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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Oscar-nominee Barkhad Abdi to star in Dubai director Neel Kumar's second feature 'Beneath a Sea of Lights'

Neel Kumar will film first feature in the city since the success of his short Security

In Neel Kumar’s debut ‘Security’, an Indian and a Pakistani security guard confront their prejudices while working at a UAE construction site. Courtesy Akela films
In Neel Kumar’s debut ‘Security’, an Indian and a Pakistani security guard confront their prejudices while working at a UAE construction site. Courtesy Akela films

It’s rare for a director to be so candid about his first film as to tell you that he “really didn’t expect it to do very well, to be blunt”. But Neel Kumar’s debut, Security, was nominated for awards across four continents during a festival run that concluded late last year.

It is the story of two security guards, an Indian and a Pakistani, who are brought together in the Dubai desert, where the tedium of guarding an empty construction site forces them to pass the time by hearing each others’ stories and confronting their prejudices. Kumar says: It’s a really slow film. Intentionally slow, because their lives are really slow, days just bleed into one another.

“Nothing happens, because that’s their lives. Their boss turning up is an event.”

Describing why he had low expectations for the short film, Kumar adds that he basically made the film for himself, based on months of his own insomnia-led experiences of chatting to the security guards at his Dubai home into the early hours.

“I wanted to make a film about what happens when people leave home and are taken out of familiar surroundings,” he says. “I think maybe the critics took to it so well because they’d just never seen a film like that before.”

The director is now set to return with a second film about people in unfamiliar surroundings, and since his festival success with Security, he has a bigger budget, a feature-length project, and a bona fide Hollywood star at his disposal.

Producer Umran Shaikh, left, and director Neel Kumar translate UAE experiences onto the big screen. Courtesy Akela Films
Producer Umran Shaikh, left, and director Neel Kumar translate UAE experiences onto the big screen. Courtesy Akela Films

Beneath a Sea of Lights will start shooting in Dubai on April 1, and will star Barkhad Abdi, known as pirate captain Muse from the 2013 Tom Hanks-starrer Captain Phillips. Abdi’s Best Supporting Actor nomination at the 2014 Oscars was one of six the film received, including Best Picture. Abdi will play a Somali billboard repairman in Dubai who decides he wants to experience some of the products advertised on his boards – an experiment that begins innocently, but quickly spins out of control.

Kumar admits that Abdi wasn’t his first choice for the role. “I wrote the story with an Indian actor in mind,” he says. “That would have meant it would have to be a Hindi film, but we didn’t have the budget for big Hollywood stars and besides, the story wouldn’t have made sense in the context of Dubai with a western actor in the lead role.”

Kumar reveals that, although he approached relatively unknown Indian actors rather than Bollywood megastars, the fees were close to Hollywood rates, and in some cases more. He and his producer partner Umran Shaikh had a rethink. “Eventually there were two people in India that said no to us. I won’t name names, but if they hadn’t said no I honestly think we’d be making a much worse film than we are,” he says.

“After that, I sat with Umran and said, ‘Look, this film isn’t about Indians. It’s about anybody who goes from a rural area to a big city, and this could happen anywhere.’”

The pair turned their eyes south to Africa, and Kumar realised he already knew who his leading man should be. “It wasn’t so much from Captain Phillips, but from when I saw him [Barkhad Abdi] interviewed on Conan to publicise Captain Phillips,” the director says. “He looked like a total fish out of water, but he was smiling, he was laughing, he was happy to be there, and that was exactly our character. Somebody who’s totally out of their usual world and totally loving it.”

Somali-American Barkhad Abdi plays a billboard repairman in Dubai in the director’s new film, ‘Beneath a Sea of Lights’. Isaiah Trickey / FilmMagic
Somali-American Barkhad Abdi plays a billboard repairman in Dubai in the director’s new film, ‘Beneath a Sea of Lights’. Isaiah Trickey / FilmMagic

Kumar admits that, although it is better funded than Security, the new project is still being run on tight purse strings, but fortunately he has some high-profile backers by his side. “Myself and Umran have provided a lot of the funding

ourselves, and we have a private investor too. But also we have Manasvi Gosalia as an executive producer. He runs Dejavu, one of the biggest production houses in Dubai, and he’s both putting in funding and offering production support through his company, so that’s a huge help.”

He adds that Dubai’s Alkatraz Production, who handled local production on blockbusters such as Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens and Kung Fu Yoga are also on board, and have been helping with location services, permissions, and winning support from Dubai Film and TV Commission. The final piece of the funding jigsaw could come from that mainstay of Middle Eastern production – product placement, perhaps unsurprisingly given Kumar’s history in advertising before becoming a full-time filmmaker. “We’re getting a lot of support from brands,” he says. “I can’t name names yet, but obviously the storyline itself is very product-centric. We’re not talking huge product placement deals, but they’re just excited to be on board and help out.”

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The movie is set to finish shooting on May 20, with all the filming taking place in Dubai, and Kumar hopes to have post-production wrapped in time to start submitting for next year’s festivals. Sundance opens submissions in September, and Berlin, Cannes, Venice and Toronto are also in his sights.

This time around Kumar hopes to win more than critical acclaim from his festival run. He wants to pick up distribution. “I love awards, but the biggest thing with festivals for me is for people to see it, and for a distributor to pick it up so more people see it,” he says. “It’s no use winning an award at a festival if you have no distributor and nobody sees it. You can keep that, thanks.”