It’s his infectious laugh that draws you in first; the humour isn’t far behind. Hearing Ahmad Golchin’s life story is akin to a chapter right out of an Ian Fleming thriller.
Voice the thought though and the ‘Godfather of UAE cinemas’ is quick to correct you. “My life story is so much more than any James Bond novel,” quips Golchin, Founder and CEO of the Phars Film Group, the biggest cinema distribution company in the region. We gracefully stand corrected.
Golchin has worn many hats in his lifetime, some more nefarious than others, but it’s his legacy laid down in the UAE over the past 57 years that has changed the landscape of theatrical entertainment in the country. “When I landed in Dubai in 1964, there one cinema located in Al Nasser Square. It would cost Rs2 to get a ticket, with films playing only at night-time.”
The cinema he describes is a far cry from the multiplexes peppered across the UAE today, some of which have been founded by none other than Golchin himself. A plot of land with four mudy walls formed the foundation of the ‘cinema’ that Dubai boasted at the time. The open-air theatre had wooden seats to settle down in, while many others opted to park themselves down on the sand after a long day at work.
It wouldn’t be amiss to find camels and donkeys tied outside, with the animals serving as the only mode of transportation for many who would come from far and wide to indulge in the magic of cinema.
“There was a small hole in the wall that served as the box office to sell tickets,” recalls Golchin. “The bell would ring five minutes before the film would start, signalling the passers-by to come inside. The bell would ring again five minutes before the movie would end.”
Persian and Hindi films were popular here during those days. “Emotions would run high watching those films. Sometimes tear would flow, sometimes anger. They used to serve Pepsi at the time in glass bottles and we would often see them flying at the screen in rage when a scene in the film upset the audience,” laughs Golchin. “We soon realised it was time to invest in plastic bottles.”
A young boy with a dream
Born in 1942, Golchin grew up in Iran at a time when the Second World War was raging between the Allied Forces and the Axis of Evil. As the son of his father’s third wife, Golchin didn’t have much going for him in those early years, at least not much more than his dreams.
“My father was a religious man and cinema was forbidden,” recalls the 79-year-old. “My father divorced my mother when I was five years old and I tried to survive on my own in any way possible.”
At the age of nine, a bad fall saw Golchin lose his vision in one eye, but the handicap still didn’t keep the enterprising young boy from finding a way to make an extra buck. “I was a wild boy, trying to survive in any way possible. I would go door-to-door, find books people weren’t reading, and sell them for some quick money. That money would pay for my ticket at the cinema every night.”
The first film Golchin ever saw on the big screen was ‘Moby Dick’ (1956), starring the dashing Gregory Peck in the film adaptation of the Herman Melville novel. Golchin was sold. “I sold newspapers, did cutting, whatever I could to make enough money to live the adventures on screen,” he says.
It was during this time when publishing became an avenue. “I had gotten hold of a book ‘American Grenade’ and the cover was so fascinating that I decided to get it translated in Farsi and changed the name to ‘Six Steps to Death’. The book was a sensation,” says Golchin.
With his business taking off, the entrepreneur spent a content few years reaping his money through publishing close to 140 books while using the lack of copyright in his favour. However, his luck soon ran out when a few books he published drew the attention of some dangerous people. Fearing for his life, Golchin fled Iran in 1964, using the help of some local pirates to ferry him to the UAE.
Escape to UAE
“We landed in the UAE on the other side of the border, the very tip of the Northern Emirates that connects to a small Omani enclave,” Golchin shares. He wasn’t alone in this perilous journey, travelling with 6-7 people who hand set out to plan their own futures in the UAE.
“I was scared. Scared of what would happen to me in Iran, scared that the pirates had abandoned us on an island that would soon be covered with water and high tide and we would die,” Golchin shares.
“I landed in Dubai at 7pm the next day with a suitcase in hand and found a room at a guesthouse in Al Nasr Square,” Golchin relays. Tucked away in his luggage was his hard-earned money, some personal belongings and a 35mm Mexican film dubbed in Persian, ‘Fight to Death’.
The next morning when he opened his suitcase, his money was gone, along with his passport. Golchin wasn’t sure he could recover from this. “The owner of guesthouse was a kind man who sent me to a coffee shop where he told me to seek out a man who could help me write a letter and request for a new passport. I did just that and realised I needed to find a job soon to feed myself and find a place to sleep,” he continues.
Using his cutting skills he had picked up in his childhood, Golchin made religious wall art to make ends meet, hoping for his passport to arrive soon and leave for the US or the UK by any means possible. His plans for his next voyage though were soon thwarted by the late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the former ruler of Dubai.
“It was 6am that morning, I was at the seashore for my morning bath when I heard distant music. There were British soldiers on the beach, playing some kind of music, and there walked Sheikh Rashid, greeting everyone he saw,” Golchin says. “He strolled through the textile shops, stopping here and there, asking about business and stopped in one to ask for a cup of tea. The Ruler of Dubai was there, asking for tea.
“Watching him speak with those traders, asking them for ideas to build the business made me realise that here was a man just like me, someone with a vision. I knew then I was in the right place.”
