It was nearly a year ago when the first inkling of a possible epidemic filtered down the news wires. By March, the world was brought to a standstill as the COVID-19 scare had us in its grips, resulting in strict safety protocols to be implemented, along with entertainment avenues going dark and cinemas forced to pull down their shutters.
The UAE was not exempt from the restrictions placed to stem the spread of the deadly coronavirus. And yet, nearly six months into the pandemic, the UAE started to welcome international film shoots with strict COVID safety measures in place.
In September, Indian film star R Madhavan was one of the first celebrities to return to Dubai to film his web series ‘7th Sense’. The 50-year-old star was not alone, bringing actors Rohit Roy, Dibyendu Bhattacharya, Elli Avram and Sana Saeed with him for the shoot.
“I have an overwhelming sense of gratitude to start with because we were able to come from all the way from India to start filming in this region. The fact that it happens to be Dubai came as no surprise because if I would have to bet on any place around the world to set an example — like they have always done — and I know this is not just [PR speak] but I mean it because Dubai has always been the place to set a trend on everything,” Madhavan told Gulf News at the time.
The actor called it “natural” for Dubai to open up for filming and that too for a web series of such a large scale, while admitting it was his seventh or eighth project to be shot in the emirate.
The UAE reels in
Close to five months since Madhavan filmed in the UAE at the peak of the pandemic, a bevy of international celebrities have landed on these shores, with top names including Hollywood star Tom Cruise, Bollywood’s Shah Rukh Khan, Mouni Roy, Telugu actor Mahesh Babu, Pakistani singer Atif Aslam, to name but few.
Bollywood actor Angad Bedi, who landed in Dubai last October to film his new web series ‘Mum Bhai’, found the whole experience impressive. ”It was good to see people over there [in Dubai] maintaining social distance, everyone was wearing a mask. Even in places which were supposed to be crowded, there was negligible crowd. Even at shops, they were extremely careful,” Bedi told IANS. “It was a different kind of experience because this is the new normal.”
‘Inside Edge’ star Tanuj Virwani, who was also in Dubai in September for two web shows, ‘7th Sense’ and ‘Line Of Fire’, spoke about his positive experience as well. “Staff members make sure there’s always a less number of people on the sets. We have been given bands of different colours depending on what department we all belong to, so that we maintain proper social distancing. The situation here is very much organised,” he told IANS as well.
In January of this year, Dubai hosted one of its first major concerts, with Aslam performing as part of the Dubai Shopping Festival live events. The award-winning Pakistani singer performed to a sold out concert.
“I went to that concert as a cynic, wearing a double mask, and with my gloves in place. Yet, right from the parking, to the seat, every step was meticulously planned,” said Anthony Permal, a Ras Al Khaimah based marketing professional who drove down to Dubai to attend the Aslam concert. “Social distancing measures were in place, with ushers trained well to manage crowds. Plus, all the people attending were following the rules and I was never less than 2 meters away from people. It was all thoroughly organised.”
Permal admitted when he first heard about the Aslam concert, he was wary of attending. “The Atif Asalm concert was the first major celebrity concert to take place since the pandemic. All eyes were on how the event would fare, coupled with the pressure to deliver on all counts. I think the success of this sold-out concert made it possible to return to some level of normalcy but the organisers have to set boundaries and it needs to be done in the right venues.”
Permal believes that by late spring, the UAE should be able to return to a regular live-events schedule, especially with the COVID-19 vaccination drive in full swing.
Next, the Dubai Opera will also throw open its doors to welcome The Gipsy Kings once again, as the Kings of Catalan Rumba will perform in Dubai on February 18 and 19.
The Dubai Opera has stated strict measures will be in place for the concert, aiming to provide all guests with a safe environment in alignment with the UAE COVID-19 safety protocols. “All guests are required to keep their face masks on within Dubai Opera and in the auditorium during the show. Additionally, social distancing will be maintained inside the auditorium and guests can expect a limited seating capacity as well as rigorous sanitisation routines which are implemented at all touchpoints,” it stated.
Earlier that month, Bollywood singing stars Kumar Sanu and Alka Yagnik will also headline a special Valentine’s concert on February 12 at the Sheikh Saeed Hall, Dubai World Trade Centre, which has also confirmed that ‘all the COVID-19 health and safety protocols, including social distancing and adequate sanitisation will be followed at the venue, as per the relevant authority guidelines’.
Abu Dhabi opens up for Hollywood
Earlier this week, Gulf News reported that the ‘Mission: Impossible 7’ production has moved to Abu Dhabi with director Christopher McQuarrie posting regular updates from the UAE capital on his Instagram account, with separate sightings of lead star Cruise also being reported.
Even though no official statement has come forth on whether Cruise is indeed filming in Abu Dhabi, Hans Fraikin, Abu Dhabi Film & TV Commissioner, told Gulf News that all safety measures are adopted by the emirate to ensure a favourable work environment.
“I cannot comment on rumours and speculation. We are proud that many of Abu Dhabi’s productions have been able to safely continue filming throughout 2020 and into 2021, allowing us to fulfil our mission of creating world-class entertainment while protecting our staff, cast and crew,” Fraikin stating, adding: “Abu Dhabi regularly welcomes some of the world’s biggest film and TV franchises and we are very excited about the projects in our pipeline.”
This is, of course, not the first time Cruise has brought the multibillion dollar franchise to the UAE shores, with the Hollywood star filming ‘Mission Impossible Fallout’ in Abu Dhabi back in 2018.
Cruise had worked with the UAE Armed Forces to film the infamous and risky HALO or high altitude, low open stunt for the film.
Back in 2011, the actor also made headlines around the world when he shot for ‘Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol’ at Burj Khalifa. The famous stunt saw Cruise’s character, Ethan Hunt, hang off the world’s tallest building, with the stunt taking 23 days and requiring some 400 crew members.
