“Global flows”: Ethnographic Studies of the

Hindi Movie in Africa



by Anjali Gera Roy

Writer of the Year JAL, No. 8, 2011



See also Anjali Roy:  The Folktale in Achebe's Fiction





































THE global flows of Hindi popular cinema, christened Bollywood by the global media, have largely been located within the cultures of circulation that dominate the contemporary global process. Bollywood is situated in a transnational network of production, distribution and consumption in the globalized economy in which local cultures, repackaged and redirected in metropolitan hubs, are made available for the consumption of the global consumer. While this might be true of certain kinds of films produced in the present phase of Hindi cinematic history that may be defined as Bollywood, it does not account for more ‘local’ films in Hindi with a significant viewership within India and in Indian diasporas in the present or the past. This narrative of Bollywood’s contemporary global flows to white audience in Europe, North America, Canada and Australia occludes pre-global travels of Hindi popular cinema to the Middle East, Russia, China, Southeast Asia and Africa since the 1950s and those to Indian indentured populations in Fiji, West Indies and Mauritius even earlier. Studies by Manas Ray and Vijay Mishra on the popularity of Hindi cinema in Fiji, and by Vijay Devadas in Malaysia, have uncovered an older history of Bollywood’s exhibition in Indian diasporic settlements and the incorporation of Bollywood images into Hindu epic narratives of Mahabharata and Ramayana on which diasporic desire converged in producing nostalgic myths of returns. Manas Ray’s thesis in his pathbreaking essay on the centrality of Hindi cinematic texts to the production of diasporic Indian identities in Fiji is corroborated by Vijay Mishra in his book Bollywood Cinema: Temples of Desire. While Ray points out that Bollywood’s identity producing function is retained by ‘twice-migrant’ Fiji Indians to Australia,[1] Vijay Devadas’s new work focuses on the forms of sociality that Bollywood texts perform in places of settlement through case studies from South-east Asia.

Despite the long history of Hindi cinematic flows to Africa, the researcher is forced to depend on anecdotal evidence to testify to the popularity of Hindi films in Africa. Shyam Benegal’s mention of the influence of Mother India (1957) on the Ethiopian filmmaker brought the Hindi films’ African constituency to public attention. Shashi Thaoor supports Benegal’s statement through the example of his Senegalese friend’s non-literate mother who would take a bus to Dakar to watch every Bollywood film despite not knowing a word of Hindi. But it is Brian Larkin’s work on the impact of Hindi films on non-South Asian communities such as the Hausa of Nigeria that inaugurates a new direction in the study of Bollywood’s African ‘invasion’ through connecting the movements of Hindi cinema in the past with Bollywood’s transnational flows. More recent studies by Haseenah Ebrahim on South Africa confine themselves to Bollywood’s circulation in the new global process However, new findings by Gwenda vander Steene in Senegal decouple Hindi cinema’s pre-global circulation from diasporic settlement by examining cultural practices centred on Hindi cinematic texts in regions without a South Asian diaspora. This paper draws on these ethnographic studies to locate the global flows of Hindi cinema in these pre-global narratives of mobility to predate the history of globalization in Indian oceanic circulations, colonial migrations and post-colonial exchanges under the rubric of internationalization.

While Hindi films have been an integral part of the Indian diasporic experience, their popularity in many parts of the world without an Indian audience, as Larkin observed more than a decade ago, is an intriguing phenomenon. This undocumented history of Hindi cinema’s popularity in both Anglophone and Francophone Africa was performed in a party at an autumn school on  “Cultural Production and Conflict Mediation” organized by the African Studies Centre at the University of Bayreuth in October 1999 where creative persons from different African regions  had congregated. Being a gathering of professional performers, the evenings invariably offered impromptu performances of poetry, music and dance. On one such evening, a young Nigerian theatre director and a celebrated Cameroonian actor collaborated to put together a song and dance sequence from a popular Hindi film of the late eighties.[2] Dressed in a salwar kameez borrowed from an Indian participant, the seasoned Cameroonian stage actress imitated the inimitable jhatkas[3] and matkas of the former reigning Hindi film queen Madhuri Dixit with consummate ease waving her duppatta as the young Nigerian director intoned the sounds of the chartbusting number aiji oji from the 1989 hit film Ram Lakhan while jumping about like Anil Kapoor. Their familiarity with the Anil Kapoor blockbuster of the late eighties confirms Janaki Nair’s report in 2004 that “the regular matinee show in theatres in Senegal, Gambia, Cameroon and many other parts of Francophone Africa until recently was the Hindi film”, a tradition  that “has declined with the gradual disappearance of the old style theatres” (Npg).

