Titanic was released in December of 1997. Many Hollywood insiders and naysayers predicted doom for the film. After all, it had cost a record $200 million to produce; the story had been told on film more than once; everyone already knew the ending; and the film really had no “big stars” to draw in the crowds. (Originally the lead role was to go to Mathew McConaughey to provide the “star power”, but director James Cameron and Kate Winslet both pushed for DiCaprio to get the role.)
After making a good, but not incredible, $28 million in its opening weekend, momentum (and great word of mouth) quickly set in. Titanic soon set a “never to be broken” highest grossing film record (that was in fact soon to be broken by Avatar). It was the number one film at the box office an unbelievable 15 weeks in a row. Titanic eventually grossed a record $600 million in the United States alone in its first run. It became the first movie to gross over $1 billion worldwide and after the recent 3D release is up to $2.185 billion, making it just the second film over $2 billion with Avatar (though, when adjusting for inflation and ticket prices of the day films were released, Titanic is only considered the 5th highest grossing film of all time).
It wasn’t just a hit in the Western world though, something about Titanic tugged at the heartstrings of Afghan boys in a way no other American love story ever had. Previous to this, most Hollywood movies that made it big in Afghanistan were almost exclusively action movies, with Rambo III probably holding the title for most popular American movie in Afghanistan, being “dedicated to the brave Mujahideen ﬁghters of Afghanistan”.
Despite the Taliban’s strict ban on American cinema, VHS copies of Titanic flooded Kabul’s black markets.
Titanic-mania swept the country and had a resurgence after the Taliban were removed. Before the crackdown (and after the government was overthrown), posters of the film could be seen hanging on countless Afghan walls. Even extra-large vegetables, from tomatoes to cucumbers, started to be referred to as “Titanic Vegetables”. There was also “Titanic Mosquito Killer”, “Titanic Body Spray”, “Titanic Toothpaste”, “Titanic Sandals”, “Titanic Wedding Cakes”… you get the idea.
One fabric seller in Kabul, Ali Ahmad, states, “Still everyone plays Titanic. Because the story is good. It’s a real story. That’s why people still like it. And the love parts — that’s what we like.”
But alarm bells didn’t start going off for the country’s fundamentalist government until teenage boys started emerging from downtown barbershops sporting DiCaprio-style “Titanic haircuts”. This incited the rage of the Taliban and soon the police started cracking down.
Numerous teens and at least 30 barbers were arrested because of the DiCaprio cut, others were simply beaten and forced to shave their heads. Because of this, many Afghan boys sporting the new cut took to wearing hats, caps, or turbans to hide their manes when they were in public. Older young men (yep, I just wrote that) actually grew beards to try to blend in better while sporting their “Titanic” cuts.
Brave barber Aminullah Nazif, who never actually saw the film, was not to be dissuaded though and started giving the Titanic cut in secret, with the first customer he had who requested it showing him a Leo DiCaprio postcard and asking to be given the “Titanic” cut. Nazif became a popular “underground barber” among Titanic-loving male teenage customers, with many of his customers arranging to meet at his shop late at night to get their Titanic cuts.
As one 16 year old, Nawid Mirkhail, who got the Titanic cut, but then was forced to have it shaved off said, “I like the hairstyle of the film star… He was a handsome boy. And he looked very handsome with that haircut.”
While every movie star is probably at some point flattered by imitations of himself (or herself), DiCaprio may well be the only movie star in history whose followers risked a physical beating and potential arrest for imitating his hair style.