When I landed in Dubai, there was just one cinema hall: Expat of 57 years
Ahmad Golchin, founder and CEO of Phars Films Group, has lived a life like ‘it’s in the movies’.
Over the last 50 years, the cinema viewing experience in the UAE has undergone a transformative change.
Film fans seeking the ultimate VIP experience can sink into plush reclining leather seats and call on their butler to bring them gourmet treats while being transported into worlds of fantasy and drama. All this while enjoying high impact high-ultra surround sound and visuals, sometimes in a 3D, 4DX, and 5D viewing experience.
In the 1960s, however, things were immeasurably different from how it is today. “When I arrived here, there was only one in Dubai – the National Cinema in Nasr Square. The open-air cinema was located next to a cemetery. The public had very little expectation from cinemas back then. All that was needed was a large wall painted white and a projector,” said Ahmad Golchin, the founder and CEO of Phars Film Group. “People sat on rows of seats, usually plastic and metal storage crates for soft drinks or oil, and watched the movies. The drink was complimentary,” he said.
“Few of those old open-air cinemas exist anymore. They have all been demolished to make way for development, and I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of and witness that evolution,” said Golchin.
Those in the industry credit the 79-year-old who has been a UAE resident for 57 years as the founding father of UAE’s cinema industry. He arrived on UAE shores on board a launch (boat) from Iran in 1964 carrying a copy of a Persian dubbed Mexican film ‘Fight to Death’. Since then, he has built the largest and most successful film empire in the Middle East.
“My destiny was in the UAE, and if it weren’t for the vision of the UAE rulers, none of this would be possible,” Golchin said while pointing to the sprawling skyline outside his office in Business Bay.
Golchin’s partnerships and investments span the region and operate in distribution, exhibition, and post-production of cinema, including media, hospitality, property development and management.
His partner in the real estate business Navid Hamedi, calls Golchin a workaholic. “He was distraught when he heard about the week-long holiday for Eid this year. He lives to work,” said Hamedi. “Every morning, at 5.30 am, he swims for two to three hours at Kite Beach. That’s how he stays sharp,” he added.
Golchin said he was born into a religious family in 1942, and his mother was his father’s third wife. “My father was an extremely religious man. Cinema or any entertainment was prohibited for us,” he said. “In the fifth year of my school, my father left my mother. We were left to fend for ourselves,” he added.
During his growing years, Golchin made money by selling novels and other books on famous streets in Tehran. He would use the funds to support his mother and watch movies whenever he found time.
“I’ve always been a dreamer, and I loved movies and entertainment,” he said. “Back then, the books came without any covers or branding. When I was 14, I figured the books would sell better if they had some attractive covers. I used my flair for art and designed my very first cover for the book ‘American Grenade’ by Alan Gratz. I even re-named the title and called it ‘Six steps to death’ instead,” he said.
Since copyright and publishing rights weren’t set in stone in the early ’50s, Golchin could translate various English novels into Farsi and brand them in attractive packaging. In a matter of years, he became a publisher. “I published 140 books during that time,” he said. In the ’60s, after Golchin published a French novel about the war in Vietnam, he ran into trouble with Iranian authorities during that time.
‘Chance arrival in UAE’
“I had to flee the country after that. With little money in hand, I left Iran and got on a launch (boat) to come to the UAE,” said Golchin.
He arrived on the shores of Ras Al Khaimah, and during his journey, his passport and money were stolen by what he suspects could’ve been his co-passengers.
“Looking back, that was the best thing that happened to me. Iran did not have an Embassy or a Consulate here back then. If you lost your documentation, you had to write a letter to the mission in Kuwait. They would send the document back to you in three to four months,” said Golchin. With time to spare and with no means of sustenance, Golchin turned his eyes to opportunities in Dubai.
In his early years in the UAE, Golchin put his artistic abilities to use once again. “I partnered with a Pakistani man here and began making coloured signboards using construction tiles for shops in Deira,” said Golchin. “I would go out in the market and sell them, and slowly, people began buying them,” he added. “With no place to live, I was sleeping on rooftops in buildings in the market in Nasr Square at night. There were very few buildings back then,” he added. “
Golchin lived in Nasr Square for 30 years, and that is where he ended up showcasing his first movie.
Foray into the world of cinema
According to Golchin, the very first movie theatre in the UAE could have been the Paramount Cinema in Sharjah. “I think it was opened in 1943, and it catered to the British services based in the Emirate,” he reminisced.
The movies that were being screened were also a testament to the nationalities of people coming to the UAE back then, said Golchin. “People wanted entertainment, and I figured, why not movies? Nasr Square had one open-air cinema – Al Wattan Cinema. Another one was in Jumeirah, and a third one was called Rex open-air cinema. We could show movies from India, Persia, Lebanon, and the prints that came back then were of inferior quality,” he said.
Tickets were sold at Rs 3 or Rs 6, the currency of that time. “The Jumeirah cinema could seat 2,400 people at a given time, and for important movies, it was houseful,” said Golchin.
With the help of a distributor from Bahrain, Golchin began getting prints of several movie titles. “The first movie I showed was a Mexican movie dubbed in Farsi - ‘Fight to Death’. After that, we showed many Indian movies such as Ganga Jamuna, Mr420, Mother India, and a few Turkish titles,” he said.
The demand was high for emotional movies. “We would either put up a placard on the abras announcing them or hire a town crier to wear written posters if the film was important,” he said. In 1972, the first air-conditioned movie theatre – Plaza Cinema - opened in Dubai. “From that point on, development in the entertainment sector took place at breakneck speed,” said Golchin.
As UAE grew, so did the number of theatres, which soon became multiplexes attached to sprawling malls.
From Mr India to Mission Impossible
Since the late ’60s, Golchin has distributed and exhibited some of the biggest blockbusters of all time in various languages. Pre-pandemic, Phars Films was distributing an average of 350 to 400 titles every year.
“It wasn’t just Hollywood and Bollywood or movies produced by big studios. Our company has had sole distribution rights to everything from Star Wars to Slumdog Millionaire and Titanic,” said Golchin.
Movies such as Slumdog and Parasite, which did not have significant studio affiliation, were picked by Golchin for their sheer directorial brilliance. “I remember when I saw Slumdog for the first time; it was like a diamond in the rough… no one cared for it in the beginning, it had no big star cast; but, I knew it was going to be a smash hit,” he said.
Similar was the case with Academy Award-winning Korean title Parasite, Golchin. “Sometimes, when you see a movie that has an incredibly compelling story, you can’t help but root for it. It doesn’t matter if the movie does well or not; it needs to be given a space to shine. That is the magic of cinema,” said Golchin.
Once he realised there is a massive market for South Indian movies in the country, Golchin has forayed extensively into distributing Malayalam movies. While he has had sole distribution rights for Bahubali and Drishyam, he has also shown movies starring yesteryear actors such as Prem Naseer and Jayan.
“Today, I am counting on Mohanlal’s new movie Marakkar. I think it could be the next Bahubali,” he added. Over the years, Golchin has also formed close relations with producers, A-list movie stars, and directors.
While the pandemic has been tough on the movie and entertainment industry worldwide, Golchin believes movies will never go out of style. “People will always want to have that experience of watching a movie on the big screen,” he said.
‘My destiny was the UAE’
Golchin’s success story is closely tied to the country’s rapid development and accomplishments in more ways than one.
“Over here, anything is possible. I would not have found similar success anywhere else. This country respects people of all nationalities. So many people, like me, have come here fleeing the political issues in their own countries,” said Golchin.
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