 A ‘twice-migrant’ Indian from Africa to New York recalls having watched Raj Kapoor’s Mera Naam Joker 13 times in an open air theatre in Tanzania in the seventies.[4] Her memories of viewing Hindi films such as Sangam (1964) and Mera Naam Joker (1970) constructed them as an integral aspect of family outings at which Indianness was staged through dressing up in ethnic outfits, eating Indian food and socializing with Indian friends. They corroborate Devadas’s thesis about ‘the social centrality’ of viewing films through similar case-studies from Southeast Asia. But the New York theatre director makes a surprising revelation that connects Hindi films’ African viewership to South Asian diasporic presence while removing it from the region of official statistics on the export and exhibition of films. She points out that while South Asians watched films seated within a fenced enclosure, Africans would view them from outside without being able to hear the dialogues.[5] However, other memories, such as those of a Canadian academic of Ghanaian origin, reconstruct regular theatrical screenings of Hindi films in Ghana until the 1970s where he confessed to have watched Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay (1975) after bunking school.[6] The images made by a Vodun image maker in Benin interviewed by Dana Rush appear to have been inspired by calendars of Hindu gods and goddesses available in African owned shops. In the absence of insufficient fieldwork, anecdotal evidence of this nature must be pieced together to reconstruct the pre-global flows of Hindi cinema to Africa. And in the absence of official trade figures or records of state policies on film exports, such anecdotal  details might help to explain how Tharoor’s Senegalese friend’s mother got addicted to Hindi films or the Ethiopian filmmaker derived inspiration from Mother India. The Hindi cinematic penetration into remote African regions appears to have been a combined effect of South Asian migration, quotas on film distribution and exhibition as well as an African desire of the Indian.

The global flows of Indian images to Africa must be framed against oceanic flows of images between Africa and India in contact zones of the past forged through travel and trade. Positing “the coastline of Benin Republic and Togo as a vortex, incorporating items and ideas from across the sea into its littoral”, Dana Rush focuses on one such “vortextual phenomenon”, that is, the incorporation of India via chromolithographic images (mostly Hindu) “into the eternally organic religious system of Vodun” (150). While the Vodun imagemaker Joseph Kossivi Ahiator, who incorporates Indian items into his own images, claims to have been inspired by his ‘spiritual’ journeys to India, Rush provides a rational explanation of the travels of Indian images to Africa through the arrival of chromolithographs to Africa as early as 1891 when the first colour reproductions were executed in Mumbai (Rush 59-60). The Vodun belief about Indian spirits being from the sea that Rush mentions unwittingly returns the movement of images in the present phase of globalization through advanced travel and communication technologies to the circulations of people in the Indian ocean dating back to the 14th century while connecting televisual flows to other visual practices. A return to these movements in a space without borders might prove to be educating in exploring the implication of living beyond borders. Pedro Machado in “Threads that Bind” traces the “multiplicity of long-term and complex networks of association across and around the ocean” and maintains that “an inter-relationship exists between cultural practices and material exchange”.[7] He shows how the historical spaces of South Asia and East, East Central and Southeast Africa were intimately connected through the cultural logics of cloth consumption and the circulation of networks of South Asian merchants. Machado’s essay is remarkable in his detailed examination of the expanse of Gujarati vaniya networks in the eighteenth century and the determination of Gujarati textile patterns through the preferences of African consumers.

This transnational narrative of exchanges between Africa and India testifies to the contact zones of the past opened by travel, pilgrimage and trade through which cultural cross-fertilization occurred. However, in the absence of research on the history of this cross-fertilization, it is not possible to trace the process through which the idea of India was produced in the African imaginary. Studies in 2008 by Machado and Rush which identify specific cultural practices that emerged out of the oceanic exchange should go a long way in resolving the riddle of the similarity in textile patterns, visual and the musical production of India and Africa. As Rush’s work shows, cinematic images are superimposed on earlier images such as those of the chromolithograph in the nineteenth century and those of producers by tales of travelers and slaves. Until more work such as that of Rush and Machado becomes visible, the history of African Indian cultural contact during the Indian oceanic trade must remain incomplete. However, it is possible to revisit the travels of Hindi cinema to Africa beginning in the 1950s through some recent essays.

