x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Entering the world of pure imagination

Cinema in the country, originally a source of entertainment for British troops, has evolved in the types of films shown.

Damodaran Koroth has worked at Abu Dhabi’s Eldorado since it opened in 1993.
Damodaran Koroth has worked at Abu Dhabi’s Eldorado since it opened in 1993.

SHARJAH // Inside Al Mahatta Museum are the remains of the country's first cinema, set up in 1945 as a source of entertainment for the British army that passed through. Empty oil canisters and buckets were used as seats to watch British and American films that were broadcast by projector on to a blank wall.

"When the seats were empty and the British were not watching, then the projector master would play old Egyptian and Indian films for the local residents," said Mohammed Al Naibari, one of the staff overseeing the museum, which occupies the old Sharjah airport.

A favourite was the 1961 Egyptian film, Antar the Black Prince, portrayed by the legendary Egyptian actor Farid Shawqi. The film follows the story of Antar bin Shaddad, a pre-Islamic slave who became a legend through his adventures and poetry, and who won his freedom and then married the woman of his dreams, the princess Abla.

"Tom and Jerry cartoons were also very popular," Mr Al Naibari said.

Legend has it that the British had to pay about 1 rupee for their seats, but for Emiratis and other local residents, admission was free.

"They would sit out in the open, and just enjoy themselves watching the same stuff," Mr Al Naibari said.

Cinemas were often managed by projectionists from India who brought their love of the silver screen to the UAE.

The man who handles the reels at Abu Dhabi's Eldorado cinema is Damodaran Koroth, who has worked as a projectionist since 1968, and the days of 35mm film. He started work at age 17 in his hometown of Nileshwar, Kerala. Now 60, he has worked in the UAE for 20 years.

"Before, the stories depended on families, tragedies and comedies. Now at this time come different stories, all action and computer graphics," said Mr Koroth. "Now sentiments are not needed, the public don't like sentiments."

He said he still felt excited each evening when he flipped a switch and the pink curtains of the Eldorado opened. Mr Koroth has worked at the cinema since it opened in 1993, bathing Hamdan Street in turquoise and pink neon light.

It was the social event of the year for Abu Dhabi: Arabs, Asians, westerners and Emiratis all paid Dh15 to Dh20 to watch Kevin Costner fight for Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard. The film played for two weeks before Speed, the Keanu Reeves action movie, ran for 40 nights.

Its only greater success was in 1997 with Titanic, which held a monopoly on English-language cinema in the capital for 75 days.

Like many projectionists in the country, Mr Koroth moved from one cinema to another as theatres were demolished or replaced with shopping mall multiplexes.

The Eldorado is one of many theatres able to reinvent itself, playing English movies until 1997 before switching to Bollywood. In 2000, the theatre began to play Malayalam and Tamil movies.

"Malayalam cinema always depends on the hero. Hero acting," said Mr Koroth, pointing to a poster of lovers gazing into each other's eyes. "Look at those heroes. Those superstars are south Indian."

Even before the box office opens at 10.30am, businessmen are lined up outside for tickets.

The success of Eldorado has been tied to Chhappan Bhog, the adjacent Indian confectionery shop. Staff remind patrons who crowd its counters that its silver-leaf coated sweets are forbidden by the cinema. Crowds come after late showings too. Like the cinema, the shop is open nearly 24 hours.

Indian sweets have been a long-time favourite for Abu Dhabi cinema-goers. The city's first open-air cinema, the Al Maria one block from the El Dorado, played Bollywood classics, where paying customers were not the only ones to enjoy the vocal skills of the films' stars.

Mr Koroth describes with pride the silence of awed audiences at the El Dorado in the 1990s.

By contrast, when the first modern theatre, Gulf Cinema, opened in Ras Al Khaimah in early 1998, audiences watching Titanic regularly disrupted the show with hoots, whistles, catcalls and commentary.

At its original screening, the sight of an Arab family trying to flee the doomed ship received a standing ovation and thunderous applause.

In Dubai, however, most of the old cinemas have closed, with the exception of the Plaza Cinema. With 1,600 seats, the 1972 venue is one of the last independent cinemas in the old city centre, showing mainly Indian films.