We catch up with the country’s most powerful movie man who is fast turning Bahrain into Bollywood’s biggest fan
Time Out Bahrain staff
It doesn’t take much to get Sunil Balan talking about films. Seven days a week, 12 months a year, he occupies the COO office of The Bahrain Cinema Company registering takings, overseeing the running of the cinemas and helping to select the films that the rest of the country will watch. With a virtual monopoly on Bahrain’s movie screens (The Bahrain Cinema Company runs every single cinema in the country with the exception of the cinema at Dana Mall), he is Bahrain’s cinema king.
Uniquely, outside of India, Bahrain’s cinemas are not dominated by comic book sequels and film scripts peddling the American Dream, but are a diverse mix of American, Arabic and Indian films that neatly represent the diversity of Bahrain’s inhabitants. Head to Bahrain’s multiplexes on any given day and you are just as likely to catch a Bollywood blockbuster as the latest horror from Hollywood. Sunil says, ‘We have a complete mix of movies for all kinds of people,’ and the kinds of people he is referring to demand fewer and fewer Hollywood hits.
Perhaps surprisingly, Bollywood films don’t only attract an expat Indian audience. ‘On some occasions [during a Bollywood screening] we get 70 per cent locals, but it depends on the movie and the star,’ says Sunil. Bollywood, with its melodramatic plots, free use of stereotypes and frequent breaks for a spot of singing provide strong competition for Hollywood’s traditional clout. And it is perhaps not surprising that a Hollywood star could wander unnoticed around Manama, but a Bollywood big shot would be mobbed within minutes.
The epicentre of Bahrain’s Bollywood scene is located on Zubara Avenue, a few hundred yards west from the intersection with Palace Avenue. Awal Cinema, an art deco masterpiece and one of Bahrain’s oldest movie houses, is the shrine to Bollywood for most Bahrainis. Hollywood, which once boasted dominance in the movies was banished over a decade ago in favour of exclusively Indian content. The cavernous cinema can seat 764 people and, ‘if it’s a big movie, and if it’s a weekend, it’s about 95 per cent full.’
In terms of timing, Bollywood often has the upper hand. Whereas most Hollywood movies that make it to Bahrain are released a good two to three months after they have been screened in the West, Bahrain’s Bollywood offerings are up to the minute. ‘We even release them a day earlier than Mumbai,’ says Sunil welling with obvious pride.
So did he show Slumdog? ‘Yes, it was a big hit, but not as big as we expected.’ Unlike many that work in Indian cinema, he is not a Slumdog Millionaire hater, but conceded that he doesn’t think it should have won the Oscar for Best Film. ‘There were much better films than that,’ he says, reeling off a list of Bollywood, Kollywood (Tamil) and Keralite pictures that have been massive hits across Asia but have passed without notice in much of the West.
But, if Sunil has his way, Bahrain’s focus on Bollywood is about to balloon. ‘Every week we bring a minimum of two new Bollywood movies, but a couple of weeks ago we bought in four Bollywood films plus one from South India,’ increasing the supply for the burgeoning demand. And although Hollywood flicks still generate more in ticket sales than Bollywood, in terms of quantity, they are neck and neck. We walk with Sunil through the lobby of Awal Cinema, plastered with posters of India’s upcoming hits. Sunil surveys them with a smile. ‘It is definitely going to get bigger. The composition of Bollywood cinema here can only go up.’
The top 10 Bollywood blockbusters of all time. 10 Hum Aapke Hain Kaun…!: Best Bollywood film of all time? Certainly the oldest in the top 10. Lavish production values and an impressive 14 separate songs make it a lasting favourite with fans of all ages. Grossed: BD4,888,608
9 Gadar: Ek Prem Katha Nominated for numerous awards and provoking debate among Indians the world over, the film is a classic. Grossed: BD5,296,074
8 Lage Raho Munna Bhai: Sanjay Dutt’s off-screen celebrity often overshadows his skill and popularity as a lead actor. In this musical comedy the message of the film was strong enough to spark protests around the world. Grossed: BD5,319,224
7 Om Shanti Om: Every big name of note makes an appearance including one mouth-watering number with 30 of the most familiar faces in a single song and dance number. Grossed: BD5,699,128
6 Welcome: It was massively popular from the very first evening in theatres and has gone a long way to making Akshay one of the biggest stars of Bollywood. Grossed: BD5,702,378
5 Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi: Split personality comedy romance which showcases the brilliance of SRK. Grossed: BD5,965,368
4 Singh is Kinng: A true global smash filmed in large part in Australia. Grossed: BD6,158,672
3 Krrish: One of the first major superhero films to be produced in India for two decades, it is a sequel to the film Koi…Mil Gaya and cements the reputation of Hrithik Roshan as one of Bollywood’s biggest action heroes. Grossed: BD6,637,137
2 Dhoom 2: Director Sanjay Gadhvi brings together Hrithik Roshan, Abhishek Roshan, Aishwarya Rai and Bipasha Basu for Yash Raj Films all time highest ever earner. Grossed: BD6,804,838
1 Ghajini: The highest grossing Bollywood film of all time. Aamir Khan, Asin Thottumkal, AR Murgadoss and AR Rahman combined to make the film, based on Hollywood’s Momento. Grossed: BD9,540,020