From real to reel
Golchin realised early on that there was a thirst for entertainment here in the UAE. With no newspapers printed locally, televisions scarce, cinemas became the one indulgence that people were willing to spend their savings on and the enterprising mind was ready with a film that had travelled with him across the Hormuz Strait.
“Sharjah Paramount was the UAE’s first cinema, which was built in the 1940s by the British Royal Air Force for its officers,” Golchin reveals. “They were kind enough to open the cinema up for others as well in the later years. In 1950, a Bahraini businessman, Abdallah Al Rahim, came to Dubai with the plan to open up a cinema here. After much persuasion, Sheikh Rashid agreed to allow him to set one up at Al Nasr Square.”
A similar pop-up later opened in Jumeirah as well, funded by a rich gold businessman who invited family and friends to enjoy a night out in a land away from home and loved ones. Having decided to stay back in the UAE, Golchin took stock of the cinemas that were available and used his contacts in Bahrain — which he had built during his publishing days — and became the distributor of films in the UAE.
Movies such as Raj Kapoor’s ‘Shree 420’, the tear-jerker ‘Ganga Jamuna’, starring the late Dilip Kumar, and the Nargis-led ‘Mother India’ were screened here to an enraptured audience. “The 35mm prints were not very good, having travelled across Indian villages before making their way to the Middle East. It was very common for a scene to cut off and jump forward, but we still had a film to see,” he says.
Aside from Hindi films, Persian movies had a growing audience here and Golchin soon realised he should capitalise on that as well. “I used my contacts and returned to Iran in 1967 in a bid to find an avenue to bring some of the popular ones here to the UAE,” Golchin shares. It wasn’t long before his company Phars Films took root in 1967.
“I took over handling National Cinema, and every night, after the film had played, I would go down to the audience and find out whether they had liked the film. If they said yes, then I would repeat the show or find something else to screen the next day,” Golchin adds.
In 1970, Golchin’s business had spread enough for him to head to Cannes and Milan to film sellers directly, securing enough investment a year later to establish a lucrative film distribution business with international markets.
Yet, even as one leg of the business brought award-winning film content to these shores, Golchin realised that without cinemas, there would be no one to watch these movies. Which is when he actively also got involved in backing showcasers here, introducing cinemas in Al Ain, Ras Al Khaimah and the Royal Cinema in Ajman. But with the changing landscape and a need for a more sophisticated set-up, Golchin soon became involved in the opening of Deira Cinema, the UAE’s first air-conditioned theatre that was inaugurated by Sheikh Rashid himself.
Golchin took over the running of Deira Cinema in a short span and fronted the roll-out of other popular independent theatres in the country, including the ever popular Al Nasr Cinema that remains a fond memory with several old time residents of Dubai.
“We had no way to advertise our films so we would hang hoardings on the abra or have a man wear a plywood around his neck — the front board would state film timings of the day, the board behind advertised the next day,” Golchin laughs. But the town crier soon landed him into trouble with the municipality and hoarding around the city were provided for Golchin to inform Dubai the best of Bollywood was screening at a cinema near them.
A man with vision
By the 80s and 90s, several other players had entered the market in the UAE, with Plaza Cinema, Strand Cinema and Dubai Cinema becoming single-screen juggernauts in Dubai. Golchin saw competition in Galleria Cinema at the old Hyatt Regency Deira, while the owner of Abu Dhabi’s El Dorado and Sharjah’s Concorde became a key player in the chase for box office receipts.
In 1989, Golchin soon took on a partner in Salim Ramia and they established Gulf Films to distribute and market Hollywood and international movies across Middle-East and North Africa. “We brought ‘Titanic’ to the UAE and there had never been such a grand showing of film in the region before.”
By 2000, Golchin was getting frustrated with the need for more screens and not enough showcasers in the country. “It was a time to bring multiplexes here and so we laid the foundation for Grand Cinemas, the first of its kind multiplex in the region,” he says.
As the popularity of multiplexes grew, Golchin’s theatres opened up at most of the major malls in the UAE at that time. “I remember when Ibn Battuta Mall was being planned, Nakheel approached us for screen space. They asked me how many screens we were looking for. I said 44. We eventually agreed on 21 screens, including the first IMAX in the country,” Golchin states.
By 2012, Ramia and Golchin decided to split and Grand Cinemas was eventually sold off to Qatar Media Services and the man from Iran decided to shift his focus on the distribution and film production business.
There are several films that have left a mark with Golchin over the years with the Danny Boyle-directed ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ (2008) being one such movie.
“I remember being approached about the project and telling the producers, there’s no Shah Rukh Khan, no Salman Khan, no Aamir Khan. Who will come and watch an Anil Kapoor? But then I saw the film and I was blown away. That time, I decided to have all the films removed from one of our cinemas and decided to only showcase ‘Slumdog Millionaire’. My partner thought I was crazy, but I was convinced the film would do well. I wasn’t wrong.”
More than a decade has passed since and months away from turning 80, Golchin is far from retiring. “I am proud of everything I have achieved. But there is still so much to be done. I always feel like I know nothing, have done nothing. I am still young and have many more dreams to fulfil just yet, you just wait and watch,” he laughs.