Egyptians are Bollywood crazy. Specifically, and by far, they are obsessed with Amitabh Bachchan. He’s their first reference to anything Indian. My very first independent, non-school outing in Cairo, to a corner grocery in Garden City, enlightened me to this fact.

Where are you from? the rather young — teenager maybe, twenties tops — guy behind the counter asked me.

India, I replied, (as I always do to keep things simple).

The inevitable Welcome, welcome in Egypt later, he went on to say, Very nice people in India. And before I could respond to that remark, he followed up with, Do you know mitabachan?

The word (it was said as one) sounded vaguely familiar, but I dismissed the thought – after all why would a non Hindi-speaking young man in Egypt ask about an aging Indian filmstar who is (well lets face it) somewhat past his prime now? Granted I had loved him in my teen years – wept for him in Sholay and with him in Deewar and Milli and Anand, sighed over him in Abhiman and Silsila and Kabhi Kabhi, delighted in Amar Akbar Anthony, Don, and countless other like roles, and oh sung along with songs that featured him, but all that had been in the seventies and eighties.

But indeed that’s who was meant. Amitabh Bachchan. We love Indian cinema in Egypt, the grocery boy told me. Especially mitabachan. Sholay. At that point he may have hummed a few bars of some song or another — Yeh Dosti … or something. I was too stunned to respond. Just grinned nodded collected stuff and left.

A few days later, it happened again. This time I was getting a massage and it was my masseuse. Again, a bit younger than I expect Bachchan fans to be these days. After all in India, its Abhishek, Amitabh’s son (and Aishwarya Rai’s husband) who is the hearthrob these days. But these Egyptians know the real article evidently, for she asked me the same question: Do you know Amitabachan?

Her pronounciation was slightly better — there was actually an ‘A’ at the beginning though it was still said as one word. Well not exactly…but I used to watch his movies, was my weak attempt at humor. Which was totally lost on her.

I LOVE that man, she said with a dopey look in her eyes and much emphasis on the word love. Evidently many Egyptian ladies feel the same way. I hear that traffic was blocked for hours all around the airport, the one time he visited Cairo.

Bollywood mania doesn’t end with the Big B. Oddly enough the next most frequent reference I’ve heard is the movie Sangam. Which is even older — I’ve heard that it was the first movie my parents went to as a couple. There are also questions – this bit is hearsay – about Shah Rukh Khan and from the guys, about the blue-eyed beauty Aishwarya Rai. But no one has reached the state of superstardom as Bachchan ji. Which, I must confess, is how I think things should be.

My Arabic tutor, Nagla, who also works as a subtitler, though not for Hindi movies, asked me about Bollywood as well. She asked about Sangam first, but then of course about Amitabh as well. The next bit was even more of a shocker — you know there is one movie, she told me, I forget its name but it had three brothers.. they got separated…

Surely she didn’t mean…but yes… she did. Of the hundreds of Amitabh flicks (no that’s not an exaggeration) she asks about one of the two DVDs that I had actually brought with me here. A-A-A. Featuring Anthony Gonsalves himself. The next class I took it in for her, and 2 days later she had already seem it — the whole 3 hours in one sitting and in the company of her daughter-in-law.

Never in a million years, would I have guessed that Amitabh Bachchan and not a purple rose would be my icebreaker in the marketplaces of Cairo! Live and learn. Or as it might be in Bollywood-ese: Abe bachchu, jiyo aur seekho!

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