Hindi cinema’s celebrated soft power is on full display in Afghan director Shahrbanoo Sadat’s The Orphanage, set in Kabul in 1989. Homeless and parentless teenager Qodrat sells tickets in the black market for Hindi film shows, and sneaks into the cinema to watch Amitabh Bachchan pulp villains and Parveen Babi slither across the screen.

When Qodrat is picked up by the police and sent to an orphanage, his Bollywood dreams follow him. A girl catches his eye, and the fantasy sequence that follows is inspired by the song Jaane Kaise Kab Kahaan from the Bachchan starrer Shakti. Although she is dressed in a fur coat and a Russian ushanka protects him from the Kabul weather, Qodrat and his object of desire could well be in the la-la land promised by vintage Hindi movies.

The situation is grim in the waking world: the Soviet Union-propped Mohammed Najibullah regime is on its way out and the Taliban is at Kabul’s gates. The skirt-wearing staffers at the orphanage will soon be replaced by chador-cloaked women, and the cinemas that provide Qodrat and other Afghans cheap entertainment and escape will shut too.

Sadat told Scroll.in that she occasionally watched Hindi films on television in Iran, where she was born before she returned to her native Afghanistan. After she moved to Kabul in 2008, she realised that she had been watching the films all wrong. They were being shown on Iranian television censored and without one of their best features – the songs.

The first movie the 28-year-old director watched in its entirety was Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay (it is referenced in The Orphanage along with others such as Pukar and Shahenshah). In 2017, when she travelled to Berlin for a scripting residency, she caught up with hundreds of Hindi films on YouTube.

The Orphanage explores grim realities, but Sadat and her director of photography, Virginie Surdej, had immense fun recreating the “most cheesy” Hindi song sequences. “We were drowning in cliches,” Sadat said in an email interview.

The Orphanage (2019).

The Orphanage is based on the unpublished diaries of actor and writer Anwar Hashimi. Like Qodrat in the movie, Hashimi used to sell cinema tickets as a teenager, and had even gatecrashed the sets of the Bachchan-starring Khuda Gawah when it was being shot in Kabul in 1991.

Sadat’s directorial debut, Wolf and Sheep (2016), an observational drama about a pastoral community in rural Afghanistan, also draws from Hashmi’s diaries. Hashimi’s life is a summary of the Afghan experience over the last four decades, Sadat said. “I found his text not only personal but also very political and poetic,” she recalled. “Anwar’s text connected me to the past of Afghanistan, to an image of Afghanistan I’ve never read or seen before.” She is planning three more films on the diaries.

Hashimi has other credits on The Orphanage: apart from assisting on the direction, costumes and props, he plays the institution’s supervisor, who ensures that his unruly wards stay in line. Hashimi took some persuading to appear on the screen, since “he didn’t like his face or his voice”, Sadat said. But she insisted that he play the supervisor. “I thought that Anwar should be in the film – it’s his story, and it made sense,” she said.

Another connection between the films is the angel-faced Quodratollah Qadiri. He is one of many children in Wolf and Sheep and Qodrat in The Orphanage.

Both the films extensively use untrained child actors, which is both challenging and fun, Sadat said. “I didn’t feel the hard work with them – it looked to me as if we were playing,” she said.

The Orphanage (2019). Courtesy Adomeit Film.

Apart from screenings around the world, including a premiere at Cannes and the International Film Festival of Kerala, The Orphanage has been exhibited in Afghanistan. “We do not have any proper cinema theatres in Afghanistan,” Sadat said. “There are only three left from the past, and they only show very low-quality films from Peshawar. A friend of mine recently opened a small cinema with 100 seats in downtown Kabul. She asked me to show The Orphanage as the first film. It stayed from July to October. The film was only scheduled for weekends. Many people came to watch it. It was a very big thing for all of us.”

It is vital for the world to remember that “the mess in Afghanistan is only 40 years” old, Sadat pointed out. Through The Orphanage, she wanted to create a “warless narration” of a war-torn country. At the orphanage, a gang of bullies anticipates the thuggery that will soon overtake Kabul. Qodrat, meanwhile, fantasises about a world in which he can be as brave and romantic as his Hindi film icons. And two boys discuss a girl’s virtues. “She has a mole on her lips,” one says. “I am dying for the mole,” the other replies. Conflict is unfortunately universal, but fortunately, so also is dreaming.

Shahrbanoo Sadat. Courtesy Screengrab/France24.