It’s 7pm on a sultry night outside Mumbai and the scene can only be described as controlled chaos. There are hundreds of people scurrying about, some dancing, some sewing, some eating and some sitting in circles rehearsing their lines. Save for a few curious onlookers, everyone seems to be going about their business oblivious of the others, knowing exactly why they are there.
Then, without any warning, the lights come on and, as if that was a prompt, the scurrying stops. Dancers, both men and women, dressed in glittery Indian attire begin to file in front of the camera. And as the beats of an Arabic song blasts from the loudspeakers, director Ows Al Sharqi’s voice is heard over the melody: “Action!”
This is the set of Hindistani, the hit Arabic series that will return for its second season across the Middle East on OSN YaHala! HD on the first day of Ramadan at 10pm. We are a 40-minute drive — 100 if there’s traffic — from the city centre at a resort with a beautifully lit Indian palace as a backdrop.
Yet, despite its setting and predominantly Indian crew, Hindistani is an Arabic series at heart, says executive producer Khulud Abu Homos, who first came up with the idea.
“The influence of India on Gulf culture is immense. There is a kind of mutual respect between them. So we wanted to take the best of both cultures and come up with a fusion,” she says.
The name, she explains, is a play on the word Hindustan, a historical reference to the pre-independence Indian subcontinent.
“Hind is the name of the title character, and ‘stani’ is a Gulf slang referring to people from South Asia. Our main actor loves Indian culture and is also in love with Hind, the lead actress,” she says.
Hindistani won rave reviews when it premiered during Ramadan last year, going on to win Best Series and Best Concept at the Digital Studio Awards this year.
Khulud, who also serves as vice president of programming at OSN, says its return this year will be bigger and better.
“We doubled the budget for season two. We have introduced new cast members, we’ve extended each episode from 30 minutes to an hour, all shot in HD, and the music, production and locations are much bigger than the previous season.
“The way we’ve produced it is as if it’s a full-length feature film. The kind of process and the detail, you don’t see anywhere else in television production. Preproduction itself was about 8 months.”
Each episode of Hindistani will feature a standalone story, but all featuring Asad, played by Saudi actor Asad Zahrani, his unrequited love for Maleqah (Iraqi actress Malayeen) and their loving but interfering families. The storylines will tackle everything from love, jealousy, Ramadan and the dynamics of a Gulf family, says Khulud.
“But the idea is to have fun. With wanted the tone to be happy, to be a celebration of beautiful things and bring some colour and happiness to our TV screens.”
Zahrani, who replaces Bashir Al Ganem in the title role, says he was quite nervous before signing up for the series.
“It’s unlike anything I have done before, so I was unsure and took a while to consult a lot of friends in the industry before I said yes,” says the actor, speaking in his trailer as an assistant preps him for his next scene. “Eventually, it was the script that convinced me. I’ve done a lot of dramas but comedy is harder — and this was such a fresh take on the genre.”
But the most difficult, says the Saudi Arabian actor, was getting to grips with the dance moves.
“It was very intense. I had to quit smoking and exercise every day to keep up,” he says laughing. “Indian dance style is very difficult from how we dance in the Gulf and you need to be flexible.”
Zahrani’s co-star Malayeen, who returns for her role as Hind, also says that despite being a professional singer, dancer and actor, the Bollywood moves were a different story.
“In Middle Eastern dance, we use a lot of the head, shoulders and belly whereas in Indian dance we use a lot of legs and hands. It was really hard the first time, but since I have experience from the first season, this time it’s easier.”
Malayeen says she has already been approached by Indian producers to star in a Bollywood film.
“They told me they’d teach me Hindi. But I don’t think I can do it because there I won’t kiss or wear clothes like that. It’s too sexy for me,” she laughs.
Both actors say they watched “hundreds” of Bollywood films to familiarise themselves with the styles and dances.
“I saw a lot of Amitabh Bachchan and Salman Khan films,” says Malayeen. “Growing up in Iraq, we used to watch a lot of Bollywood films anyway, so it wasn’t completely foreign to me. As a child, I wanted to dance like those Bollywood actresses. But one of my favourites films is Jodha Akbar, starring Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya [Rai Bachchan].”
Director Al Sharqi, who conceptualised Hindistani with Khulud, says he cast Malayeen and Zahrani because they had the full package.
“They can dance, sing and act so they were exactly what we needed for this kind of role,” he says.
The series’ many songs, however, are sung by other artists from Saudi Arabia and Syria.
Al Sharqi, who has a number of Iraqi serials to his credit, says they decided to go with the one-story-per-episode format because it was “easier to digest”.
“So every time you switch on, you can follow it immediately. I don’t think comedy is suited for long-running episodes. It’s not a new concept, but it’s closer to [the Arab world].”
Of Iraqi descent but based between Canada and the UAE, Al Sharqy, whose brother serves as writer, says he also had to get attuned to the Gulf dialects and sense of humour.
“It’s totally different from Iraqi culture. The jokes are different, the intonations are different. So I had to get all those subtleties right as well.”
Having spent more than eight months in India researching and location scouting, he says working in an established industry like Mumbai’s was a different experience to filming in the Gulf.
“People are so much more professional here, and because it is a professional industry, they pay attention to small details. You just give direction and they know what to do. That’s a director’s dream,” he says.
Hindistani’s production values break the mold of television production in the region, he adds.
“Nothing like this has been done before, so I am very proud to be working in a project like this,” he says.
Producer Khulud echoes his view, saying that Hindistani, after its premiere, became a model for her company’s new strategy to introduce high quality, locally produced original content. Other OSN-produced series include the talk show Doctor Foz & Friends and the upcoming variety show Sisters’ Soup.
“We wanted to make a difference as far as original content in the region was concerned. And Hindistani was the start of that process,” she says.
“It’s the spring of Arab entertainment and I think it’s going to be a positive change.”