A decade ago, Mumbai was the undisputed ground zero of Bollywood. All the action, the glitzy premieres and press conferences were hosted by this bustling metropolis. But lately, there's been a shift with all the glamorous players gravitating towards the UAE — mostly Dubai and, more and more, its capital Abu Dhabi.
If there's a biggie up for release, then a premiere in Dubai or a perfectly timed press junket prior to its release with stars in attendance is an inevitable development. Clearly, UAE's love affair with Bollywood and its stars has only intensified in the last four decades.
In 2011 alone, 12 films peddled by Bollywood stars have premiered here, including the world premieres of Salman Khan-starrer Ready and Shah Rukh Khan's Ra.One. Bollywood heavyweight Shah Rukh Khan, in an interview before jetting to Dubai for the first screening of his sci-fi film, explained the throbbing UAE-Bollywood dynamics.
"The UAE has been very kind towards my movies. Apart from that, it is an essential market for Indian movies. Business-wise it makes sense to me and my partners to do the world premiere of Ra.One here," said Khan, the leading man and the producer of the superhero flick.
The local event management companies who make it all happen couldn't agree more. According to Sameer Khan, managing director of Times Square Events, he gets around 10 Bollywood-centric business proposals a month, out of which two events materialise.
"What works in the UAE's favour is the distance between Mumbai and Dubai and the infrastructure that's available. The airport staff, the immigration officers, the local police — they are always so helpful when we stage these Bollywood premieres," said Sameer Khan.
As a token of appreciation and goodwill earned, he organised a star-studded cricket match between the local police and a Salman Khan-captained team in 2005.
"The appeal of Bollywood is no longer limited to Indians alone. In my premieres, I keep passes specifically for my local Arab clients who like Bollywood," he added.
One such candidate who has been bitten by the Bollywood bug is 30-year-old Emirati Rasheed Al Ketbi. Prior to Bollywood's sci-fi magnum-opus Ra.One rolling into town, Al Ketbi's Facebook status was Ra.One-centric for over a month.
"I love the music and the way the films tell their stories. They take their time but the colour and the characters are so likeable. In my eyes, Shah Rukh, Salman and Hrithik Roshan are the real heroes," said Al Ketbi, a Dubai-based marketing analyst. He even rattles off a few lines from Khan's iconic blockbuster Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge to prove his allegiance.
"When I went to Mumbai for a friend's wedding in 2006, I went to the theatre which was playing this film for the past 10 years. It was unbelievable — the theatre was full and I am pretty sure that it's not their first time watching the film," said Al Ketbi.
While the lavish musicals are a definite draw for Emiratis, it's the UAE's film-friendly nature that draws producers to the UAE.
Sohail Khan, who has funded films including Maine Pyaar Kyun Kiya and Partner, considers UAE a must-stop while scouting for shooting locations.
"I have shot a part of all my movies here. And I think it's one of the world's most film-friendly countries. In terms of hotels and shooting locations, the options are plenty. Look at the various hotels fitting a range of budgets that are there — the stars are comfortable and the crew too are comfortable," said Khan.
"Also, a scene taken on Shaikh Zayed road is like shooting in Manhattan," explained Sohail Khan, who adds that he's in the process of convincing his brother Arbaaz Khan to shoot a small segment of Dabangg 2 in Dubai. In the original blockbuster Dabangg, an iconic song shot in the Dubai Metro proved to be very auspicious.
"Dubai is a lucky mascot for me," says Sohail Khan. Others in his fraternity couldn't agree more. Bollywood actor Tusshar Kapoor, who's heading to Dubai for the world premiere of his latest film The Dirty Picture this Thursday, says UAE is now featuring prominently in the list of countries to promote his projects.
"It has become a must-stop market for filmmakers now. The best part about the UAE is that all kinds of films are widely accepted. For instance, my Golmaal — an out and out comedy film — did amazing business in the UAE. And The Dirty Picture, which is not your usual comedy, is heading there because we are confident that the Indians there will give our film a chance," said Kapoor.
Mahi Golchin Depala, a partner in local distribution company Phars Films, says that Bollywood cinema, with its vibrant song and dance culture, has gradually caught the collective imagination of Indians and the Emirati population alike.
"The interest and the number of people heading to cinemas from different nationalities has seen a huge surge. Shah Rukh's looks are extremely appealing to Arab men and women. They like to watch him perform on screen and it's not just the movie they enjoy. They love to imbibe the culture, clothes etc," said Golchin Depala.
As she puts it, this is one cultural exchange that's not going to end any time soon.
Spicing up the small screen
Television channels are not far behind when it comes to tapping into the UAE's Bollywood rage. Zee Aflam, a 24-hour, free-to-air Bollywood movie channel for viewers in the GCC and North Africa, was launched specifically to target the Arabic-speakers who love Bollywood films and shows. "Before launching the channel we did a market study and the results showed that Arabs in this region love Bollywood but have no access to dubbed content — it made us wonder why we didn't have such a dedicated channel in place already," said Tamer Al Sherbini, marketing head of Zee Aflam. Needless to say, Bollywood films dubbed in Arabic feature in the most-watched programmes. "Due to increasing demand and popularity, we have three Bollywood films in Arabic per week. Also, all our Bollywood programmes are dubbed or subtitled to target the Arabs," he added. Other channels including MBC Max and pay-TV operator OSN have jumped onto the Bollywood-driven bandwagon. The OSN Yahala! HD line-up includes a musical comedy Hindustani, filmed in Mumbai with a Saudi cast.