Kili Paul and his sister Neema from Tanzania have won the hearts of millions of Indians by posting videos in which they lip-sync to songs from Indian films. Their fans include celebrities such as actors Siddharth Malhotra and Jubin Nautiyal and more recently Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
When one interviewer asked Kili Paul how they managed to lip-sync to Bollywood songs so perfectly without knowing Hindi, he replied that if you love what you do, doors open up. In another interview, Kili Paul announced: “Be ready India, we are coming.”
Well, Indian doors are opening up for them.
On February 21, the Indian High Commissioner in Dodoma honoured Paul by awarding him a certificate of appreciation. Later that week, on February 27, the prime minister of India himself commended Kili Paul and Neema.
In his monthly Mann Ki Baat radio programme, Modi lauded the passion the Tanzanian duo have for Indian music and the effort they have put into lip-syncing film songs. Modi urged Indians to emulate the siblings and produce lip-sync videos of songs in India’s various languages.
The brother and sister belong to the Massai tribe and live with their parents and extended family in a village without electricity called Mindu Tulieni in Tanzania’s eastern Pwani region. Their main occupation is looking after their herds of cattle.
Kili Paul told Mbengo TV that in school he was called Yusuf but his father later decided to call him Kili which is short for Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest peak.
After passing the fourth standard in the village school, Paul went to the country’s capital, Dodoma, where he studied up to seventh standard but he had to give up school due to family circumstances. However he had taught himself English and spoke it fluently.
Paul had seen many Hindi films and loved the music. That is how he got the idea of lip-syncing to filmi songs. The first video he posted featured Paul lip-syncing to Zaalima from the Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Raees. He is wearing traditional Massai clothes, surrounded by his herd of cattle under a leafy tree.
Perhaps you would even be inclined to agree with a comment posted by one of Kili’s fans on the video: “Damn he is better than Sharuk [sic].”
Since there is no electricity in his village, Kili would have to ride his bike 10 km away to charge his phone. As Kili Paul got obsessed with lip syncing, practising the same song over and over again for hours, he told one interviewer that his family thought he “was a psycho”.
As his social media following steadily grew to two million, he started getting money from promos. He was able to share it with his family.
When Tik Tok was banned in India, he switched to Instagram. He also persuaded his sister to lip-sync the female parts. Neema was shy but rose to the challenge. She would practice each song for two days, not understanding a word of the lyrics. Some songs were from south Indian films.
Slowly, Neema learnt the meaning of some words and her expressions and movements lend a dignity to the songs.
Kili Paul also enjoys dancing. On January 5, he posted a clip of himself dancing to Rashmika Mandanna’s super hit song Saami Saami from the recently released film Pushpa. Paul says he will sing every single Indian film song and take on every dance challenge.
He told several Indians interviewing him that he was encouraged by the love of Indian people. His praise of Indian people has been exuberant. “Indian people are amazing,” . They will show you love. They don’t fake.”
And as millions of Indians enjoy Kili Paul and Neema videos on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, I cannot help feel a growing sense of discomfort. I could not help but remember November’s demonstration by African refugees in front of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in New Delhi. Many of them had come all the way to India to take refuge fleeing from deadly conflicts because they had grown up loving the India of the Hindi films they had watched back home in Sudan or Somalia.
But instead of a warm welcome when they arrived here, they had faced racism and prejudice every day.
It is not only the African refugees who face racism. There have been attacks on Africans. African love for Hindi cinema and desire to study or work here brings them to India but “when they arrive, they are met with extreme cases of violence, social exclusion and discrimination, institutional neglect, and accommodation difficulties on an everyday basis”, The Quint noted.
African students and those who are working here face racism on a daily basis but some cases of extreme violence do make it to the media: “In 2014, a mob attacked African students at a central Delhi metro station,” The Quint reported. In 2016, a mob in Bengaluru stripped a 21-year-old Tanzanian woman and attacked her friends after a Sudanese student ran over and killed a local woman. In 2017, five Nigerians were beaten up in Greater Noida following the death of a 17-year-old Indian student. Earlier this year, a 27-year-old Congolese died in police custody in Bengaluru, triggering protests by African nationals.”
The film industry has also been guilty of racism, communalism and perpetuating stereotypical images of communities. It has all but forgotten the connections with Africa and with the Indians of African origin.
One of the early superstars in Indian cinema and India’s first female film director, Fatima Begum (1892-1983), was thought to have been been married to Nawab Sidi Ibrahim Muhammad Yakut Khan III of the Sachin princely state.
Sachin was under the Surat Agency of the Bombay Presidency during the British Raj.
Though over 85% of the subjects were Hindu, the state was ruled by Sunni Muslims of the Siddi dynasty of Danda-Rajpuri and Janjira state, just south of Mumbai. The Siddi dynasty had its origins in Abyssinia or modern Ethiopia.
Sachin had its own cavalry, currency, and stamped paper, as well as a state band that included Africans.
Although the marriage between the Nawab and Fatima Bai was not officially recognised, they had three daughters: Sultana, Zubeida and Shehzadi. Sultana was a leading figure in early Indian movies and Zubeida was the leading actress of India’s first talkie film, Alam Ara in 1931.
The first actor from Africa to play a leading role in an Indian film was Samuel Abiola Robinson, a Nigerian actor who appears in Nollywood and Malayalam films. He is best known for his role from the 2018 Malayalam movie Sudani from Nigeria, directed by Zakariya Mohammed.
Over the next few years, perhaps there will be greater collaboration between Indian and African actors, musicians and artists, reviving old connections and forging new friendships.
I hope Kili Paul and Neema do come to India. I hope they are warmly welcomed. I hope Indians will prove worthy of their love.
Nandita Haksar is a human rights lawyer and author, most recently, of The Flavours of Nationalism.