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Films

Xala (1975)

A 1975 Senegalese film directed by Ousmane Sembene, Xala is based on Sembene’s 1973 novel of the same title. The word ‘Xala’, in Wolof, translates to temporary sexual impotency. As the name suggests, this satirical comedy follows the life of El Hadji – a Senegalese businessman who becomes afflicted with an erectile dysfunction on the occasion of his third marriage. Sembene also tries to portray the political and social impotency of the ruling class in a newly independent Senegal and traces the failures of African Socialism through this widely celebrated film.

The film opens with the Senegalese Businessmen throwing out the Europeans and taking over the Chamber of Commerce, amongst the celebrations and jubilations evoking National Liberation. However, one of the Europeans immediately returns and places briefcases filled with bribe money before the Africans, which they evidently adore.

It is thus in the opening scene itself that Sembene suggests it is only the faces of the rulers that have changed while the underlying greed and corruption remain the same, as the whites hand over their corrupt political system over to the Africans.

There are recurring images in the movie that suggest that the Senegalese bourgeoisie slavishly adore all that is European, even after having formally gained its independence from France. The adoration of the European Culture is evident in the fashion choices of El Hadji’s second wife, as well as in the Mercedes that El Hadji takes much pride in. However, when afflicted with the Xala, it is the traditional witch-doctors that El Hadji turns to, in the hope that they might cure him and free him of the curse.

The images of the prospering and seemingly rich African elite are juxtaposed with the images of the crippled and the poor masses of the country who are looked down upon and regarded as “human garbage” by their ruling masters.

The solid portrayal of the women characters is another interesting aspect of Xala – with each of the women representing a culture of their own. While Hadji’s eldest wife is always dressed in a traditional attire and represents the traditional African values, we see the second wife dressed in a low-cut dress, donning sunglasses, depicting the impact of the coloniser’s culture on the African minds at its best. El Hadji’s nationalist daughter, however, portrays a perfect synthesis of African as well as European values when she deliberately speaks in Wolof but also graces her room with a poster of Charlie Chaplin.

While shuffling between satire and realism, Sembene excellently leaves a mark on the conscience of his audience in the final scene when the oppressed masses of Senegal, who, as we now come to know, had cursed him with the Xala for having robbed them of their lands, finally seek their revenge upon their corrupt master by agreeing to restore his potency if he lets them spit on his naked self. It is thus that Sembene restores our faith in a better future for Africa through the closing scene of his artistic masterpiece – Xala.

Shambhavi
B.A. (H) History 2nd Year

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