Look who's helping Saudi Arabia become a cinema hub

India is providing support with content and infrastructure for filmmaking

Imaging: Manoj Kumar B. Imaging: Manoj Kumar B.

Revolutions are often bloody. But sometimes reel can be more powerful than real. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is betting on just that to push Saudi Arabia into deep dark rooms to dream big. And, India, home to the biggest movie industry, is poised to project these dreams.

Riyadh wants to invest $64 billion in entertainment. By 2030, Riyadh wants the country to have produced 100 films—the bigger, the better.

In April, Saudi Minister of Culture Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan flew to Mumbai to get Bollywood on board. The Saudis want Indian actors to be Arabian knights in what is an Arab cinema spring. Badr, 37, has been handpicked by Salman to lead his ministry of culture. (He made headlines when it was revealed that he was the mysterious buyer of the Leonardo Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, a portrait of Jesus, sold at $450 million.)

Badr met Shah Rukh Khan—the actor flew in from the Pathaan set in Spain just for the meeting—Salman Khan, Akshay Kumar and Saif Ali Khan. He also met directors Kabir Khan, Raju Hirani and Ashutosh Gowarikar.

From being a country where films were banned—a reaction to the 1979 Iranian revolution—Saudi Arabia now has grand plans to become the biggest hub for cinema in the region. Since 2018, when the ban was lifted, the country has moved at a breathless pace. MBS's Vision 2030 includes a complete image makeover for one of the world's most conservative countries. Allowing women to drive was a tiny step but a giant leap for the country, signaling that much more was to come. “With the Indian film industry being one of the largest and most celebrated in the world and as Saudi Arabia aims to become a world-class centre for film with an anticipated contribution of $6.9 billion to the kingdom’s GDP by 2030,” wrote Badr in an Indian newspaper, “there are numerous opportunities for the film industries of both nations. From talent, through to production, distribution, and technical know-how across the value chain, there are plenty of areas for both countries to collaborate and create content that is suitable not just in their respective countries, but also for a global audience.”

The country is expected to have 2,600 theatres by 2030. In 2021, the Red Sea Film Festival—the first official government festival—opened. There was no enforced dress code for women. Naomi Campbell sashayed down the carpet wrapped in diaphanous white chiffon. It was a far cry from the controversy over Michelle Obama choosing to not wear a headscarf when she accompanied then US president Barack Obama to pay respects to late King Abdullah in 2015. (She was not the only one. Neither did Gursharan Kaur when she accompanied prime minister Manmohan Singh in 2010). The Red Sea festival has now established itself on the film calendar. And, '83 premiered there last year—the first Indian film to be premiered in Saudi Arabia. A shirtless Ranveer Singh, but with a coat on and a scarf around his neck, did not offend any sensibilities as he walked down the carpet with wife Deepika Padukone, dressed in pink.

With 70 per cent of Saudis below 30 and with money to spend, MBS is hoping to channel the restlessness through cinema. “It is natural that Saudi Arabia will prefer Bollywood over Hollywood,” says Harsh Pant of the Observer Research Foundation. “We share a cultural connect.”

More than just about opening up cinema halls for watching, MBS hopes to make Saudi Arabia a world-class hub for movie production. Riyadh wants to invest $64 billion in entertainment. By 2030, Riyadh wants the country to have produced 100 films—the bigger, the better. A report by PriceWaterhouseCooper suggests that the box-office collection could be $950 million by 2030.

Saudi Arabia has been an essential element of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's reachout to Gulf countries. Under Modi, there has been intense diplomatic wooing between the two countries. Modi being bestowed the highest civilian award in 2019 was a clear message that India is special, too. And, the growing trade is just one indication of the new dynamic. Today, Saudi Arabia is India’s fourth-largest trade partner, and India is Saudi Arabia’s second-largest trade partner. During the controversy stirred by former BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma, the Saudis chose their words diplomatically. The fallout was mild. Military ties have been close. But Saudi Arabia and India are set to get closer.

For Bollywood, it makes business sense. There is a 40 per cent cash rebate for films being shot partially or completely in Saudi Arabia, and it is open to all filmmakers—local, regional or international. The UAE, which is also wooing filmmakers, offers 30 per cent, and Jordan between 10 and 15 per cent. It is a cut-throat competition, and the Saudis may well be winning. So far, they seem to have grabbed the big ones. Kandahar, the Gerard Butler thriller was shot at AlUla—Saudi Arabia's first UNESCO heritage site. (There is an Indian connection here, too, as it also stars Ali Fazal). Desert Warrior—starring Anthony Mackie, the new Captain America—was shot here.

The first film shot by Indian expats in Saudi Arabia—Sati in Malayalam—was filmed recently. And it is just the beginning. “We have three projects that are in advanced stages. Two of them are feature films,” says Pradeep Dwivedi, Group CEO, Eros Media World PLC. Eros is the first Indian company to tie up with Arabia Pictures Group to create content and environment for filmmaking. It is the first company, but it will not be the last. India's biggest multiplex chain—PVR—too, had been eyeing the virgin territory.

“Indian cinema is a bridge between India and the world,” said Dr Ausuf Sayeed, secretary, Counsul and Passport Office, who till recently was the ambassador to Saudi Arabia and was instrumental in organising the first Indian film festival there. India, in a way, has played a special role in this cinematic Arab spring. In 1997, a week-long retrospective on Satyajit Ray was held.

Sayeed has been witness to the change that has swept through Saudi Arabia. “Things have changed a lot,” he said. The first Indian film festival was held in 2005 in Jeddah. When the Asian Counsul Generals Club asked for permission to hold a film festival in 2008, the idea was radical. And the instructions were clear: no Saudi was to be invited. But the then minister did inaugurate the festival—an indication of the clout Asian countries held and the potential for change.

This film festival hunger has only grown. The Embassy now holds an annual event—the Ambassador's Choice Festival. The 9th edition of the festival, bringing together Australia, Bangladesh, France, Germany, Mexico, Philippines, Spain, Sri Lanka and the US, was held this year. One of the more popular events on the cultural calendar, the festival this year began with The Tambour of Retribution—Saudi Arabia’s official entry to the Oscars. The film, which was a forbidden love story between the son of a swordsmith and the daughter of a wedding singer, is now on Netflix.

The power of Indian cinema has proven to be the strongest glue. Raj Kapoor's ‘Phir bhi dil hain hindustani’ forged a connect with Russia, Amitabh Bachchan found his way to Iran, Shah Rukh’s outstretched hands in a mustard field is a much-copied gesture in Germany. Posters of Salman Khan and Madhuri Dixit were smuggled into Afghanistan. Despite the diplomatic cold war with China, Aamir Khan—who made 01,300 crore with Dangal—had a birthday celebration at the Indian Embassy where fans cut cakes.

In recent years, the Indian government has recognised this power, especially in the neighbourhood. So, in 2019, there was the Indo-Bhutan film Singye that became a hit. The Indo-Bangladesh joint production Mujib has the blessings of Modi. Going beyond just cinema, there is cricket diplomacy that India has chosen to bat for extensively with Afghanistan, and it is now helping set up infrastructure for the Maldives. The ministry of external affairs is relying on starry cultural bond. The knights are just waiting.