- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 22, 2010

JALALABAD, Afghanistan | In real life he’s a pharmacist, a polite young man who dispenses antibiotics and advice in a tiny Jalalabad shop barely 40 miles from where Osama bin Laden disappeared into the mountains.

But when evening falls, when Zhaid Khan shuts the pharmacy’s gates and sends his young assistant home, he becomes someone else. Then he’s a lover (albeit a chaste one). He’s a singer (or at least a lip-syncher). He’s a fighter, a hero, a defender of the powerless.

You’ve never heard of him, but Zhaid Khan is a movie star.

The quiet pharmacist is the chiseled face, the rippling muscles, the romantic hero of the minuscule Pashto-language vision of Hollywood set amid the towns and mountains of eastern Afghanistan. It’s a region where American drones regularly hover overhead, Taliban attacks come all too regularly and it takes more than a little courage to be an actor.

Mr. Khan is famous across Jalalabad, and fans sometimes come to the pharmacy to gawk at him and ask for autographs. Sometimes, though, the Taliban seek him out too. They leave him notes in the night, warning they’ll burn down his shop and kill him. One day, he fears, they’ll follow through on their threats.

But as Afghanistan struggles with an Islamist insurgency that has surged back since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion, putting broad swaths of the country under Taliban control, a handful of actors are making a cinematic stand.

They do it with movies that are sold here only on DVD, will never make it to Western art house cinemas, and can withstand only the gentlest of criticism.

There are shaky camera angles, wildly awful hairpieces and dialogue with the cadence of a press conference (“To achieve our goal we must try to attain our objectives and what we have vowed to do,” a hero intones in “Black Poison,” an anti-opium morality tale).

Each film is a patchwork of themes — romance, thriller, weepy family drama — knitted together by martial arts battles and lots of squirting sheep’s blood bought from local butchers. The bad guys all seem to have scars, limps or both. The good guys often wear white. The films are made, very often, with little beyond a camcorder, a couple workshop lights and some pirated editing software.

But, they’ll tell you here, their battle is worth fighting.

“We are changing how people think,” said Mr. Khan. “Young people see our movies and they know that Afghanistan is not just AK-47s and war. There’s something else here, too.”

In a country where most people live in desperate poverty, the movies show fantasies of middle-class Afghan life alongside the action and adventure. There are people with steady jobs, helpful government officials, uncorrupted policemen.

But the films also reflect the world around them. Jalalabad is not in the Taliban heartland, but it is a part of Afghanistan’s deeply conservative Pashtun belt. Osama bin Laden once had a mansion just outside the city, and he escaped U.S. forces from his nearby mountain compound in Tora Bora.

So actresses tend to be rarities in Pashto-language films — few families allow their daughters to enter the movie business, and nearly all actresses must come from Pakistan. Sex is not even hinted at.

Song-and-dance scenes, which are at the heart of most South Asian movies, steer very clear of risque moves, with actors often lip-synching to music lifted from Pakistani movies.

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