A Bridge to Beijing

Away from the high-wattage glitz and glamour of Hollywood and Bollywood, an Indian vernacular cinema is making an unsung cross-over – it picks an untested Chinese expatriate in Dubai for the lead role for a film on the bittersweet aftermath of self-imposed expatriation

Scene 1

CHANG SHU MIN wakes up to yet another day in her life in the UAE. She is a Beijing girl who studied English at the Tian Jin Industrial College hoping that some day she can travel beyond the vastness of her monolithic country and explore the world, far and wide, further and further.

Like thousands from her country, she found the gateway to riches in Dubai. She worked in a hotel for two years, polished her English skills, and then joined an office in Ras Al Khaimah, where she guides the new wave of Chinese visitors seeking a new life in the UAE.

Scene 2

LAL JOSE, a successful Indian director, wakes up to a new morning in Dubai.

In his earlier days, before he had cut his teeth in cinema, he had aspired to come to this city, to earn a living and merge into the crowd of thousands of ‘Gulf Indians’ alias NRIs, who earn in dirhams, cold-count in rupees and save in gold and real estate.

Today, with several super-hit films in his kitty, he is in town to scout for a fresh face – a search that had earlier led him to an established Chinese actress, who didn’t have dates for the film that Lal had planned to shoot almost entirely in Dubai.

He needs a fresh face – and no, a Filipina won’t do; it has to be Chinese, an authentic one at that.

Scene 3

DR IQBAL KUTTIPURRAM, a film scenarist and homeopathic doctor – not necessarily in that order – sits chatting in his consultation room with a friend, who seems to know all about the Chinese ‘invasion’ in Dubai.

Iqbal mentions about the talent-hunt for a Chinese girl, who anchors the tale he has woven around expatriate life in Dubai.

The friend, providentially, has the answer.

Scene 4

LAL JOSE and Dr Iqbal drive down to Ras Al Khaimah.

Shu Min wouldn’t know it then, but that day, her life will take a detour. She will become an actress.

She will speak a language she hardly understands. She will lip-sync to tongue-twisting lyrics and she will emote before the camera.


Arabikatha (Arabian Tale) is being born.

Destination Dubai

RICHARD GERE loves Dubai. Morgan Freeman wishes for a home in The Palms. Laurence Fishburne would have loved to film The Alchemist here (but no, its author Paulo Coelho apparently didn’t fall for it; the movie attempt, that is).

Shah Rukh Khan has booked his home in Dubai. Amitabh Bachchan is a frequent visitor. He even shot a full-length film, Boom, in the city. Sadly, it mightily flopped. Salman Khan causes a ruckus every time he sets foot here.

With a film festival that is fast gaining ground for its judicious mix of high art and haute couture, Dubai is already billed as a destination for films and filmmaking.

But, and as is natural, only Hollywood’s dalliances make mighty headlines. And Bollywood’s love for Dubai is largely confined to those dreamy song and dance sequences shot with alarming lack of creativity, always by Shaikh Zayed Road or by the Dubai Creek.

Post-Syriana, George Clooney’s much-talked about but little understood film that was partly shot in Dubai, the beeline that Hollywood was supposed to make to the city hasn’t really taken off in a big way.

True, the initiatives of Dubai Studio City and of countless film enthusiasts who spread the word of Dubai is creating a flutter but that is yet to be converted into celebrity-studded reality.

While the wait continues, Dubai’s own filmmakers are pushing ahead. Several UAE filmmakers are working on dream projects – at least one of which is billed to hit the theatres later this year.

But it takes a small budget film from the green, monsoon rich coastal state of Kerala to make a leaping cross-over in film-making.

Crossing over to reality

Arabikatha is a fanciful title, alright. But thematically, it is set in the bittersweet realities of expatriation. No, it is not about life in labour camps, as is widely believed. Nor is it about the ‘isms’ and beliefs that pit individual aspirations vis-à-vis the society.