“For over forty years, African audiences have been watching Hindi films” (Npg), Brian Larkin asserts, pointing out that generations of Hausa youth had grown up besotted with Bollywood and traced the influence of Bollywood fashions, music and stories on Nigerian cultural production. Larkin’s ethnographic study of the appropriation of the Hindi cinema in the performance of, what he calls “a parallel modernity” by Hausa viewers throws light on its little known uses and gratifications. Vander Steene’s 2008 fieldwork in Senegal builds on Larkin’s pioneering work to disengage Bollywood’s African viewership from the narrative of South Asian migration. In the same year, Haseenah Ebrahim adds a new dimension to the research on Bollywood audience by tracing the viewership from the ghetto to the mainstream in South Africa. The fieldwork by Fair, Larkin and vander Steene in Zanzibar, Nigeria and Senegal, respectively, testifies to the portability of Hindi cinematic narrative that lends itself to a wide variety of appropriations from providing a grammar for romance, lifestyles, fashions, and a model of values. Whether it is Hindi cinema’s didactic function in Zanzibar or the performance of tradition or sacred in Nigeria, it appears quite clear that Hindi cinema’s global flows even before the era of globalization have constituted a viable alternative to Hollywood. Yet their fieldwork which takes the Hindi cinema flows to Africa as axiomatic skims over the history of distribution and exhibition until the 1970s through which several generations of viewers were schooled in Hindi cinematic grammar.

Larkin’s essays that frame the Bollywoodization of Bandiri music or Hausa videos against the discourse of globalization take the 50s flows for granted. As he states, “Hausa nostalgia for Indian films derives from their long historical popularity dating back to the 1950s, which has imprinted generations of northern Nigerians with the songs, narratives, and stars of Indian film” (100). Kano’s appropriateness for the production of Bandiri music is reinforced by its being one of the major urban centres in which Hindi films were screened in the 50s and which later became the centre of a market of pirated CDs and DVDs. In another 1997 essay he points out that Indian films first imported by Lebanese cinema owners in the 1960s were the dominant film form in the North by the 1970s. Laura Fair corroborates Larkin’s findings about the popularity of Hindi films  in Africa through the example of Zanzibar  where two thirds who watched films in the 1950s and 1960 named the same film Awara (1951) as their favourite. Awara, the 1950s angst of unemployed youth in newly independent post-colonial states, connects the Raj Kapoor phenomenon in dissimilar post-colonial locations.

Studies of Hindi films in other parts of Africa such as Zanzibar or Senegal pick on Larkin’s notion of parallel modernity to answer the question Larkin asked almost two decades ago: “What then, do African fans get from Indian movies?” (Npg). African preference for Bollywood melodrama to Hollywood finesse is a form of resistance to the western narratives of modernity. Larkin’s term, ‘parallel modernities’, provides a memorable metaphor linking Bollywood effects to a postcolonial idiom of resistance. Through the evidence provided by these researchers, it appears that African identification with themes, characters and settings portrayed in Hindi films has as much to do with the identity of the post-colonial experience as with the desire for an alternative to western modernity. Zanzibari youth’s identification with the angst of the unemployed youth in Awara, or of Zanzibari women’s with the mother’s struggle to raise her son mentioned by Fair, or the old or young in Nigeria whose  identification with Mother India due to the strong visual, social and political similarities that Larkin refers to, all point to the replication of imperial policies formulated in one colony on the other due to which the mirrored concerns of the colony continue to shape the postcolony in the political, social as well as the personal space.

The idea of India that appears to have inspired a variety of activities in Africa ranges from the influence of Indian political movements on African resistance struggles, the conflict between tradition and modernity, and communal value systems. Underlying the incorporation of Indian visual, narrative and performative practices in a wide range of African cultural practices is the idea of India in which India becomes the signifier for a civilizational rhetoric that can be effectively juxtaposed against the west. In his analysis of the popularity of Hindi films in Africa, Larkin makes the important point that the narrative universe of the Hindi films is perceived as an alterity to the West through which indigenous Nigerian subjectivities might be performed. vander Steene’s work on Indophiles in Senegal shows how Indophiles’ viewing of Bollywood films and dancing to Bollywood songs is part of an ensemble of activities through which Indianness is performed.

