Desert calling

Dubai, with its stunning desert landscape and towering skyscrapers, is beginning to attract film makers to its shores. Already, the first English feature film to be shot in the emirate is getting ready to roll. Digital Studio brings you an exclusive.

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By  Vijaya Cherian Published  October 21, 2004

I|~|film2.jpg|~||~|A young Arab American returns to his home in Arabia at the behest of his grandfather to take over the latter’s business. The young man finds it difficult to adapt to the land and its people; a storm brews. What ensues is Chamale — a 90-minute English feature film — set in the heart of Dubai. Chamale, which means sandstorm in Arabic, is the first full-length English film to be shot in Dubai. With it, Aditya Raj Kapoor, who scripted and directed Chamale, hopes to put Dubai on the world map and attract more film makers to this location. “I feel that Dubai has all the makings to be the next Hollywood. Apart from having a stunning desert landscape and all the looks of a modern city, this place has some of the crucial prerequisites for a film industry such as security, infrastructure, and peace and quiet,” he says. “By the last, I mean the absence of archaic governmental laws that frustrate the creative efforts of film makers.” Kapoor, himself, is no stranger to the film scene. Grandson of the late Raj Kapoor, the famed Indian Bollywood legend, Kapoor grew up watching filmmakers at work. But in the past, he has more often worked in the real world than the reel, building amusement parks all over India, and later taking up corporatisation projects in London and Dubai. It was only a year ago that he actively began scripting and directing programmes for Channel 7 to 9, which he launched for Ajman TV a year ago. Chamale is his first movie and for this, he has brought together a 20-army crew. Most of the technical team hails from India, most of the actors including the heroine, Rola Daher, are Arab nationals while Simon Bechus, the hero, is South African. This film has one significant advantage. Its release will coincide with Dubai’s own historical moment in December, when the emirate unveils its first international film festival. The city has been grooming itself for the past year to lay out the red carpet for international celebrities at the Dubai International Film Festival and with it, the emirate will formally open its doors to the film and entertainment industry. The preview of Chamale, which is made on its own shores, only promises to do the emirate proud on the occasion. Kapoor, however, claims to have had no knowledge of the festival, when he planned the film. “I put this story together before the film commission took place and planned its release in January 2005. It’s only later that I heard that there would be a film festival and I thought it would be good to have Chamale previewed at the event,” he explains. To get the film out in time, the crew has had to shoot in July and August — the hottest months of the year, when temperatures soar to an average of 48 degrees Celsius in Dubai. This brought in its wake a whole host of challenges for the crew. ||**||II|~||~||~|Apart from the physical limitations of shooting during the day in the desert, it also became obvious that the cinematographer would not be able to capture the beauty of the landscape when the sun was unrelentingly harsh. The solution was to shoot from late noons into the early hours of the morning. Early evenings and early mornings were perfect for outdoor shoots because it brought out the texture and the pastel colours of the desert well. With a tight 30-day shooting schedule, Kapoor was unwilling to experiment with new cinematographers or production people. He preferred friends he had worked with and who understood his style, production people who had explored the terrain before and a cinematographer who was well versed with filming in Dubai. That is how Anil Sehgal, an old student of India’s famous Pune Film Institute and a well known cameraman in Bollywood, came to be working with Kapoor on Chamale. “Sehgal is a veteran of Dubai shoots. He has shot over 150 episodes of a film serial in Dubai for Zee TV and many of them were outdoor shoots,” explains Kapoor. “We had to be ready by December. Post will take at least two months so we had to ensure that production was completed by August. Since Anil knows the shooting conditions here, he knew what preparations to make. It was easy to discuss the script with him. A newcomer would have been lost for the first few days,” he explains. Sehgal has a good idea of what equipment is available in Dubai, what needs to be brought in and what brand of film is best suited for outdoors shoots. “Most of the film infrastructure is not yet available here, and in that sense we are better equipped in India. But we brought along all the equipment we required for the shoot, so we weren’t hampered in any way,” says the cameraman. For Chamale, Sehgal has also expressed a preference for Fuji over Kodak. “There are only two big brands of film to choose from — Kodak and Fuji. It’s a bit like Coke and Pepsi; our preference for one over the other is purely personal. I feel that Fuji is better suited for exterior