It is about the schisms in every day life – about the big divide between hope and despair; laughter and tears; riches and poverty; dreams and reality.

On the face of it, the film is about an Indian expatriate, a cafeteria worker, who had devoted his life for a political cause he believes in, only to be constantly reminded of his need to eke out his living in a city that rides on the glory of money-driven triumphs.

Srinivasan, a writer-director and actor, plays the hero Cuba Mukundan. He has a rare predicament: All his life, Mukundan had battled the multinational cola companies that deprived his village of drinking water. In his new avatar, where political beliefs are best confined to one-off personal discussions, he must serve colas to demanding customers.

The turmoil of cola war is but a minor distraction in the constant battle that he wages in his mind. Which is why he is attracted to a Chinese girl, Shu Min (for convenience, the film unit decided to name the character after the artist) who peddles film CDs.

Is love in the air? Iqbal Kuttippuram, who runs his own homeopath practice in Karama, doesn’t reveal much. All he would say is that the relationship has a bigger canvas, where Mukundan sees Shu Min from the perspective of an Indian political worker seeking a kindred soul in a Chinese girl.

For Indian cinema, which had all along attempted to cross over to the West – eyeing recognition and money – Arabikatha comes as a straight leap to Beijing.

Via Dubai, an Indian film unit is now bridging itself with neighbouring China, a breathtaking country that is largely ‘forbidden’ to practical filmmaking.

Lal Jose plans to take his unit to China too, where he hopes to shoot five per cent of the film. About 65 per cent of Arabikatha will be canned in Dubai and the rest in India.

Chinese connection

When Dr Iqbal started work on the film, he wasn’t too skeptical about clinching a Chinese heroine for the film. The search however was much more tedious than he ever expected.

Lal and Dr Iqbal looked for three qualities in their heroine: Good looks, command over the English language and talent.

After several failed attempts, they were in Shu Min’s office to meet another potential candidate. A friendly girl, Shu Min took commendable interest in introducing them to other Chinese girls. Eventually, she became their interpreter of sorts, even narrating situations for acting tests.

With every failed attempt, the search started narrowing down to Shu Min, who eventually agreed to do a screen test. It was a simple scene: She had to pick the phone up, call her sick lover back in China and act worried about his condition.

While the emoting did pass muster, what impressed the filmmakers was her spontaneous reaction to the scene. “Don’t worry about the money, you take care of your health – this is what Shu Min had spoken over the phone, totally unprompted,” recalls Dr Iqbal. “That note of familial bonding, which Indians easily understand, perfectly gelled with the character of our heroine.”

Lal Jose says Shu Min is a brilliant actress. He should know: He has taken several novices and turned them into superstars. Making Shu Min act is the least of his headaches. “I have banged my head against the wall trying to make heroines from other parts of India act. I don’t see that trouble with Shu Min,” he says.“The best part of Shu Min is that she understands exactly what is required of a scene, and moreover, she has features that Indians would like.”

He leaves the discovery to fate. It is almost Coelho-esque, if you may: “Every one comes into your life for a reason.”

Lal observes: “Maybe she is destined to become an actress – a big actress in China, and our film becomes a tool towards that destiny.”

On her part, Shu Min, who speaks English with a pronounced Chinese accent, says she had no inkling that fate would fetch her the heroine’s role in a Malayalam film. The 24-year-old feels this is a good experience and is willing to take up acting if the right chances come along in future.

In the UAE for almost three years, Shu Min says she simply reacted to the situation that the director had narrated to her during the screen test. With no previous acting experience to her credit, she is slightly worried about facing the camera.

But she takes the challenge in her stride and has already learnt an entire Malayalam song and perfectly lip-syncs with the consonant-rich lyrics.

She also watched a number of Malayalam films, which she finds colourful, music-rich and thoroughly entertaining.

Shu Min’s parents were initially skeptical about their daughter’s decision to act in a film, shot in far-flung Dubai, and Indian to boot.

