UAE film industry needs more investors, says Dubai director

Shazia Ali Khan's new film Pinky Memsaab opened in UAE cinemas, Thursday December 13.
Dubai based director Shazia Ali Khan
Dubai based director Shazia Ali Khan

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High production costs, and a limited number of investors willing to back independent filmmakers locally, stand in the way of growing the UAE’s film industry, the Dubai-based director of a movie shot in the emirate has said.

“It (filmmaking in the UAE) is a very infant industry,” Shazia Ali Khan told Arabian Business during an interview ahead of the release of her movie ‘Pinky Memsaab’ - which opened in UAE cinemas, December 13.

The film, set and shot in Dubai, released across Pakistan last week and revolves around the story of a maid who arrives in the UAE from Pakistan to work for a beautiful socialite.

But making it was an arduous process with heavy expenses.

“I will not lie to you - it was backbreaking,” she said. “Half of the money I had to invest myself because investors weren’t willing to invest in this since we have no big names behind us. We don’t have big stars, we don’t have big cinematographers, nobody knows us… in fact when I went out for casting most people looked at me and said: ‘Who are you (and) where did you come from?’

Above: Shazia Ali Khan on set of the movie Pinky Memsaab.

Khan, who previously lived in and studied filmmaking in London, funded her venture with the help of her husband and some private investors.

“The script was strong, so we attracted private investment,” she added.

Khan said that awareness of UAE-made films as an investment opportunity is still low. However, she is hopeful that her movie will draw attention to the new market’s potential.

“I think there’s a lot of money here but people are scared of investing,” she explained, adding that there are a limited number of products coming out of the UAE.

“So hopefully this will be the first of a few more. I would think that maybe if one makes a name for oneself, maybe next time it will be a little bit easier.”

Roughly 80 percent of ‘Pinky Memsaab’ is filmed Dubai, and unlike various other productions that feature the city’s backdrop, Khan said her production not only employed UAE-based companies and multi-cultural talent, but also featured a balance between the glamourous landmarks and the more historic and authentic parts of the emirate, including Deira, Bur Dubai and Satwa.

“The film is completely unpretentious,” Khan insisted. “We wanted to tell a story that hadn’t been told before and that would resonate with the people who live here. How many people get to go on a yacht or go to clubs every night? The stereotype that is Dubai for most Bollywood and Pakistani films is what we wanted to stay away.”

Above: A still from the movie Pinky Memsaab

The production features the perspective of “the working class”, she added, which form the backbone of the economy.

To keep costs low, the director said she kept sets simple and away from big locations, instead zooming in on performances and emotions.

Other challenges, however, included sustaining the film crew.

“The biggest cost was the accommodation and visas, because most of our crew came from India and Pakistan and of course they needed to have permits and accommodation,” she explained.

“Maybe if there had been subsidies or barter deals - if we had looked into that in retrospect - but again when you have no name it’s difficult.”

The second largest cost was the equipment. “There are very few people providing good quality equipment and we haven’t compromised on the look of the film so we went for the best camera and lenses,” Khan said, adding that instead the crew sacrificed on other aspects.

“We cut (expenses) everywhere else, including food,” she admitted. “(And) I shot the whole thing in a month, which was very tough.”

On the flip side however, Khan said, the limited competition also helps gives her story an edge.

“It (filmmaking here) is a very infant industry, which means that there isn’t too much competition,” she said. “That’s always good because when you have a story to tell, chances are there are 10 other people who want to tell that story - but we didn’t experience that.”

In fact, the uniqueness has served as a “marketing hook”, she said. “That has kind of catapulted us a lot in Pakistan and India, and worldwide, because no one’s told this story before.”

This aspect also earned the filmmaker concessions from twofour54 where she finished the post-production work, including sound and colouring, as well as an immediate distribution deal with VOX Cinemas.

Khan, a British Pakistani, insists however that her film shouldn’t be categorized just as a Pakistani film.

“We live (in the UAE) and work here so I would like to develop the (film) scene here,” she said. “Why does it have to be bound by geographies? Why can’t it be collaboration? Dubai is a good example of where different nations come and work together… a potpourri of Indian, Filipino, Pakistani and local talent – that’s what we’ve tried to do. So let’s call ourselves a UAE film with a strong Pakistani accent or flavour.”

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