Bollywood finds second home in Dubai.

Bollywood, or Indian popular cinema, is undoubtedly India's most powerful cultural ambassador. It connects people of diverse races, nationalities and languages, strengthening their emotional ties with the sub-continent. Its music, drama, gossip and fashion sustains not only Indians living outside the country, but also people of different cultures who overcome linguistic barriers to make popular Hindi films a vehicle for expressing their dreams and desires.

Like most countries that have willingly accepted Bollywood as part of popular culture, the UAE believes that perhaps the best way to understand India and her people is through the films that Bollywood churns out year after year.

In Dubai, Bollywood makes routine gossip. The shows, the private functions, the product launches, the shooting schedules only prove that the Indian film industry (which considers Dubai its second home) is making a splash here.

Big budget films

Whether it's Salman Khan doing a marathon run, Akshay Kumar dancing with Kareena Kapoor in the Arabian desert, Madhavan singing to Namrata Shirodhkar at the Hard Rock Café, Shah Rukh Khan making his presence felt at a charity ball or Amitabh Bachchan watching a bevy of beauties stroll the Jumeirah beach with the Burj Al Arab as the backdrop, the Mumbai glitterati is always present and visible in Dubai.

With big budget films such as Hera Pheri, Om Jai Jagadish, Fida, Dil Vil Pyar Vyar, Deewana Huya Paagal and the most recent Woh Lamhe being shot here (in part or whole), Bollywood's ties with the UAE continues.

In 2005, Dubai hosted the Global Indian Film Awards (GIFA) ceremony (attended by 15,000 people) and in 2006, the much publicised International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) Awards - a pointer on how fast the emirate is becoming a favourite destination for the Indian film industry.

At the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) in December 2006, the cream of India's acting talent gathered to grace the red carpet. At the event, Shah Rukh Khan received the DIFF Salutes trophy for his lifelong contribution to cinema. Hundreds of fans came to cheer the Bollywood superstar as he accepted the trophy, his first-ever international award, from Abdulhamid Juma, Chairman of DIFF. Speaking to the press after the ceremony at the Madinat Jumeirah theatre, Khan said he was willing to act in Arab films if invited by a film-maker from the region. "It would be a different experience for me," the actor stated. Khan's huge popularity in the UAE was also evident earlier in 2006 when the film Don that stars Khan in the title role had an excellent Diwali opening in the UAE.

At the GIFA awards in 2005, Khan had again emerged as the best actor for his performance in Main Hoon Na - after 26,000 Bollywood fans across the Middle East voted for him. Besides Khan, adding glamour to DIFF were Kangana Ranaut, Sameera Reddy, Irfan Khan and other members of the Indian film fraternity.

Shivani Pandya, Managing Director of DIFF, says: "Dubai and the GCC are fast becoming an important market for Indian cinema, contributing massively to their box office revenues. The festival hopes to assist in the growth of this market, and with the support of the Indian industry and Indian talent we feel we have a winning formula."

The festival also featured Yash Raj Films' latest film Kabul Express and Mira Nair's The Namesake. Bollywood stars present at DIFF 2006 also represented DIFF's 'Cinema of the Subcontinent' section, which featured the latest non-commercial offerings from India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Pakistan.

In 2005, Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan was appointed ambassador of the month-long Dubai Shopping Festival. As Bachchan said in a media interview: "Every time I go to Dubai, I am bowled over. I have extremely high regard for the progress made by this place. It has become a world centre for financial transactions and has made such rapid development in real estate and other areas."

Excellent infrastructure

According to Bachchan, there are several reasons why Dubai is important to the Bollywood film fraternity: the emirate's reputation as an international cultural and commercial centre hosting prestigious sporting, business and cultural events; a large expatriate population from the subcontinent; local affection for India and Indian films; and excellent infrastructure and facilities for film shooting and production.

Bachchan, in an interview with Gulf News, said: "My first trip to Dubai was a remarkable experience. It was in the late seventies and I was supposed to make an appearance on stage. For some reason my flight from Mumbai was cancelled, so the organisers chartered a plane for me. We travelled in this huge 90-seater Caravelle. We landed in Sharjah and drove to the hotel in Dubai. It was incredible because after I got off from the car, I did not touch the ground till I reached my room. In their enthusiasm the people just carried me through the foyer, the lobby, the lift and put me in my room. It was very emotional, something I can never forget."

Bollywood's international recognition caps a decade that saw the gradual liberalisation of the Indian economy. Now when other film industries around the world are trying to cope with the Hollywood juggernaut, the Indian film industry has emerged as perhaps the most aggressive riposte to Hollywood.

And for its actors whose global appeal is hard to challenge, the UAE continues to be home away from home for them.

As one of India's leading heroines commented: "We all like to go to Dubai because it's so progressive. It's fun to be in, has a great vibe, the environment is clean and beautiful and the food is lovely. We'll keep coming back no matter what."