The findings of Larkin, Fair, Steene reveal a Bollyphilia, often integrated into an Indophilia which is unexpected not only for its presence in areas without an Indian diasporic presence but for the similarity of the uses to which Bollywood is put within the nation and outside. As both Larkin and Fair show, the Hindi film song and dance convention offers an appropriate oblique medium for the expression of love in traditional societies where direct expressions of love are forbidden. The examples Fair provides of couples, both young and old, going to watch movies in theatres to perform romance carries nostalgic echoes to the subcontinent where movies and ‘going to the movies’ signified a realm of romance on which male and female desire for romance denied by society could be legitimately expressed. Similarly, the practice of repeat viewings at which Hausa viewers reproduced dialogues from the films, sang along to the tunes, and passed comments on the film narrative are no different from that of North Indian men going to watch movies as reported by Steve Derne. Finally, the absorption of Bollywood motifs, images and tunes not only in the African secular but also the sacred as in Bandiri songs which use Bollywood tunes to sing praises to the Prophet is striking for its resemblance to similar appropriations in India. While Larkin and Fair focus on the pull of Hindi films of the 1950s to 1980s as a traditional idiom among a predominantly non-elite audience, vander Steene and Ebrahim bring to light the emergence of Bollywood as ‘Kool’ among the elite audience in Senegal and South Africa. The integration of Hindi films in the African socio-cultural imaginary by a heterogeneous African audience extends Devadas’ argument about the forms of sociality performed by cinematic practices in South Asian diasporas to other postcolonial settings while raising important issues about the transnationalization of a cinema produced as a national text. 

If the Hindi film underpinned by a nationalist ideology produced the nation, as Sumita Chakravarty, M Madhava Prasad and others have convincingly argued, its transnational appropriations not only by the South Asian diaspora but also a non South Asian audience in the production of their own difference from the west invite rethink on the efficacy of the national framework for analyzing practices embedded in transnational flows. The presumed homogeneity of Larkin’s Hausa and Fair’s Zanzibari audience predicated on their shared Bollyphilia conceals the heterogeneity of Hindi cinema’s diverse audience and the forms of sociality it performs in diverse settings. The fact that both Larkin and Fair’s audience are Muslim and proletariat as opposed to vander Steene’s and Ebrahim’s elite multicultural audience provides an important lead to the conceptualization of cinematic flows to Africa. It is also significant that in their appropriation of parallel modernities, African communities in Larkin,  Fair and vander Steene  return to the Hindi films  from the 1950s to 1980s.

The surprising convergence of Muslims not only in Africa but also in South and Southeast Asia and the Middle East on Hindi cinematic texts largely structured by Hindu religious practices points to syncretic religious, political and cultural formations produced through oceanic exchanges in the past. The title of Fair’s essay, “Making Love in the Indian Ocean”, calls attention to these pre-national translocal movements through which remote cultures came into contact with one another. The unproblematic amalgamation of Hindu, Muslim and Sikh practices into the syncretic cultures and religions in the past that persisted at the village level until the end of the nineteenth century was marked by a closure with the emergence of Islamic, Hindu and Sikh nationalisms thereafter.

After the thickening of boundaries following the Indian partition of 1947, Hindi cinema emerged as the boundary crossing space in which the cultural syncretism through which the Persian qisse and dastan were integrated into the Indian narrative and performing arts was retained. These syncretic formations were produced through the trade on the oceanic as well as caravan routes tracing a history of cultural continuity from Africa to India across the Perso-Arabic kingdoms that survives in Hindi cinema and lends itself to reappropriation by dispersed ethnic groups in the present. While they have been co-opted in the propagation of a nationalist ideology, the narrative and aesthetic basis of Hindi cinema in this syncretic tradition explains why African audience are able to identify with their thematic conflicts despite their religious difference.

