Every time I visit Dubai, including the longish trip in December to cover the international film festival there, the sight of dozens of Saudi nationals there does not miss my attention. The Saudi men, with their wives and friends in tow, drive into Dubai (not quite Abu Dhabi, which is now trying to pep itself up with art and culture, hoping to give its more glamorous Emirati neighbour a good run for money) to let their hair down, so to say, and have fun. Which is watching movies, shopping at the fancy malls and having gourmet food at the classiest of restaurants.
But now, this seems set for a change, with Saudi Arabia embarking on a liberalisation drive, being pushed by the modern Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. If he has already allowed women to be seen in public without a headscarf, and letting them drive from June, he is also opening the Kingdom to entertainment. Come April 18, Saudi Arabia's first cinema in more than three decades will begin screening films.
In what will be a fierce competition among theatre chains, AMC Entertainment has clinched the first deal. It will open the first cinema in Riyadh. The American giant will hopefully set up 40 theatres across Saudi Arabia in the next five years. But Dubai's VOX, a leading West Asia player, may give AMC a good fight.
The Kingdom has a large number of movie buffs, and I would think a lot of Indian cinema with its breezy songs and style, colourful costumes and pretty damsels hanging on to their chocolate heroes will be a hit there. Saudi's 30-million population has a majority of under-25s, who, given the age of internet information, are craving to have a good time – something they had been seeking in the neighbouring UAE all these years.
Many countries in MENA or Middle-East North Africa have, since time immemorial, been fond of Indian films. Once, Raj Kapoor was a rage in Egypt, the man today having given way to Shahrukh Khan. But in the Gulf with its huge South Indian population – especially Malayalees and Tamils -- movies from Tamil Nadu and Kerala have been a roaring hit.
The grapevine has it that Rajinikanth’s 2.0 may be the first major South Indian work to open in Saudi Arabia.
In the midst of all this euphoria, I cannot miss seeing a tiny black speck in the skies over the Kingdom. Despite all the prudishness that Indian cinema has had to live with, there has been large doses of liberalism. The moot point here is, can a Katrina Kaif or a Deepika Padukone be seen wearing the kind of revealing dresses they sport on screen in films to be shown in Saudi Arabia? Even Tamil actresses have now begun to dress with a touch of the provocative. And kisses and smooches and rollovers and scenes even more intimate than these are very common in Indian movies. Yes, even in Tamil films.
Be that as it may, one must still laud Saudi Arabia for the reforms it has started to push. Let us take the case of Haifa Al Mansour, the first ever woman director from the Kingdom. It was at the 2012 Venice Film Festival that I first met her. She was there with her first movie, Wadjda, an extremely remarkable feat for a woman from Saudi Arabia – indeed the first ever film by a woman from that conservative country. Mansour had broken all social barriers.
She came to Venice with a work that spoke about a 10-year-old girl, who wants to join a bicycle race and beat a boy. But she does not have a cycle in a country where girls or women are not allowed to ride one. It is considered un-Islamic, but the 10-year old with her mother’s help manages to get what she wants to. The mother herself is a liberal, trying to stop her husband from taking a second wife in a culture where men are at liberty to do so.
I remember Mansour telling me at Venice how difficult it was to make the movie. “I had sit inside a van and shout instructions to the men on the set, because they were loathe to take orders from a woman”.
Obviously, the film left much to be desired. Not very high on production values, but it made a point about how a veiled race of women was trying to peep out to experience the joys of freedom and a life outside confined spaces, minus the chains.
And I saw what such independence can eventually do – especially when a woman has art in her mind. Mansour’s second movie, Mary Shelly, in the English language was miles ahead of Wadjda, in texture, in feel, in just about everything. Like a picture postcard, Mary Shelly captured the magic of 18th and 19th century England.
Mansour makes an admirable foray into the life of a woman who rebelled to “live in sin” with a married man, Percy Bysshe Shelly. Mary (played by the stunningly beautiful Elle Fanning) was merely a teenager when she met one of the greatest British writers whose romantic poetry is still considered to be a gem in English literature. The man died early, barely 29, perishing in a boat tragedy, but in those brief years of his, he lived a life of Bohemian passion and remarkable literary pursuit. And Mary, whom he married later, became a perfect companion to him.
With such promising directors like Mansour on the horizon, I am sure cinema will become a great avenue of information and education for Saudis, who now splurge billions of dollars every year to see films and visit amusement parks in places like Dubai.
(Author, commentator and movie critic Gautaman Bhaskaran may be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org )