x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Rewinding back to Dubai's video rental days

Dubai's video rental shops were once a big draw, but only a few remain open. We find out who their present customers are and how they manage to survive in an age of high-speed internet and free movie downloads.

Ramathilagam has owned Crescent Video for 25 years but does not know the fate of his Karama store after he retires. Antonie Robertson / The National
Ramathilagam has owned Crescent Video for 25 years but does not know the fate of his Karama store after he retires. Antonie Robertson / The National

For years, a hot summer weekend meant making a beeline for the neighbourhood video rental shop and stocking up on the blockbusters of the time – be it Top Gun, the Rambo series or Amitabh Bachchan’s Bollywood dramas. While a large number of these humble video shops in Dubai have closed down due to paid movie channels and illegal internet downloads, there are still a handful of these delightful stores keeping the movie-rental phenomenon alive and doing surprisingly better-than-average business.

Years ago, entering one of these shops and getting a membership was equivalent to signing a lifelong movie obsession contract. Step into one today and you’ll still be transported into the kind of wonderland film buffs would love.

Starting with renting out VHS tapes almost 25 years back, these perfectly legal shops changed with the times and started stocking original VCDs, DVDs and now Blu-ray discs. Once an important part of the local popular culture, their gradual decline in the past five years marks a shift in the way people watch films and the technological advancement in the
entertainment industry.

One of the oldest and still popular video shops in Dubai is Crescent Video, which lies in the heart of Karama. Opened in 1988, it boasts nearly 15,000 movie titles. Little wonder that it’s crammed with discs from floor to ceiling.

S Ramathilagam, the shop’s co-owner, says he still has about 400 loyal members. He proudly says he has customers for films in six different languages – English, Hindi, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu and Kannada. While a majority of his customers are Indian expats, he says he also has Filipinos who rent out English films.

Apart from his vast movie collection, what’s amazing are the meticulously filed and numbered DVD covers, thanks to which he can easily locate old or obscure movies. Some classic films you will find here are Roman Holiday, Doctor Zhivago and even Christopher Lee’s 1958 Horror of Dracula.

When it comes to Hindi films, he has black-and-white gems from the 1960s and 1970s such as Tere Ghar Ke Samne and Guddi.

Another store catering to Karama residents is Tetco Video. Apart from English, Hindi and other regional language flicks, Tetco keeps a huge collection for kids and is well-stocked to get them through the summer holidays with everything from Disney classics to the more recent Ben 10, The Chronicles of Narnia and popular superhero films.

The shop attendant Sayed Ali says Tetco has more than 500 members apart from customers who rent on a daily basis. The daily rent for a DVD in most such shops is Dh10, while members can enjoy 15 to 30 movies for Dh150 to Dh200. And it’s easy to spot the newest additions to its collection – just look for the bold writing and what’s hanging from the door or walls.

Arun Mammen, a Karama resident, has been renting movies for more than 15 years. “I rent movies as I believe in watching original prints. I’m a film buff and watching originals is like supporting the movie industry against piracy.”

Ask Ramathilagam about the decline in the number of video rental shops and he says: “There were more than 17 such shops at one time in Karama alone, but now there are just three to four left.”

He attributes the decreasing popularity to illegal internet downloads, children preferring video games over films and also more people catching new flicks in the cinemas.

Bur Dubai, one of Dubai’s oldest neighbourhoods, once boasted of many popular video shops such as Space, Rafa and Mansoor. “But all these have closed shop,” says a music shop owner there. Ramathilagam had two more video shops, one in Bur Dubai and another on Naif Road, but both closed down.

One place you can still rent DVDs in Bur Dubai is Spinneys supermarket, which has its own video shop right at the entrance.

Mylene Salazar, who manages Spinneys Video, says they haven’t seen much decrease in rentals, though DVD sales has gone down.

Spinneys Video has a cross section of customers – Indians, Brits, Filipinos and Emiratis – who pick from the 10,000 titles on offer. The continuing popularity of Spinneys could be attributed to the closure of other shops in the area. Its convenient location in a supermarket also extends to its Mirdif outlet, catering to Rashidiya and Al Warqa residents.

Go nearer to the Sharjah border and you will find Al Lulu Star Video. Nestled in the Lulu Village complex in Muhaisnah, it caters to shoppers from Al Ghusais and Al Nahda as well.

Jawid Nazir, a lecturer, is another video rental regular. “I rent out original DVDs as it’s great watching movies in good print and in the comfort of one’s home with the family.”

The Oud Metha area also has two small video rental shops – Movie World and Al Tawoos. While these shops do average business now, their uncertain future is summed up in Ramathilagam’s words: “I am 58 now. I hope to go back to India in maybe another three to four years ... my children are now engineers there. My partners will decide what they want to do with the shop once I go.”

artslife@thenational.ae

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