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The Love Story Between Bollywood & the Gulf, & the Villain That Is 'Nationalism'

‘Article 370’ and ‘Fighter’ faced bans recently without so much as a reason being attributed by the censor boards.

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The glitz and glamour, the larger-than-life settings, romantic musical numbers, and vibrant colours! Bollywood films are a lot of things to a lot of people.

In Gulf countries, for instance, they have been the primary source of entertainment for decades: so much so that a visit to Dubai and other West Asian hotspots has become an integral part of promotional activities by Bollywood A-listers before their film's release.

However, there is one brick wall that Hindi films just can't get past – the one between cinema and religious sentiments.

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Article 370, Fighter & the 'Nationalism' Conundrum 

Recently, two so-called 'nationalistic' Indian films – Article 370 and Fighter – faced a ban across West Asia, without so much as a reason being attributed by the censor boards of different countries in the Gulf.

Fighter had been met with mixed reviews upon its release. While some fans praised the VFX and action, several others, including some Pakistani celebrities, called the film out for its alleged "jingoistic" tone and aggressive "anti-Pakistan" sentiments. Director Siddarth Anand defended the film, saying that it is more "nationalistic" than "jingoistic".

Similarly, Article 370 was slammed as being a "propaganda" film even before its release.

While initially the United Arab Emirates (UAE) decided to release Fighter with a 'PG-15' classification, trade analysts said that the country later retracted its decision and 'suspended' the release of the film despite re-edits.

Why? Even the film's makers don't know for sure.

"Quite strangely, Gulf countries haven't assigned any reason for banning Article 370 and Fighter," leading film trade analyst Komal Nahta told The Quint. "I was speaking to Aditya Dhar, the producer of Article 370, who told me that authorities in one of the countries saw his film twice, and decided to ban it without assigning any reason."

But it's not just Fighter and Article 370. Several Indian films have been banned in the past allegedly because they contained references to Pakistan, terrorism, or a particular religious community.

The Arjun Kapoor-starrer India's Most Wanted, which was released in 2019, faced a ban in the UAE because it contained a dialogue stating that some terrorists were based in the country. Similarly, Vivek Agnihotri's The Kashmir Files (2022) was banned in the UAE but was allowed to be screened two weeks after its release in India.

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Taran Adarsh, leading Indian film critic and trade analyst, told The Quint, "When we look at the Gulf region, we have to understand that there isn't just an Indian diaspora there – there are also Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis et al. So something that is sensitive by nature, such as a film which could be targeting a particular country, might not bode well for the overall population."

Even Salman Khan's Tiger 3 (2023) was denied a screening in Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman allegedly because it portrayed some Muslims negatively – this despite the fact that Khan is almost as popular in the Gulf as he is in India.

"West Asia is an Islamic region, run by Islamic law. The countries in the region will do anything in their power to avoid any religious conflict, especially in terms of content that shows Muslims in a bad light," a leading film journalist based in West Asia, who wished not to be named, told The Quint.

"West Asian countries are not democracies like India; so they have the right to control media. India is controlling the media as well, but they're just not that open about it," the journalist added.

But is nationalism-related content the only reason behind censor boards banning Indian films?

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Sambhram Pattanayak, a research scholar and lecturer of television production at Dubai's Amity University, said that the UAE has its own film authority, and if any film does not fall under its guidelines they will not release it.

"The film Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan was banned as well. The film has nothing to do with nationalism, but explores gay themes – which are not acceptable in the country. Similarly, Spiderman: Far From Home was banned since it contained LGBTQ+ elements in it," Pattanayak told The Quint.

UAE's Strides To Boost Its 'Liberal' Reputation

While most West Asian countries have strict censor board regulations for content being viewed by the public, the UAE has been taking strides to 'liberalise' its rules in the last few years.

In an apparent effort to boost its attraction as a tourist destination, the country announced in December 2021 that it will no longer censor films. Instead of banning films entirely or censoring sensitive content, they said that a new '21-age category' would be introduced for audiences.

"The movies will be screened in cinemas according to their international version," the Emirati Media Regulatory Authority had said in a post on social media.

The decision was taken after several filmmakers and the general public brought to the attention of authorities that cutting sensitive scenes – such as the portrayal of homosexuality, nudity etc – was creating major plot holes in the films.

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In the backdrop of such efforts, the ban imposed by the UAE on Fighter and Article 370 makes the decision all the more baffling.

The country had also announced in January 2022 that it was reforming its Islamic legal code to change the weekend to Saturday-Sunday from Friday-Saturday in line with Western and Asian markets. Earlier, Indian films were released on Thursday in the UAE – one day before their theatrical release in India.

Bollywood & the Gulf – A Love Story for the Ages

Despite several Bollywood movies having been given the axe across West Asia, the connection between Hindi films and the region still remains a "love story made in heaven."

Nidhi Sahani, an Indian-origin film journalist who grew up in Kuwait, told The Quint:

"There is a strong cultural connect between Bollywood and natives in West Asia. So, when people used to watch a Yash Chopra or Karan Johar film, they could easily understand where it's coming from – not only because they were lavish and extraordinary, but also because they resonated with the relationships, drama, themes of family values, and even action that was similar to their own culture."

Despite living away from India most of her life, Sahani says she never let geography get in the way of her love for Indian cinema – which eventually culminated in her founding an entertainment and film-reviewing website called Popcorn Pixel in 2018.

