Rajinikanth’s 2.0 likely to be first major south Indian movie to open in Saudi Arabian market
With a wave of reforms being spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman – that has even permitted women to drive vehicles – the Tamil movie mandarins feel that their market in West Asia can go up by 25 per cent.Updated: Dec 22, 2017 00:35 IST
As much as the move to open cinemas in Saudi Arabia seems like a great New Year gift to the people of the ultra-conservative nation known for its dogmatic doctrines, the euphoria the royal decision has caused in the Tamil film industry must be taken with a pinch of salt.
Movies were banned in the Middle-Eastern kingdom in the 1980s under pressure from the radical Muslim clergy, but now with a wave of reforms being spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman – that has even permitted women to drive vehicles – the Tamil movie mandarins feel that their market in West Asia can go up by 25 per cent.
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 success. In fact, they open a day earlier, on a Thursday, than they do in India. For the Muslim world, Friday marks the weekend.
With theatres all set to open in Saudi Arabia in March – and with 2000 screens planned by 2030 – Tamil films may well add another lucrative feather to its cap – which now stretches far and wide in the Middle-East and South-east Asia. Countries like Singapore and Malaysia with a huge Tamil population (in fact one of the official languages there is Tamil) have been highly profitable for south Indian movies.
Raju Mahalingam, Creative Head of Lyca Productions, said: “The overall revenue for a big film production can increase by 30%. Since movies have now begun to open in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu in India, we hope to release them in all three languages in Saudi Arabia too. A new market in West Asia, where a substantial number of Tamil and Malayalees stay, will be a big boost for our movies”.
Vishal, actor and president of the Tamil Film Producers Council, averred: “West Asia is a huge market for the Tamil movie industry. Saudi Arabia opening its doors will surely lead to an increase in revenue. We are also planning to study how this market is and what kind of films we can show there. We can even co-ordinate with the movie and tourism boards to take our films there.”
Rajinikanth’s 2.0 is likely to be the first major south Indian movie to open in the Saudi Arabian market, and is likely to release in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu.
However, the producer of such hits like Kuttram Kadithal and Jyothika-starrer Magalir Mattum, Christy Siluvappan, sounded the first note of caution. “We don’t know what kind of restrictions will be placed on the films by the censors in the kingdom,”.
But of course. Despite all the prudishness that Indian cinema is forced to live with, there is so much in it that may be totally unsuitable for the tradition-bound, highly conservative Saudi society. Can a Katrina Kaif or a Deepika Padukone be seen wearing the kind of revealing dresses they sport on screen. 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 films. Yes, even in Tamil movies.
Nonetheless, if one were to look beyond these handicaps – imagined or real – I must 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 her. There with her first movie, Wadjda, an extremely remarkable feat for a woman from Saudi Arabia – indeed the first ever 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 do – especially when a woman has art in her mind. Mansour’s second movie, Mary Shelly (screened recently at Dubai) in English language this time is miles ahead of Wadjda, in texture, in feel, in just about everything. Like a picture postcard, Mary Shelly captures the magic of 18/19th 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 a 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 genius And Mary, whom he married later, became a perfect companion to him.
Along with Shelly and her stepsister, Claire, on a vacation to Lord Byron’s country’s house in Geneva – and in the midst of notorious drinking bouts by the men there – Mary is sucked into a challenge thrown at those gathered on that rainy night to come up with a ghost story. Mary does with her celebrated character, Frankenstein, the seeds of her own misery at her abandonment and the way men had treated her forming the basis of the grotesque but sapient creature created by a young scientist.
Incredible as it may appear that for all the awe and inspiration (and even social revulsion) which Mary evoked in her own days and even later – often serving as an inspiration for women weighed down by male supremacy and rigidity – there has not been a biopic on her till now. And Mansour must be congratulated on giving us the first ever here, as she was once commended for presenting the first ever film, Wadjda, by a Saudi woman. What was more, she shot it entirely in that country!
Finally, it seems strange that while Indian cinema is being pushed into the dark ages, Saudi rulers are beginning to see the joys of the moving medium. And giving it a thrust!
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and film critic)