When I landed in Dubai there was only one cinema hall: Expat aged 57 – News

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Ahmad Golchin, founder and CEO of Phars Films Group, has lived a life as if it were in the movies.

Over the past 50 years, the UAE cinema experience has undergone a transformative change.

Movie buffs seeking the ultimate VIP experience can sink into plush reclining leather seats and call on their butler to bring them gourmet treats as they are 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, it was immeasurably different from today. “When I got here, there was only one in Dubai: the National Cinema in Nasr Square. The open air cinema was located next to a cemetery. At the time, the public had little expectations of cinemas. All it took was a large white painted wall and a projector,” said Ahmad Golchin, the founder and CEO of Phars Film Group. “People sat in rows of chairs, mostly plastic and metal storage crates for soda or oil, and watched the movies. The drink was free,’ he said.

“There are very few of those old open-air cinemas left. They’ve all been demolished to make way for development, and I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of and witness that evolution,” Golchin said.

Those in the industry consider the 79-year-old who has lived in the UAE for 57 years as the founder of the UAE cinema industry. He arrived on the coast of the UAE in 1964 aboard a boat (boat) from Iran with a copy of a Persian dubbed Mexican movie ‘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 without the vision of the rulers of the UAE none of this would be possible,” Golchin said, pointing to the sprawling skyline outside his office in Business Bay.

Golchin’s partnerships and investments span the region and are active in the distribution, exhibition and post-production of films, including media, hospitality, real estate development and management.

His partner in the real estate company Navid Hamedi calls Golchin a workaholic. “He was distraught when he heard about the week-long holiday before Eid this year. He lives to work,” says Hamedi. “Every morning, at 5:30 am, he swims for two to three hours at Kite Beach. That way he stays sharp,” he added.

Humble Beginning

Golchin said he was born into a religious family in 1942 and that his mother was his father’s third wife. “My father was an extremely religious man. Cinema or any other entertainment was forbidden to us,” he said. “In the fifth year of my school, my father left my mother. We were left to our own devices,” he added.

During his growing years, Golchin made money by selling novels and other books on famous streets in Tehran. He would use the money to support his mother and watch movies when he found time.

“I’ve always been a dreamer and I loved movies and entertainment,” he said. “Back then, the books came without covers or branding. When I was 14, I thought the books would sell better if they had some attractive covers. Using my flair for art, I designed my very first cover for Alan Gratz’s book American Grenade. I even renamed the title and called it ‘Six Steps to Death’ instead,’ he said.

Since copyright and publication rights were not secured in the early 1950s, Golchin was able to translate several English novels into Farsi and brand them in attractive packaging. Within a few years he became a publisher. “I’ve published 140 books in that time,” he said. In the 1960s, after Golchin published a French novel about the Vietnam War, he ran into problems with the Iranian authorities at the time.

‘Chance of arriving in UAE’

“After that I had to flee the country. With little money in hand, I left Iran and boarded a launch (boat) to come to the UAE,” Golchin said.

He arrived on the coast of Ras Al Khaimah and during his journey his passport and money were stolen by what he suspects could be his fellow passengers.

“In retrospect, that was the best thing that happened to me. At that time, Iran did not have an embassy or consulate here. If you lost your documentation, you had to write a letter to the mission in Kuwait. They would return the document to you within three to four months,” Golchin said. With time to spare and no livelihood, Golchin set his eyes on opportunities in Dubai.

In his early years in the UAE, Golchin used his artistic skills again. “I worked here with a Pakistani man and started making colored signboards with building tiles for shops in Deira,” said Golchin. “I went into the market and sold them, and slowly people started buying them,” he added. “Since I didn’t have a place to live, I slept at night on rooftops in buildings in the market in Nasr Square. There were very few buildings then,” he added.

Golchin lived in Nasr Square for 30 years and that’s where he finally came up with his first film.

Dive into the world of cinema

According to Golchin, the very first cinema in the UAE could be the Paramount Cinema in Sharjah. “I believe it was opened in 1943 and served by the British services in the emirate,” he recalled.

The films that were shown were also a testament to the nationalities of people who came to the UAE at the time, Golchin said. “People wanted entertainment, and I thought, why not movies? Nasr Square had one open-air cinema – Al Wattan Cinema. Another was in Jumeirah, and a third was called Rex Open Air Cinema. We could show films from India, Persia, Lebanon and the prints that came then were of inferior quality,” he said.

Tickets were sold at Rs 3 or Rs 6, the currency of the time. “The Jumeirah cinema could seat 2,400 people at any one time, and it was packed for major films,” Golchin said.

With the help of a distributor from Bahrain, Golchin started getting prints of various movie titles. “The first movie I showed was a Mexican movie called Farsi – ‘Fight to Death’. After that, we showed a lot of Indian movies like Ganga Jamuna, Mr420, Mother India and some Turkish titles,” he said.

The demand for emotional films was high. “We would either put a placard on the abras announcing them or hire a town crier to carry written posters if the movie was important,” he said. In 1972, the first air-conditioned cinema – Plaza Cinema – opened in Dubai. “From that moment on, the entertainment industry developed at a breakneck pace,” said Golchin.

As the UAE grew, so did the number of theaters, which soon became multiplexes attached to sprawling shopping malls.

From Mr India to Mission Impossible

Since the late 1960s, Golchin has distributed and showcased some of the greatest blockbusters of all time in several languages. Pre-pandemic, Phars Films distributed an average of 350 to 400 titles per year.

“It wasn’t just Hollywood and Bollywood or movies produced by big studios. Our company has exclusive distribution rights to everything from Star Wars to Slumdog Millionaire and from Titanic to Black Widow,” said Golchin.

Movies such as Slumdog and Parasite, which had no significant studio affiliation, were chosen by Golchin for their sheer directorial quality. “I remember seeing Slumdog for the first time; it was like a diamond in the rough… nobody cared in the beginning, it didn’t have a big star cast; but I knew it would be a huge success,” he said.

The same was the case with the Academy Award winning Korean title Parasite, Golchin. “Sometimes, when you see a movie with an incredibly compelling story, you can’t help but go for it. It doesn’t matter if the movie does well or not; it must be given a space to shine. That’s the magic of cinema’, says Golchin.

Once he realized that there is a huge market for South Indian films in the country, Golchin has extensively tried to distribute Malayalam films. Although he had exclusive distribution rights to Bahubali and Drishyam, he has also screened films with actors of yesteryear such as Prem Naseer and Jayan.

“Today I am counting on Mohanlal’s new film Marakkar. I think it could be the next Bahubali,” he added. Over the years, Golchin has also built close relationships with producers, A-list movie stars and directors.

While the pandemic has hit the movie and entertainment industry hard 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 linked to the country’s rapid development and achievement in more ways than one.

“Everything is possible here. I wouldn’t have found the same success anywhere else. This country respects people of all nationalities. So many people, like me, have come here to flee the political issues in their own country,” Golchin said.

dhanusha@khaleejtimes.com

Dhanusha Gokulan

Dhanusha Gokulan, originally from India, has been working as a journalist for over ten years. For Khaleej Times she covers NRA matters, civil aviation and immigration issues. She completed her BA in Journalism, Economics and English Literature from Mangalore University in 2008 and is currently pursuing her MA in Leadership and Innovation in Contemporary Media at American University in Dubai. In her spare time she enjoys singing/songwriting, loves to eat and is mother to an over-enthusiastic Labrador retriever. Tweet on her @shootsprintrite.



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