Malayalam cinema in the Gulf: Defining a new era in entertainment


Time was when the large expatriate community of Indians from the southern states had little options to watch the latest movies in their languages here in the UAE.

The few theatrical releases would already have been past their prime at the Kerala box office. Even then, it was celebration time when Malayalam films, the predominant lot, came.

For the large majority, watching Malayalam or Tamil films meant waiting for the video cassettes, each film taking a good six months after their theatrical release.

The transformation that happened in the past few years has been tremendous, and that is not just due to the technology advances.

Today, Tamil and Telugu films already find one-day-prior release in the UAE (on Thursdays), while Malayalam films are fast catching up. DVD releases too have been hastened.

As one of the largest communities in the UAE and given their contribution to Kerala’s economy, expatriates from the state and their lives have always figured prominently in Malayalam cinema.

While there have been depictions of the vintage Gulf returnee (striped suitcase, tape recorders, sunglasses and all), the 1980 film Vilkkanundu Swapnangal, scripted by the legendary MT Vasudevan Nair and directed by Azad, had the rare honour of scenes shot in the UAE.

The tale of the average Malayali, seeking riches in the Gulf, struck a chord among audiences and is also noted for a memorable by the then-aspiring actor Mammootty. The 1983 film Visa by Balu Kiriyath, starring Mammootty and Mohanlal presented the sacrifices people made for a job in the Gulf, but was set in Mumbai.

In the following years, several films presented the plight of Gulf Malayalis, most of them emotional tales of blue collar workers and their challenges, particularly by director P. T. Kunju Muhammed. Mohanlal’s Varavelppu, written by Sreenivasan, was a cult mainstream film on the plight of the returning NRIs.

Destination UAE

The 1990s changed the rules of the game as the UAE, notably Dubai, became the destination for film shoots. While Mohanlal’s Ayaal Kathaezhuthukayaanu, directed by Kamal, had crucial scenes set in the city, Mammootty’s Dubai, directed by Joshy was almost fully shot here.


The seeds for this transformation also came via television. Director Shyamaprasad documented the UAE in his long-running series Manal Nagaram, and went on to capture the impact of the Gulf war on expat Indians in his film Kallu Kondoru Pennu.

With Dubai rolling out the red carpet for film production and with the launch of the Dubai International Film Festival, it was only a matter of time that Malayalam cinema, with its vast audience here, would take note.

Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Naalu Pennungal and Oru Pennum Randaanum; Shaji N Karun’s Kuttisrank and Swaapanam; Shyamaprasad’s Ore Kadal and Elektra; Priyadarshan’s Kancheevaram; M Manikandan’s Kaaka Muttai to the recent Thithi by Raam Reddy all were screened at the Dubai fest, some marking their world premiere here.

Noted director Bejoy Nambiar’s short film Reflections starring Mohanlal was an entry in the second edition of DIFF, while cinematographer-director Rajiv Menon has the honour of having brought the first south Indian film the Dubai fest – Kandukondain Kandukondain.

Made in the UAE

The most significant evolution has been the UAE serving as the home for full-rounded production – from story inspiration to shooting and even post-production.

Director Lal Jose teamed up with Dubai-based writer and homeopath Dr. Iqbal Kuttippuram to deliver two films based almost wholly in the UAE – Arabikatha and Diamond Necklace. Both were bumper hits.


Since then, with the support of UAE-based film production & scouting companies, several films were made here – both small budget and big budget extravaganzas.

Malayalam films shot include Oru Marubhoomikatha by Priyadarshan, mostly set in Abu Dhabi, to Salim Ahmed’s Pathemari starring Mammootty; IV Sasi’s Balram v Tharadas; Sugeeth’s Madhura Naranga; Anu Ram’s Kalyanism; Vasudev Sanal’s God’s Own Country; Kamal’s Gaddama and director Siddique shot Ladies and Gentleman & his recent King Liar.

Last year Vineeth Sreenivasan shot Jacobinte Swargarajyam, almost wholly in the UAE, based on a real-life story of a resident family; the film starring Nivin Pauly was a super-hit.


The list indeed is incomplete with several filmmakers doing patch-shots in the UAE, and the nation continues to be a preferred destination for song-dance sequences for Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu films.

Talent goldmine

Several UAE-based professionals have also made their name in Malayalam cinema: Dubai-based Bash Mohammed won national and global recognition for his debut film Lukka Chuppi, while Jean Markose’s Angels starred talents such as Joy Varghese and Asha Sharath, both having made their name in the UAE in media and arts, respectively.

Sohan Roy, a marine engineer turned film director and producer, not only shot his film Dam 999 locally but has now announced a US$10 billion fund for Indian cinema. Most recently, a new distribution house has come into play – B Cinemas – which brought the youth-flick Aanandam to the UAE, and has now bagged the rights for distributing Shah Rukh Khan’s Raees in Kerala.


PK Sajeev and Anne Sajeev, producers of Blessy’s Pranayam, are based in Dubai, as are Adv. TK Hashik and T P Sudheesh of Pathemari; Tomichan Mulakuppadam, the producer of the historic hit Pulimurugan, and Sophia Paul, the producer of Munthirivallikal Thalirkkumbol and a co-producer of the sensational hit Bangalore Days, directed by Anjali Menon.

Anjali did her schooling here, while noted scenarist-actor Murali Gopy worked as a journalist in Dubai. Well, the web only gets bigger and yet more well-knit.

But what matters is that Malayalam cinema’s fortunes, indeed, owe in no mean measure to the resources and talents based in the UAE.

And…. In reverse sweep

A write-up on cinema, Kerala and the UAE would not be complete without the mention of Malal, the Emirati film by Nayla Al Khaja. The story of a young Emirati couple on their honeymoon is set in Munnar, the first Emirati production to be shot in Kerala.


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