“I insisted: I told them, I am here, I know the people, and I trust them. Eventually, they consented,” she says.

Dubai, she says, helped her to grow as a person. “I was the childish sort and my parents would say I will always remain immature. The first time I went on vacation from Dubai, their impression about me has changed: they regard me as grown-up now.”

Overcoming challenges

ONE of the challenges of shooting Arabikatha in Dubai is to suit the film to budget. There are several other considerations too: The film unit has to respect the local sensitivities; the prevailing traffic condition must be accommodated to stick to the film schedules and most importantly, the time-frame of the shoot has to be meticulously followed.

Lal Jose, however, is impressed by the swift single window clearance that aided in rolling out the shooting in Dubai. “One must adopt a Hollywood-style approach in planning the film here. Every shot and schedule has to be previously planned and one must not leave any room for ad hoc decisions. From our part, our responsibility is to respect the laws, regulations and culture of the city.”

Arabikatha’s producer Sainullabdeen Hussein is not the average film producer. An IT entrepreneur based in Qatar, he has been a long-time fan of actor Srinivasan’s television show, noted for its incisive wit and straight talk.

“In one of the episodes, Srinivasan observed that one of the reasons for the crisis in the Malayalam film industry is that several Gulf Indians, who have no clue about film-making turn to production attracted by the glamour and fame,” says Hussein. “That was a very pertinent observation, which is a reality check for all aspiring producers.”

He adds: “This is not a big-budget film and to date, we have been fortunate to stick to our estimates.”

Hussein is not overtly bothered about the returns either. “I like the story and I like the fact that I am working with some of the seasoned professionals in the industry. I do not interfere with the film-making process and leave it to the discretion of Lal Jose.”

From life to screen…

Dr Iqbal says his life in Dubai has a telling impact on the structure and characterization of the film. “There could be several characters and situations I had witnessed or experienced,” he says.

Significantly, therefore, there are several Dubai residents who play key roles in the film and also work behind the camera – as associate cameramen to on-line editors. Arabikatha, thus, becomes as a stepping stone to the limelight for people from various walks of life – from media to entrepreneurs, and star-aspirants to plain movie buffs.

And beyond!

“I have never considered doing a film outside the mis-en-scene demanded by the story,” says Lal Jose. “But doing a film based in Dubai has been an idea that was perhaps always in the back of my mind. This is a city that rewards hard work and there are several people here who made it big on their own. This is a global village and my effort – not deliberately though – is to capture the multicultural identity of the city.”

However, Arabikatha, he says, does not fit into clichéd milieus already attempted several times.

While the toil of labour and the pain of separation do make for poignant tales, Lal Jose has just a simple message with his film, which is as relevant in Dubai as in any village or city: “This film is about people who care for the next person. You don’t have to be rich to be helpful. You don’t have to accomplish your dreams to be kind to your neighbours. This film is about the essential goodness of humanity, wherever they are, and our innate ability to look beyond ourselves and make an imprint in another person’s heart – Indian, Chinese or Arab.”

An avid film festival buff who has frequented the Berlin fest, Lal Jose hasn’t been to the Dubai International Film Festival yet. He hopes to make it this year – with Arabikatha shot in Dubai, about Dubai and of the several thousand people who also contribute to the pulse beats of this fast-growing city.

(Published in Khaleej Times)

16 March 2007


  1. Excellent review.Nice read.Lal Jose is one of the budding talented directors who can keep the crowd attached to the 2-3 hours of the movie, which is very difficult to do nowadays.


  2. പ്രിയപ്പെട്ട രാജീവ്‌ നായര്‍, ഇത്രയും വിശദമായ കുറിപ്പിലൂടെ ‘അറബിക്കഥ’യെ കൂടുതലറിയാന്‍ കഴിഞ്ഞതില്‍ സന്തോഷമുണ്ട്‌.


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