"When I was growing up in Kuwait in the 1990s, every Friday they used to play a Bollywood film on the national television channel KTV," she said. "Most of the time it was an Amitabh Bachchan film, like Khuda Gawah (1992) and Shahenshah (1998), and those films are what made Bollywood a benchmark for me."

‘Article 370’ and ‘Fighter’ faced bans recently without so much as a reason being attributed by the censor boards.

A still from Khuda Gawah, starring Amitabh Bachchan.

(Photo: Video Screenshot)

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Sahani said that there was a single screen theatre in Kuwait called Firdaus Cinema, which was located in a run-down and shabby location without proper roads, where she watched 90s' Hindi films like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and Pyaar Toh Hona Hi Tha. "We used to go in groups with family friends and make a day of it. That cinema obviously doesn’t exist anymore."

She further said that it wasn't just Indian-origin families in Kuwait who were drawn to Hindi cinema, but natives thronged the theatre and assimilated in the culture as well.

"In Kuwait, if you said you're Indian, people would immediately say, 'Oh, Amitabh Bachchan', because KTV used to air his films almost every week. Over the years it evolved to films of Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan, and Salman Khan. They penetrated easily into the market. Also since they were doing films with Madhuri Dixit, Aishwarya Rai, Sridevi et al, they became quite famous as well."
Nidhi Sahani

Similarly, Sambhram Pattanayak says that not only do people in the Gulf watch Hindi films, but everybody has their favourite actors and actresses.

"The cultural connect between the Gulf and Bollywood isn't knew. It goes all the way back when the multi-starrer superhit film Sholay had released. I know people in the Gulf who can name all the characters from the film," he said.

Brand Bollywood

The magnitude of the vast cultural connection between Bollywood and the Gulf can further be expounded by the sheer scale of box office numbers that many of the films go on to achieve.

  • According to a research paper co-authored by Pattanayak called 'Script to Screen', which he shared with The Quint, the Arab community roughly makes up about 25 percent of the Bollywood movie audience in the present era.

  • The significance of the Gulf, and of UAE in particular, for Bollywood can be displayed by the various promotional activities film stars engage in in the region ahead of their film's release. Just in the last year, for example, the trailers of Shah Rukh Khan's three latest blockbusters Pathaan, Jawan, and Dunki lit up the iconic Burj Khalifa in Dubai during his promotional tours in the city.

‘Article 370’ and ‘Fighter’ faced bans recently without so much as a reason being attributed by the censor boards.

The poster of Jawan displayed on Dubai's Burj Khalifa.

(Photo: X/iamsrk)

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  • Also, Bollywood doesn't make its mark only in UAE theatres, but in the country's lifestyle as well. For instance, Dubai has a Bollywood Theme Park which is styled like a lavish Hindi film set. There are also dozens of Hindi film-inspired restaurants in the country and Emirati weddings with Bollywood themes.

"At one point of time, the region did not really contribute to the box office collection of Hindi films globally. But today, it could perhaps be the largest territorial contributor to a film or at number two, depending on the film and genre," Taran Adarsh told The Quint.

According to Indian box office data, at least 17 Bollywood films have been shot in Dubai since 2013, including blockbusters like Happy New Year (2014), Tiger Zinda Hai (2017), and Pathaan (2023).

The 2021 film Sooryavanshi earned 22 percent of the revenue from its worldwide collection from the UAE alone – making it the highest revenue earned by a film outside its domestic market.

Pattanayak quipped that Sooryavanshi was so popular that "when I wanted to buy a ticket for the film in the cinema theatre, I wasn't able to get my hands on one for two whole weeks."

The Give-And-Take Relationship Between Bollywood & the Gulf

The strong relationship between Hindi films and the Gulf, however, has not been formed overnight, but has grown over the years due to a "give-and-take" partnership.

For instance, the UAE has been offering several incentives to Bollywood actors and filmmakers. The prestigious 'Golden Visa', introduced in 2019, is a case in point. The visa, which facilitates foreign nationals to live and work in Dubai for either five or 10 years without the need of a national sponsor, has been bestowed upon several Indian actors like Shah Rukh Khan, Sanjay Dutt, Varun Dhawan, and Kriti Sanon, among others.

What further makes the UAE one of the most popular destinations for Hindi films is the speed with which the Dubai Film and Television Commission gives approvals for shooting locations across the city. Not only this, the Abu Dhabi Film Commission also offers a 30 percent rebate plan to filmmakers.

"Dubai was in debt for a long time. They needed tourism and needed to pull in crowds to rebuild their economy. I think one of the ways they've achieved the status of the most advanced and economically stable countries in the world is by utilising Indian and other South Asian celebrities to reach a wider group of people," Nidhi Sahani told The Quint.

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Not just the UAE, Saudi Arabia has also been taking significant strides to popularise Bollywood films. For the first time in almost 35 years, Saudi Arabia in 2018 reopened cinema theatres in an attempt to diversify its oil-dependent economy and boost tourism.

"Saudi Arabia has started its own film festivals for which they invite the biggest Bollywood celebrities to make it more marketable and influence people to consider Riyadh or Jeddah for tourism – something which was unheard of until 4-5 years ago," Sahani added.

(The Quint has reached out to the censor board of the UAE and filmmaker Aditya Dhar but has not received a response yet. This article will be updated as and when they respond.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Bollywood   Article 370   Gulf 

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