Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 16 October 2019

UAE Portrait of a Nation: the Dubai DVD shop owner with a thousand stories to tell

Kunjummen Varghese opened his rental shop in 1988 - but is now facing uncertain times

Kunjummen Varghese is standing at the back of his shop. Shelves crammed full of DVDs tower above him. An old TV sits in one corner, while a fan whirrs in the silence.

Wearing a long-sleeved shirt and glasses, he flips through the ledgers that record who has rented what. Don’t bring a credit card, it is cash only. Rentals cost Dh10 for a night. And if you are a few days late? “If I fine, no one will come to the shop,” he says with a chuckle.

Video Centre 88 in Al Qusais is one of the last DVD rental shops left in Dubai. There were once five in the neighbourhood but now Varghese is the last man standing. At least 20,000 titles sit on his shelves - Hollywood classics, Tamil epics and Malayalam dramas - while on the walls and windows are sepia-tinted film posters of Bollywood stars past.

Varghese arrived in Dubai in 1972 from Kerala in search of a better life. A technician by trade, he worked for the UAE army from 1975 until 2000. In 1988, he opened the shop for an investment and then gradually took over the running. From six people employed then, only two remain today.

“In the 1980s it was a great business,” says Varghese, 73, who is married with two children. “Cinema was expensive so people came and borrowed.”

The just-opened Video Centre 88 back in April, 1988. Courtesy TK Varghese
The just-opened Video Centre 88 back in April, 1988. Courtesy TK Varghese

But times have changed. The internet brought downloads and streaming and people turned away from these small, independent shops. 88 Video speaks to an era of social cohesion and its survival underlines that, for some people, community still matters.

Video Centre 88 sits in the corner of a small square overlooking a park that was built in the 1980s. Families live in these low-rise apartments and on the ground floor are tiny cafes, bakeries, money exchanges and laundries. But the buildings now look old and weather beaten. External air-conditioning units cover the walls, while the futuristic metro stop suggests better places elsewhere.

We all knew each other then. People were friendlier. Today they don’t have the time

TK Varghese

It was not always this way. Before the advent of the big malls, the square came alive in the evenings and people queued to rent DVDs. Varghese remembers incessant phone calls about the latest release and streams of people coming through the doors on weekends. Archive photographs taken of the shop’s launch in 1988 show crowds of people waiting to get in and studying the posters in the windows.

“We all knew each other then,” he says. “People were friendlier. Today they don’t have the time.”

Footfall has fallen sharply and Varghese is hanging on. Five years ago, as many as 50 people visited every day but now it has fallen to about 15 on a good day. They include older residents more comfortable with their DVD players and people who cannot stream because of the prohibitive monthly costs of an internet connection. Hollywood titles, Bollywood epics and Malayalam films are among the most popular.

“There is no future here, this business is gone,” he says. “But what to do? I am old and cannot do any other business.”

The DVDs are still sourced from suppliers at Jebel Ali. But some have closed as the demand has waned and it can be hard to secure the latest releases. Long-term customers urge him not to close and he wants to continue. People even come from Jebel Ali and Sharjah to rent DVDs, especially older ones they cannot find on the internet. Mr Varghese can still cover the rent of about Dh40,000 but it is getting harder.

“Maybe tomorrow I will close,” he says. “But tomorrow is on God’s hand.”

Updated: June 13, 2019 08:57 AM

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