Larkin’s pioneering work which throws new light on the forms of sociality performed by Bollywood films sells itself short in its framing of the argument against the new model of global flows for describing practices that are informed by the pre-global exchanges of the fifties. The discrepancy in Larkin’s work is typical of the new studies that celebrate the globalization of Bollywood cinema insensitive to the multiple histories and geographies of cultural flows. The flows of Hindi cinema that defy both the national rubric of South Asian film scholars as well as the transnational framework deployed by diasporic researchers must be differentiated with respect to region, ethnicity, period and generation. However, the different phases of flows of Hindi films−prenational, national and postnational−converge on the transnational viewership of Hindi films. The function of Hindi films as sites for the production of diverse ethnic and national identities through audience identification with the narrative conflicts and motifs complicates the framework of national cinema within which early studies examined the Hindi film.

It would appear that Hindi films that were underpinned by nationalist ideologies produced a portable national text capable of being reproduced in other postcolonial locations and co-opted in the production of other national identities. As Larkin demonstrates, the binary of tradition and modernity through which India and the west is reproduced in the Hindi film accounts for its portability in other locations where Indian traditional values acquire a centrality in the resistance to westernization. The tradition-modernity binary that film scholars have located as the narrative centre of the cinematic conflict within a complex network of familial relations that becomes the framework within which national questions are posed in the Hindi film has an immense appeal for developing societies at the cusp of tradition and modernity.  

Since most studies of Bollywood’s popularity in Africa refer to cinematic texts of the 50s and 60s rather than films produced after the insertion of Hindi cinema into the circuits of global capitalism, their illustration of global cultural flows complicates the narrative of globalization. The media flows of globalization riding on advanced travel and communication technologies intersect with the earlier waves of the travels of Hindi films to Africa to produce heterogeneous audience. Their absorption of Hindi cinematic vocabulary from the 1950s to the 1970s when Hindi films were screened in theatres to the late eighties when they were circulated by video libraries and the present multiplex viewing contexts cannot be equated due to the transformation of the proletarian audience of Hindi cinema to Bollywood audience.

In contrast to the universal appeal of Hindi films until the 1970s when they were screened in theatres and formed the sole form of entertainment in Nigeria, the video boom encouraged an informal economy of distribution independent of state intervention but also bifurcated the viewership into the elite, anglicized viewers of Hollywood films and the non-elite, indigenous speakers of African languages. Larkin’s work is extraordinary in its detailed description of the subaltern cosmopolitanism of the pre-global era, which contrasts with the multiplex South Asian and non South Asian audience of Ebrahim’s study. The survival of the Bollywood film in the era of globalization must be attributed to a similar pull of traditional family values in the face of the renewed threat to indigenous cultural values by the forces of global capitalism. Once again, African audience turn to Bollywood films to perform modernity to resist the homogenizing wave of globalization. The Bollywood arrival in Africa emerges from both the export of Hindi cinema to Africa in the ‘nationalist’ phase of the 1950s and the global flows of culture in the new cultures of circulation. The Bollywoodization of Hindi cinema cannot be understood without a reference to the transnational circulation of Hindi film in the nationalist era.  

The problematic location of Hindi cinematic travels in different phases of transoceanic circulations raises important issues about the conceptualization of national cinemas as well as that of globalization. The celebration of Bollywood as a culture of globalization to illustrate the reverse flows from the non-west to the west must be juxtaposed against the long history of transnationalization through which Hindi cinematic texts were incorporated into African cultural practices to assume African ethnic or national identities. Attention to the difference between the subaltern audience of Hindi cinema in the past and the cosmopolitan consumers of Bollywood in the present also points to an alternative narrative of subaltern cosmopolitanisms through which cultural exchanges took place between ordinary folks in the process of trade and travel. The studies on the viewership of Hindi cinema in Africa help to recover these narratives of subaltern cosmopolitanism that have been erased by the euphoria over the elite cosmopolitanisms of the present global process.


Works Cited

Bhachu, Parminder. Twice Migrants: East African Sikh Settlers in Britain. Tavistock, London and New York, 1985.

Chakravarty, Sumita. National Identity in Indian Popular Cinema, 1947-1987. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.

Devadas, Vijay. 'Cinema in Motion: Tracking Tamil Cinema's Assemblage.'  Paper presented at “From Bombay to LA: The Travels of South Asian Cinema.” Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore (9-10 Feb 2009).

