every Moroccan will know at least 100 words in Hindi'
Romantic landscapes. Enchanting souks. Affable people. Bollywood. In a special series, Arthur J Pais takes a magical, mystery tour of Morocco.
The young man working on a hide in a tannery in Fez is oblivious to the hordes of tourists, it seems. But look again. You will see that from the corner of his eye, he is looking at some of them, possibly the pretty girls, who like other tourists take umpteen pictures of barrels of colourful dyes used in the tannery. It is not an easy thing to do; for they are also holding sprigs of fresh mint to ward off the stench not only from the hides of goats, sheep, camels and cows but also from the pigeon poop used to treat the hides.
But today the young man notices two people in the tour group which consists of mostly Australians and British.
"Do you know Jackie Shroff?" he asks us, the only two Indians in the group, in decent English which, he later tells me, he learned while moonlighting as a tourist guide in the evenings. "Everyone here says Shah Rukh Khan or Amitabh [Bachchan] are the best, but I like everything about Jackie. He is a real man. I see his old movies all the time."
Others in the group are a bit bewildered. Some of them know of Bollywood. But they do not know of Jackie Shroff.
"How did he know you are from India?" one of them asks my wife.
Throughout the two weeks we spent in Morocco, no one asked us if we were from Pakistan or India, unlike the question we frequently faced during a Turkish sojourn two years ago.
They just knew we were from India.
Moroccans, who devour Bollywood films with a bigger appetite than the Russians, want you to be an Indian even if you are a Pakistani.
When the salesperson at the tannery, who provides the rundown on how hides are treated and what dyes are used, talks to me about his favourite Bollywood singers, he includes the name of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. "But he was from Pakistan," I say. He wastes no time in replying. "Nusrat must have learned his art from Indian films. That is why he made music for Indian films"
Bollywood is ever present in Moroccan conversations with an Indian visitor. You hear it mentioned in the souks the sprawling covered and open markets that sell anything from expensive carpets, intricately woven shawls, imitation American caps, jewellery, lake fish, to goat and camel meat and the tea shops. At train stations, and restaurants. And at every tourist spot where an Indian cannot get away without listening to a Moroccan saying something in Hindi or singing a few lines from the latest Bollywood film.
"Hey lady, this is special for you because of Shah Rukh," a salesman says, offering a $500 (about Rs 22,000) leather jacket in Fez to my wife. A recent Bollywood film is playing on his television. "I make good price for you because you are from India."
Earlier our tour guide has told us to bargain hard. "If the price is high and you have to bargain, I will say good," he had said. "And that means you can bargain really hard. If I say very good, bargain a bit. You are not being overcharged in this case."
This time the guide has said good, and we ask the price to be halved.
But the salesman is not giving in. "Best price in Fez," he says. "I make $450 now (about Rs 20,000). You show this to Shah Rukh, he will like it. This will last for 50 years."
He is talking more about Bollywood films. We politely say no and go to another shop. For no particular reason, I turn back. He is looking at us with angry eyes. Perhaps he is muttering a curse. We discover in no time that the love for Bollywood doesn't always last.
A student in Casablanca says he has seen the Hollywood hit Inception three times and he sees over a dozen Hollywood movies a year. "But Indian films are very special," he says. "They tell stories about families, of brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters Stories like our stories, like what happens in Morocco or Egypt. And then they give us everything. We laugh, we cry, we sing and we love Kajol and Aishwarya [Rai Bachchan], and all the Khans. But there is no one to beat Amitabh."
But Bollywood gains very little from Morocco, other than adoration. Though a dozen theatres screen Bollywood films, most Moroccans watch them on television or buy pirated DVDs.
"The artists who worked on this ceiling must have been listening to Mohammad Rafi or Lata [Mangeshkar]," says the manager of a four star resort hotel in Marrakesh. "Otherwise, he would not have been able to create such a beautiful ceiling."
The man, who is in his late 20s, has seen the films that had thrilled his father.
"My father said he saw Mehboob Khan's Aan five times," he recalls. "I think I have seen it at least 20 times."
As he speaks about his favourite Bollywood directors including Vishal Bharadwaj, his face saddens. "I am making this request to you because you are a journalist," he says. His eyes are now moist.
"We used to have a beautiful movie theatre here," he says. "It also showed Indian films and we held Indian film festivals there. When Amitabh and his wife Jaya [Bachchan] came here for a festival, we carried them around the theatre on high chairs. Aamir Khan has also come here. We treated him like we would treat our king."
The theatre has been closed, he said, because of the recession.
"It would be nice if Amitabh or Aamir takes it over," he says. "Would you tell them to do it please?"
Indian movies are so popular across the country, he says, that Hindi is like an unofficial language to thousands of people. "Every Moroccan will know at least 100 words in Hindi because of your films," he says.
He had also heard -- this was in late July -- that Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor would be shooting a movie in Marrakesh.
"I am going to meet them too and request them to save this beautiful theatre."
Image: The Art Deco Rialto cinema in Casablanca screens Morocco's biggest box-office successes
Photographs: Rafael Marchante/ Reuters