As soon as the Ghana under-17 football team learnt that their pre-quarterfinal FIFA World Cup match would be held in Mumbai, a new item appeared on their to-do list.
A trip to Film City, where the world of Abhi, Aliya, Pragya, Tanu, Bulbul and Purab came to life through a complex script of twists and turns, misunderstandings and marriages.
The reach of Bollywood has not bypassed Ghanaian shores, but in the West African nation, it is the Indian TV soap opera Kumkum Bhagya that reigns supreme.
“We want to meet and take photos with some of the actors, and even the producer, anyone will do,” says Kwadwo Agyemang, board chairman of the Ghana National Sports Authority. “We don’t mind even if it is for five minutes.”
The “Telenovela” by Ekta Kapoor’s Balaji Telefilms has been on air in Ghana since November 2015, dubbed in the local Twi language and available on prime time. And it has become so popular that the under-17 players in India have been looking for ways to keep up with the story when they are not at training or playing a match. “They can stream it from the Ghana website on their phones to get the translated version, but we have confiscated their phones so they don’t get distracted. I watch the show, so they keep asking me what is happening,” says Agyemang.
According to the Ghanaians, audiences back home are under the impression that the actors are actually fluent in Twi. But what has truly kept them hooked is the incessant plot twists that have long been associated with Indian soap operas.
Citing one example, Agyemang flips out his phone and opens a video that has been doing the rounds in Ghana’s capital, Accra. In the clip, an old woman is standing in front of her TV set, shouting at one of the characters. “In the scene, two characters are fooling Abhi, the rockstar. So the lady is shouting at Abhi to not believe them. People have become so engrossed in the show that there is a special analysis show now, sometimes with celebrities participating, which happens after each episode. Just like a post-match show for a football match,” he says.
In January 2016, the Chief of Assin Asaaman village in central Ghana presented the local TV channel, which also telecasts another Indian soap Veera, with two cows as a symbol of their gratitude. A question on the TV show has made its way to a Class 4 English language question paper, too, says Agyemang.
“I started watching when my four-year-old son told me, ‘Daddy, see, Pragya is in trouble’. So I sat down to see who this Pragya was and I was hooked,” he says.
Given its popularity, the programme attracts one of the highest advertising revenues: approximately $6,500 every month per slot. But the channel has faced a backlash from local producers, who have proposed a law to ban foreign TV shows.
Agyemang, who is also a Member of Parliament in Ghana, says it is an unrealistic demand. “In Ghana, they don’t want to invest in a production. Kumkum Bhagya has been aired for so long because people invested in creating sets, wrote scripts, made the plots. The TV shows in Ghana don’t have great content, either,” he says.
In August, the wife of Ghana’s Vice President was welcomed on the set and posed for a few photographs with the cast. Now the U-17 footballers, who play Niger for a quarterfinal spot on Wednesday, are hoping for a meeting themselves.
They have done their research, too. “We have heard that since there is a festival now (Diwali), everyone has gone on vacation. But we might get another trip to Mumbai very soon,” Agyemang says, referring to the semifinal at the DY Patil Stadium, should Ghana get through.