Derne, Steve. Movies, Masculinity and Modernity: Ethnography of Men’s Film Going in India. Greenwood Press: Westport. 1999.

Ebrahim, Haseenah. “From “ghetto” to Mainstream: Bollywood in South Africa. Scrutiny2, 13, 2. 2008 (63-76).

Fair, Laura. “Making Love in the Indian Ocean: Hindi Films: Zanzibari Audiences, and the Construction of Romance in the 1950s and 1960s.” Love in Africa. Ed. Jennifer Cole & Lynne M Thomas. Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Larkin, Brian. “Bollywood Comes to Nigeria.” Samar 8: Winter/ Spring, 1997. 31 March 2010 <www.samarmagazine.org/archive/article.php?id=21>

__ __ __.  “Bandiri Music, Globalization, and Urban Experience in Nigeria.” Social Text - 81 (22, 4), Winter 2004 (91-112).

__ __ __.  Indian Films and Nigerian Lovers: Media and the Creation of Parallel Modernities. In The Anthropology of Globalization: A Reader. Jonathan Xavier Inda and Renato Rosaldo eds. Oxford: Blackwell Books. 2002.

__ __ __.  “Itineraries of Indian Cinema: African videos, Bollywood and Global media.” Multiculturalism, Postcolonialism and Transnational Media. Eds. Ella Shohat and Robert Stam. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. 2003 (170-192).

Machado, Pedro. “Threads that Bind: South Asia, Africa, and Cloth Zones of Contact in the Indian Ocean in the 18th and 19th Centuries.” Cultural Studies Association Conference. NYU May 2008.

 Mishra, Vijay. Bollywood cinema: temples of desire. Routledge, New York and London, 2002.

Nair, Janaki. “View from Africa.” The Hindu. Sunday, September 26 2004. 31st March 2010. <http://www.hindu.com/mag/2004/09/26/stories/2004092600100500.htm>

Prasad, M. Madhava. Ideology of the Hindi film: a historical construction. Delhi; New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Ray, Manas. “Chalo Jahaji: Bollywood in Diaspora – in the Tracks of Indenture to Globalization.” City Flicks. Ed. Preben Kaarsholm. Seagull, 2004 (138-179).

__ __ __.  “Bollywood Down Under: Fiji Indian Cultural History and Popular Assertion.” Floating Lives: the Media and Asian Diasporas. Ed. Stuart Cunningham and John Sinclair. USA: Rowman and Littlefield,  2001 (136 – 184) .

Rush, Dana. “The Idea of "India" in West African Vodun Art and Thought.” India in Africa: Africa in India: Indian Ocean Cosmopolitanisms. Ed John Hawley. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 2008.

Tharoor, Shashi. “Why Nations should Pursue Soft Power.” TED Talk. March 31 2010. <video.i-newswire.com/shashi-tharoor-why-nations-should-pursue-soft-power/-United States>

vander Steene, Gwenda. "Hindu" Dance Groups and Indophilie in Senegal: The Imagination of the Exotic Other.”  India in Africa: Africa in India: Indian Ocean Cosmopolitanisms. Ed. John Hawley. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008.


[1] The term ‘twice migrant’ was first used (1985) by Parminder Bhachu in her book Twice-Migrants East African Sikh Settlers in Britain to refer to Indian migrants who relocated to Britain from Africa.

[2] Personal communication. October 2002.

[3] Jhatka is a quick jerky movement in Bollywood dancing and matka means a seductive swaying movement that has become incorporated in the vocabulary of Bollywood viewers and journalism.

[4] Personal communication. May 2008.

[5] Larkin’s mention of a similar audience in  Kano, Nigeria who would  stand for three hours to watch Hindi films when tickets to the open air theatre were sold out confirms the popularity of Hindi films in different parts of Africa where films like Mother India ran for decades (Npg).   

[6] Personal communication. Nair states that their [of people in Senegal, Cameroon, Gambia and many parts of Francophone Africa] “memories petered out with the India of "Sholay". Still, a TV Channel in Dakar obligingly telecast "Lagaan" dubbed in French to convince the sceptics amongst the disbelieving Indians there that Hindi cinema still held its own” (2004 Npg).

[7] A paper he presented at the CSA Conference in 2008




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