The ‘MI7’ shoot is the first such Hollywood project being filmed amid the pandemic and the stress levels have been running high. Last month, Cruise was even allegedly caught on audio scolding staff on the UK set of the film who were breaking coronavirus guidelines In the clip, Cruise was heard screaming after reportedly seeing two crew members too close to each other in front of a computer screen. “If I see you do it again you’re [expletive] gone,” he says.
“We are the gold standard. They’re back there in Hollywood making movies right now because of us,” he is heard yelling. “Because they believe in us and what we’re doing. I’m on the phone with every [expletive] studio at night, insurance companies, producers and they’re looking at us and using us to make their movies. We are creating thousands of jobs, you [expletive]. I don’t ever want to see it again. Ever!”
Shooting for ‘Mission: Impossible 7’ has had multiple stops and starts due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. The action flick has so far filmed in Italy, the UK and Norway. In October, filming in Italy had to be put on hold after 12 crew members tested positive for COVID-19.
According to industry insiders, the fact that Cruise has opted to return to the UAE a third time, that too amid a pandemic, says a lot about the actor’s faith in keep his production unit safe in these times in this country.
According to Michael Garin, CEO of twofour54 and Image Nation Abu Dhabi, doors to film shoots have remained open through these trying times.
“Abu Dhabi’s creative industries are vital to its economic and social development, so since the early days of the pandemic, Abu Dhabi Film Commission, Image Nation and twofour54 have acted prudently and swiftly to ensure the sector has remained open for business throughout the current challenges,” he told Gulf News. “Working closely with the government and health authorities, we developed a safety blueprint that allowed production companies to shoot and edit safely in the Emirate. This made Abu Dhabi one of a very few locations in the world where production could continue uninterrupted, with some $100 million of worth of projects completed here in 2020.”
Garin added that some of their ongoing productions included ‘Inheritance’, the Arab world’s first soap opera, which managed to film 250 episodes since its launch in December 2019, allowing the hit show to continue airing daily on MBC.
“We also have a number of Hollywood and Bollywood productions in the pipeline to shoot in Abu Dhabi throughout the year,” he said, adding: “Supporting businesses in our industry that were affected by the pandemic has also been a priority, and twofour54 launched a raft of measures and infrastructure designed to help small and medium enterprises and freelancers navigate the pandemic, including a Briefing Room to connect firms, reduced rates for services and rent relief where needed.”
Dubai reaches for the stars
Across the highway, Dubai has been witnessing its own action with Shah Rukh Khan’s upcoming film, ‘Pathan’ reportedly being filmed over the weekend in the emirate, along with Telugu star Mahesh Babu who is also in the city to film ‘Sarkaru Vaari Paata’ in the emirate.
“Dubai has and always will be an attractive destination for cinema production. From rolling desert dunes to ultra-modern skyscrapers its awe-inspiring destinations, state-of-the-art infrastructure and business-friendly environment have created an ecosystem that supports content creation,” Majed Al Suwaidi, Managing Director of Dubai Studio City, said. “For more than six months, Dubai’s door has been open to the global film and television industry with the highest health and safety measures in place.
“This has allowed big names like Jackie Chan to visit the emirate for live-action shots that provide filmmakers with the real-world locations needed to create great content.”
Chan filmed his action flick ‘Vanguard’ extensively in Dubai in 2019, while arriving here last year to promote the film.
“We were delighted to welcome Indian actor Mahesh Babu to in5 Media located in Dubai Production City, our enabling platform for start-ups and entrepreneurs in the media industry as well as content creators, for a new movie recently. He is the latest in a long line of celebrities that have come to the UAE for such activity,” Al Suwaidi added.
Dubai Studio City has hosted a long line of Hollywood productions over the last few years, including the ‘Star Trek’ and the ‘Mission Impossible’ franchises.
“Dubai Studio City has welcomed major Hollywood blockbusters, such as ‘Star Trek Beyond’ and ‘Mission Impossible’, since its establishment more than 15 years ago and there are some exciting shows in the works here, thanks to its 22 million sq ft space that boasts the biggest sound stages in the Middle East and North Africa.”
More celebrities to come
While there have been sightings of Hollywood actor and singer Will Smith, along with actress-wife Jada Pinkett Smith in Dubai this week, along with Kannada star Kichcha Sudeepa, who is in the emirate to promote his upcoming film ‘Vikrant Rona’ on the facade of the Burj Khalifa, there appear to be more celebrity projects in the pipeline.
If news reports are to be believed, Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif will film ‘Tiger 3’ in Dubai in March with Salman reprising his role of the RAW [Research & Analysis Wing] agent Avinash Singh Rathore or Tiger. Kaif will also return to play a Pakistani agent.
“Salman has given bulk dates, beginning from March, to director Maneesh Sharma for Tiger 3. The unit will film a few crucial sequences in Mumbai with the superstar, who will reprise his role of RAW [Research & Analysis Wing] agent Avinash Singh Rathore,” a source was quoted in Mid-day.
The source further stated: “Maneesh has set a major chunk of the action thriller in the UAE and the surrounding countries. Dubai is expected to be the team’s first stop.”
‘Ek Tha Tiger’ and ‘Tiger Zinda Hai’ are the first and second instalments in the franchise, which were directed by Ali Abbas Zafar. The latter project was filmed extensively in the Abu Dhabi desert.
While fans eagerly hope to spot a celebrity or three in the coming months, the safe environment continues to be a top draw.
“With strict adherence to the latest government precautionary measures and guidelines, we are ensuring that cameras continue to roll in Dubai and to support the UAE’s creative and knowledge-based economy,” Al Suwaidi stated.