KANO, NIGERIA Long before the Islamic insurgency brought a wave of violence to northern Nigeria, filmmakers in the country’s growing Hausa-language industry were taking up their own battle against a conservative crackdown.


The fight over an industry popularly known as “Kannywood” began more than a decade ago, when Sharia law was re-introduced after nearly a century-long hiatus in the predominantly Muslim Kano state. In the years since, Sharia has been a focal point in an ever-shifting battle between the government and an industry that, in borrowing from the Bollywood films that serve as its chief inspiration, relies on dance routines and sexual titillation to woo local audiences.


As prolific actor-director Ali Nuhu notes, the challenges posed by the law simply mirror the broader challenges facing a culture in transition, where an influx of Western popular entertainment is pushing boundaries, even as traditional values persist.


Rather than slow the industry, though, the government may have inadvertently boosted a biz that, according to the Motion Pictures Practitioners Assn. of Nigeria (Moppan), produces more than 300 films a year.


As with its better-known southern counterpart, Nollywood, the young Hausa-language industry grew out of modest beginnings in the 1990s, when the first locally produced homevideos started to appear.


By the turn of the millennium, an increasing number of filmmakers had turned away from the slow, family-based melodramas of their predecessors to produce films steeped in Bollywood-style song and dance.


Often the pics featured provocative outfits and dance moves. Though many went against the grain in the conservative Muslim north, the movies sold.


But they didn’t come without their share of controversy. In 1999, a fatwa was issued against the producers of “Saliha?” a movie that features an apparently pious Muslim girl who engaged in premarital sex. Clerics in the northern state of Bauchi staged symbolic burnings of other offensive videos. The letters pages of local newspapers were often full of angry commentary from offended viewers.


With the passage of Sharia law in 2000, a state censorship board was introduced in Kano, and tasked with ensuring that local films were made in compliance with Islamic doctrine and traditional Hausa culture.


Filmmakers were expected to respect the “fundamental rules of engagement … between the sexes,” says professor Abdalla Uba Adamu, a scholar of Hausa culture at Kano’s Bayero U., making overt displays of affection and sexual suggestion taboo.


Helmers continued to produce movies — and push the envelope — in spite of the restrictions. The breaking point seemed to come in 2007, when a steamy cellphone video of actress Maryam Hiyana and her boyfriend went public.


A storm of protest followed, and the ensuing crackdown by the censorship board put a six-month moratorium on new productions in Kano. When the ban was lifted, a slate of new, tighter regulations was put in place, bringing the local industry to a standstill.


But the biz might have benefited in the long run. Smaller industries began to blossom in Kano’s neighboring cities, allowing the centralized Hausa-language biz in Kano to branch out. And by the time filmmaking finally returned to Kano, the controversy had not only succeeded in provoking public outrage, but in piquing the interest of new viewers.


With a changing of the guard at the censorship board in 2011 leading to relaxed regulations, the industry is selling more DVDs than ever.


Still, boundaries often have been blurry, though most filmmakers grudgingly have complied, despite the challenges posed. Helmer Nuhu was once told to cut suggestive dance scenes from a movie. “There are limitations to what you can do as a filmmaker,” he says. “The whole concept of moviemaking is to entertain the audience. If your immediate audience does not want this because they are Muslims, then you have to abide by what they actually want.”