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Bollywood filmmaker trains camera on Gulf locations

man, stage, clapping Daniele Venturelli/Getty Images
Shekhar Kapur said he was really impressed with all the producers and directors he met at December's Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah
  • Filmmaker Shekhar Kapur sees a big future for Saudi and UAE cinema
  • Bafta winner views the region with a ‘huge amount of optimism’
  • His latest film, a cross-cultural romcom, hit UAE cinemas this week

Shekhar Kapur, the filmmaker behind Elizabeth and Bandit Queen, has partly “shifted base” to Dubai and is scouting locations in the Gulf for future projects.

The Indian director, who attended the Red Sea Film Festival in Jeddah last December, told AGBI that the nascent film industries of Saudi Arabia and the UAE had huge potential to change the narrative around the Arab world.

“I was really, really impressed when I went to the Red Sea Film Festival – with the enthusiasm of the people who ran the festival and all the potential new young producers and directors I met,” Kapur said. 

Kapur added that he was about to take another trip to the kingdom to look at locations, and saw “a big, big future in Saudi for the creation of entertainment”.

Saudi Arabia has provided the backdrop for three major US productions over the past two years: upcoming action thriller Kandahar, filmed in AlUla and Jeddah; the historical epic Desert Warrior, shot in Neom and the region of Tabuk; and the crime drama Cherry, which was shot in AlUla and Riyadh.

The Saudi government also set out its stall at the Cannes Film Festival last May, unveiling big-ticket incentives to lure Hollywood and Bollywood producers. These include a cash rebate programme offering producers up to 40 percent back on filming carried out in the Arab state.

Casting agent Miranda Davidson, whose UAE-based studio has worked on Hollywood blockbusters including Star Trek Beyond, has also pointed out the rapid evolution in the region – particularly that of the Saudi film industry since the kingdom lifted its 35-year ban on movie screening in 2018.

“The UAE and Saudi are becoming a powerhouse together,” Davidson told AGBI last May.

Kapur’s films have been nominated for nine Academy Awards and 16 Baftas, winning two and five trophies, respectively, for Elizabeth and its sequel Elizabeth: The Golden Age.

His latest film hit cinemas in the UAE this weekend. The cross-cultural romantic comedy What’s Love Got to Do with It? was written by British screenwriter and documentary producer Jemima Khan, the ex-wife of Pakistan’s former prime minister Imran Khan.

Person, Woman, Man, AdultEamonn M.McCormack/Getty
Kapur and Jemima Khan discuss their cross-cultural romantic comedy What’s Love Got to do with it during the Red Sea International Film Festival. Picture: Eamonn M.McCormack/Getty Images

Kapur believes that the UAE and Saudi could produce cinema that changes perspectives about Arab people and societies.

“Remember, we have a narrative that is so far being very Western driven,” said the 77-year-old. “Marvel is still a very Western-driven company and so is [its owner] Disney.

“In the East, Korea and China have changed their narrative, but it doesn’t have as much influence worldwide as Western cinema has. And the point of view of African nations, for example, is not well represented.

“That has to change,” he said, “and I think that the changing influence of cinema and content to shift the narrative in the world will come from this region – Saudi and the UAE – because this is where the investment is now taking place, and this is where the discussions are taking place and, very importantly, this is where the desire to change narratives is taking place.”

New narratives were also at the heart of Why? The Musical, the stage show he created for Expo 2020 with Oscar, Bafta and Grammy-winning composer AR Rahman.  

“One of the reasons I’m partly basing myself in Dubai is I found a lot of support for Why? in this region,” Kapur said. 

“I look forward to interacting with a lot of people that are bringing finance in and with the new technologies. With all the investment that is taking place in technology here, I see this region with a huge amount of optimism.”

He added: “In the UAE I notice that people adapt to new technologies very easily. Whether it’s crypto, NFTs or artificial intelligence, there are constant conferences and development in the UAE in those very high-value sectors. 

“Among those high-value sectors are the ability to create content, whether it is cinema or television or any other kind.”

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