'Dubai is my secret sauce': After big win at Cannes, UAE filmmaker launches production house

From representing the country on the coveted stage with his award-winning short film, Indian expat Shihan Shoukath seeks to disrupt the filmmaking landscape with his new projects


Somya Mehta

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Published: Thu 14 Mar 2024, 5:47 PM

Last updated: Sat 16 Mar 2024, 11:01 AM

A filmmaker hailing from Dubai, Shihan Shoukath's breakthrough moment arrived in 2022 when his short film Deadline clinched the prestigious Cannes award. The film, which delves into the journey of a call-centre agent, grappling with grief-stricken callers while uncovering his own buried emotions, won several accolades for its gripping narrative, including at the Cannes World Film Festival.

A testament to his directorial prowess, Deadline, now streaming on Jio Cinema, was filmed in a single night with a crew of only three individuals, including both the lead actor (and his brother), Ishan Shoukath, and Shoukath himself. “The fact that I did it myself was quite surprising to everyone at Cannes because all the others seemed to have big budgets of $50,000 or $100,000,” confesses the filmmaker, who walked the Cannes red carpet in 2023 as the official UAE representative.

Still from 'Deadline'
Still from 'Deadline'

Shihan, who grew up in Dubai, recalls the moment of pride when he got to represent the country at a global stage. "It felt surreal. The government supported me in expediting the visa process and other things to make sure my journey was as smooth as possible,” he adds. “It felt amazing to be able to talk about Dubai to all the other talents there. Everyone was really curious about how things operate here, in terms of filmmaking and streaming platforms because you don't really hear a lot about it.”

Another part of his Cannes experience that stands out was “watching the film with all the other supremely talented people who were there”, he adds. “Everyone would ask questions about the film and you start building the team for your next project right there. A couple of people I met are now working on the background music and sound for our next film,” says the 29-year-old.

Shihan Shoukath
Shihan Shoukath

Being a one-man show wearing the writer-director-editor’s hat, Shihan’s distinctive worldview and talent for crafting compelling stories have positioned him as a rising talent in the realm of independent cinema. Building on the success of his award-winning short, the young filmmaker has recently launched his own production house, Reel World Entertainment, in collaboration with Dubai-based Transworld Group, helmed by Ramesh Ramakrishnan and Ritesh Ramakrishnan.

“It's not just a production house; think of it as a collaboration dedicated to creating stories that people of all backgrounds can resonate with,” says Shihan, who originally hails from Kerala, India. “Our mission is to tell stories that connect globally, embracing new and fresh perspectives. Through this partnership, we're aiming to contribute to the vibrant young talent in world cinema, starting with Malayalam.”

The city of Dubai, however, forms the heart and soul of his filmmaking. “The vibrant mix of cultures here has shaped the way I see the world,” says Shihan. “It's like my storytelling secret sauce—adding that dash of diverse flavour to everything I create. Dubai is a dynamic place, and that dynamism seeps into my films, making them as diverse and exciting as the city itself.”

Dubai has also emerged as a fertile ground for young talent and opportunities in recent years, aligning closely with the ethos of Reel World Entertainment. “Dubai is like a goldmine of vivid stories waiting to be told. From the old-school markets to the futuristic skyscrapers, it’s a filmmaker's dream. It's not just a backdrop; it's the core of our upbringing,” says Shihan.

“Formed as a partnership in the city, Reel World Entertainment’s vision is to craft narratives that capture the pulsating heartbeat of talent emerging from undiscovered ones of the cinematic world, such as our hometown of Dubai,” he adds.

With his roots planted in Malayalam cinema, the filmmaker also aspires to bridge the gap between the film industry in Dubai and back home. “We want to take Malayalam cinema into unchartered territories,” says Shihan, recalling how South star Mammootty has been a great influence on his work. “I got the opportunity to visit the sets of Abraham Ozler (2024) and Bramayugam (2024) and those moments are etched in my memory forever. The set was buzzing with energy, but the minute Mammookka walked in, everything just paused. It was like time stood still. He owned the room without saying a word.”

South star Mammootty
South star Mammootty

“Fast forward to actually watching the film; I was completely blown away. Mammookka doesn't just grab your full attention, he completely engulfs it. That experience was a game-changer, showing me the kind of impact storytelling can have when it's done right,” he adds.

“So, when people ask how Mammootty's work inspires me, it's not just about the performance — it's about the ability to command the screen, to make you forget everything else. That's the kind of magic we're aiming for in our own storytelling journey,” says Shihan, who will soon be collaborating with a big-banner Malayalam production company, the details of which he’s unable to reveal at this point.

Still from 'Deadline'
Still from 'Deadline'

Speaking about the forthcoming collaboration, he adds, “This creative connection is cooking up something special. We're on a mission to change the Malayalam movie scene, with our first title venturing into the unexplored realm of entertaining, sports-based Malayalam cinema,” says Shihan, adding that he’s thrilled to be exploring filmmaking opportunities in Dubai as the next phase in his journey. Continuously on the hunt for new, local talent, you can get in touch with the filmmaker through his Instagram account @mistershihan.


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