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UAE’s centre stage in Bollywood blockbusters

Dubai Tourism
Bollywood is big business in the UAE – it's even home to the Bollywood Parks theme park, which opened in Dubai in 2016
  • Indian filmmaker Shekhar Kapur sees UAE studios potential
  • Emirates play a major role in movie marketing and fundraising
  • Bollywood stars head to Dubai for business as well as second home

The UAE is set to become a major post-production and financing hub for the Bollywood film industry.

Acclaimed filmmaker Shekhar Kapur told AGBI: “Infrastructure for filmmaking is coming up in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and more Indian filmmakers will come to the UAE to make their films. There are very good studio facilities in Dubai and huge expansion plans.”

The Bafta-winning director, who is chairman of the Film and Television Institute of India, added that while the UAE may not make a big contribution to box office figures due to its smaller population, it plays a major role in Bollywood’s movie marketing and fundraising.

“A lot of financing comes from the UAE,” he said. “People I’ve met in Dubai are looking to fund Indian cinema because they perceive a big market for it.”

Bollywood is big business in the UAE – it’s even home to the Bollywood Parks theme park, which opened in Dubai in 2016. Last month the Louvre Abu Dhabi launched a Bollywood Superstars: A Short Story of Indian Cinema exhibition, to spotlight the world of Indian storytelling.

Around 3.5 million Indian expats live in the Emirates. “It’s geographically between the South Asian countries and Europe, making it a place where buzz around a film travels to neighbouring territories,” said Samir Ahmed, founder of We Are Media Hive.

Ahmed, who has managed Bollywood film promotions and music events in the region, said the UAE also offers more brand and event work for Indian celebrities than in the UK or US.

Bollywood, SRKReuters/Hannah McKay
Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan (SRK) stars in spy thriller Pathaan. The film was partly filmed in Dubai, where SRK owns several properties. Picture: Reuters

“Several actors have made a second home in the UAE, which keeps them in the region for longer periods as a stopgap between India and other countries. This means that agents are continuously seeking opportunities for them when they’re in the country,” he added.

These actors include Indian superstar Shah Rukh Khan – also known as SRK, or ‘King Khan’ – who has put his name to several luxury UAE real estate projects, including a private island on Palm Jumeirah.

SRK’s latest film, the Bollywood spy thriller Pathaan, was partially filmed in Dubai. The film’s trailer was projected onto the Burj Khalifa and it recorded the biggest opening weekend in the UAE so far for any Bollywood movie, making $7.92 million in sales.

Pathaan also saw the biggest ever box office opening for a Hindi film in Saudi Arabia, with Vox Cinemas, the cinema arm of Majid Al Futtaim, reporting sales of 88,840 tickets.

“Some of the big action scenes in Pathaan were completely driven by visual effects,” said Kapur.

“That’s where the real opportunity lies in the UAE. I know a lot of people who are planning to invest in the high-end visual effects of cinema and entertainment. You can create almost anything you want on computers.”

Indian filmmaker Shekhar Kapur said the UAE plays a key role in Bollywood movie production and that visual effects offer a particularly big opportunity. Picture: Reuters

India has been the world’s largest producer of films since 2007, and is also the leading film market in terms of number of tickets sold, according to Statista.

Overall box office figures may be considered modest by Hollywood standards – mainly due to low ticket prices across India – but Indian films offer a high return on investment. In 2019, for example, Bollywood movie Uri – The Surgical Strike made returns of 876 percent.

The value of the Indian film industry was $2.83 billion in 2019. The Motion Picture Association estimates this could rise to about $4.5 billion in 2026 and the UAE is positioning itself to one of the key benefactors of this growth.