work because I have found colour saturation in Fuji to be better than Kodak. The greens and blues that the Fuji captures look much better than the Kodak,” he explains. Periodically, cans of exposed film were taken to India for processing during the last month. The trip has come out of necessity, according to Raj Puthran, executive producer of the film. Puthran, who has worked in Dubai for the last decade and been involved in many Bollywood productions, says he would have done the whole project out of Dubai if the infrastructure allowed it. “We don’t yet have a lab here with full facilities, where film makers can come, shoot a movie and develop and process the film. A telecine lab has been opened here recently, but it’s limited to developing and cannot make prints. Moreover, you can’t view your rushes here, so I have to physically take the film to India, get it printed and then bring it back for post production. If we had a lab here, it would have saved us a lot of time. It’s probably why film makers are not yet coming here. Once Dubai has the complete infrastructure for film, more filmmakers are likely to shoot here,” he says. ||**||III|~||~||~|Even as we speak, the foundations for such an infrastructure are being laid at Dubai Land, a major project that will include among many others, Dubai Film City. There is word that the film city will be like Hollywood, only bigger and better with labs, shooting studios, sets and the works. Once the foundation has been laid, other elements such as casting agencies and a film school are also gradually likely to come into the emirate. “Currently, the casting agencies here are limited to commercials,” explains director Kapoor. “The look we require for a commercial is very different from what we’d want for a film, and there are no film or TV casting agencies here.” Kapoor was lucky on that front and he chose people who live in the emirate. He met both Simon Bechus, the hero in Chamale, and Rola Daher, the heroine, at 7 to 9. Bechus, who hails from South Africa, has been to a theatre school in Cape Town. He came to Dubai to visit his mother and stayed on, while Daher, an Arab national, took the inaugural class in an acting institute in Dubai. The director was also keen to carry out the post production in Dubai. Perhaps the fact that Raj Taru Videosonic, one of India’s largest post production firms, has set up office in Dubai, helped as there is much work to be done in the post for Kapoor’s film. The most crucial of this will be creating a sandstorm in the studio. In 1965, when David Lean wanted to create such a storm for his film Lawrence of Arabia, he used four helicopter fans. Today, however, software can create an equally turbulent effect but it’s laborious and expensive, according to Ramesh Agrawal, CEO of Raj Taru Videosonic. Raj Taru seemed the most appropriate to do the post as the company is well known internationally for creating special effects not just for Bollywood movies but for Hollywood as well. Graphics experts, who have worked with Raj Taru in the past, have helped create some of the special effects in films like The Mummy and more recently I, Robot. ||**||IV|~||~||~|“For Chamale, the director told us how and which way he wanted to show the storm, and we went on location to recommend possible angles from which to shoot so as to get the best results for post,” explains Agarwal. Ten desert storm fans were used to create a tiny storm to fill the frame, and ensure that the clothes and the hair of the actors were moving in the required direction. It would then be enlarged and made turbulent in post. “In the footage, however, there is just a little sand blowing around; it is not really in storm form. The storm has to be created in 3D with the help of software,” says Agarwal. While a good bit of the post has been done in Dubai, some portions have to be retouched at Raj Taru’s facility in India. For instance, the sand is likely to look washed out in the footage, explains Agarwal. “Through a process of restoration, we’ll try to recapture everything. We will separate the sand from the scene and give it a natural colour. This will have to be done on Inferno, which is currently available only at our Indian facility,” he explains, adding that he cannot justify investing in such an expensive solution here just yet. “There is very little demand here for film resolution except within the advertising industry and they usually take their post production out. Others shoot in digital format and it’s usually for video.” Kapoor is one of the exceptions to the rule. According to him, film is the only medium that he has truly understood and worked with. “New technologies need to be understood better and handled better. I haven’t come to grips with it and I don’t think planet Earth has come to grips with it. Moreover, it isn’t available everywhere. For example, today, you can shoot on a particular camera, edit on a hard disc, beam it through satellite to a cinema theatre without it entering any can but how many such theatres are available today? I don’t know how well a digital camera will do in the desert and I am not comfortable with it. I can’t take a call on it. I still trust 35 mm.”||**||

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