Hebah: Today, we have a story about a place that became something of an institution in Dubai: the Plaza Cinema. If you were brought up in Dubai you may have heard of it, remember driving past it, or heard about it from your parents, or your parents’ friends. The Plaza Cinema opened in 1972, and was demolished in 2015. It’s a business basically as old as the United Arab Emirates itself. And, we wanted to find out what kind of story we could tell by just focusing on just this one slice of history. Because, when the cinema shut down, it affected a lot of people.
Butheina: As soon as word got out that the Golden Cinema was shutting down, it became this personal project go and see it and to really understand it’s details and so on.
Hebah: This is Butheina Kazim, she owns the independent cinema in Dubai, Cinema Akil.
Butheina: I went in at like, you know, at different stages of its demolition and in the beginning it was just kind of the seats that were taken out but a lot of things were in place, even the projectors, like the 35 millimeter projectors were still there.
Ammar: Whenever I go there, every time I felt that there is something that needs to be saved.
Hebah: And this is Emirati photographer and archivist Ammar Al Attar.
Ammar: Like either pictures or either like posters. Most of the things, I think it was going to the trash – I didn't see anybody who's interested to come and save anything.
Butheina: At that point, you know, there's probably like asbestos in there and like rodents and you could hear things like moving around.
Ammar: So, whenever I go, I wear gloves and I wear sometimes, a mask.
Butheina: There were ticket stubs, there were receipts and posters and so on – like it looked like somebody had just left the building. So I started slowly like scavenging – collecting – whatever I could get my hands on and fit into my Volkswagen Golf.
Ammar: Honestly, I felt that these things will go to the rubbish or the trash if nobody will take it.
Hebah: But to understand what was so special about this cinema that people like Butheina and Ammar would rummage through a demolition site to preserve it’s memory, we have to go way to the 1960s, when cinemas in the UAE were just starting to become a thing. Because after all, to really understand where we are in this present moment in time, we need to know where we’ve been. And this story, you might say, is from our beginning. Our story today comes from managing producer Alex Atack.
Alex: In 1963, Lachman Bhatia stepped off a small tug boat and into the shallow waters of Dubai’s shoreline. At the time, there was no port for ships to dock, and the airport had literally just began construction that year. So coming in by boat was really the only way to arrive in Dubai.
Lachman: Everybody says, why you came here? There was nothing, only desert, no drinking water, no electricity. Why you came here?
Alex: He was sixteen years old, visiting from India to see his Father, who owned a textiles shop in the creekside souks. When he stepped off that boat, he would have just seen this kind of huge expanse of desert, and looking back at photos from that time, what’s remarkable about them is just how flat everything is and how much you could see. I mean, you could stand at the beach and see for miles and miles into the desert.
Lachman: When I came here, it was not easy to get drinking water, also. Some fellow from small wells, bringing it on donkeys and deliver to our house, then we boil it, then we drink it. It was not easy at that time, but we were very happy. Life was simple, and we were happy.
Alex: On weekdays, he worked at his Dad’s tailoring shop, and he loved the work, so he ended up staying. Dubai, which was this small trading hub in the middle of the Arabian Gulf, became his home.
On weekends, though, there wasn’t a whole lot to do – he says they would play cards or carrom – which is that game where you flick your fingers to hit the tiny puck into the four corners of the board. But then, in the mid-1960s, his father began renting out Bollywood movies that he’d brought over from India, along with a 16mm projector, which is one of those really old style reel projectors you’d imagine films playing on in black and white.
Lachman: At that moment, everybody was looking for some entertainment, and nothing was, no TV, nothing was there, and this was the only format. So we used to screen these films in the club, where all the families and friends come together, they enjoy a film and they get together.
Alex: So to give you a sense of what Dubai, or what life was like in Dubai at the time, there was, I mean, there was really nothing. If you wanted to entertain yourself, you had to create your own entertainment. And so what Lachman’s Dad started was kind of an informal cinema club.
They’d post a small board outside his Father’s tailoring shop, and on it, had the names of the films they had available that night or that weekend.
Lachman: So everybody was asking two or three days in advance, what are you going to show? It was not just to watch the movie, also, get together also. Every Thursday, once in a week.
Alex: And so, as word spread, they started renting to hotels and hospitals and labor accommodations. Because films were kind of a vital link back to their home culture. The population make up at the time was mostly local Arabs, along with a few Persian and South Asian traders – and then there was a small number of British military personnel because they operated the Trucial States under a protectorate.
But over next decade, Dubai changed a lot, and in 1971, the Trucial States – which is what the UAE was called before it was the UAE – unionised and became the United Arab Emirates.
And then around this time, a few standalone cinemas started to pop up. There was one called Deira Cinema at first, and that shortly followed by one called the Plaza Cinema, which opened right in front of Lachman’s house. After these cinemas opened, watching movies in the UAE became much more popular. And that was in part because of the work of this guy.
This is Ausaf Ali Raja, but he goes by Raja. He was the first manager of the Plaza Cinema when it opened, and he’s from Pakistan originally, moved to Dubai in the early 1970s to work for the dry docks, which had just opened. He lives in an old part of Dubai in the same apartment he’s lived in for years. And, we showed up at his apartment, and on the front door it just says Raja in huge letters. And he took us inside and his wife instantly started making tea for everybody.
Raja: This is my wife. This is my elder daughter.
Alex: He was taking us round his family’s living room, showing us photographs.
Raja: This is when I was young I used to call my – Elvis Presley.
Alex: It’s weird, he really, like he actually did look like Elvis Presley when he was young. And then we sat down and he told us the story of how he became manager of the Plaza Cinema. There was this local family who were looking to open a cinema.
Raja: I came here in ‘71. I met them in ‘72.
Alex: Raja knew them from working at the dry docks and because he was kind of known as somebody who could just make business work, they offered him the job as manager of their cinema.
Raja: I was a like a good luck charm or something
Alex: But he had no experience as a cinema manager, so he went down to the British council library in Bur Dubai and took out all the books he could on how to run a cinema.
Raja: I went there, I collected all the books. I started studying about the cinemas. Hamdullah, within a few months, it was one of the best cinemas.
Alex: It was this huge statement piece - it had a 70mm screen and almost 1600 seats, and it was right in the middle of the city center at the time. But there were only a few local film distributors, and it was still very much a developing market. So, at times Raja had to literally drive to airport himself to pick up film reels.
Raja: I was introduced to the director of the customs at the airport. He introduced me to all the big people there. I would just walk in like a big boss, shake hands with the police guys, shake hands with the customs guys, put it in the trolley, come out, put it in my car, and I’d come out.
Alex: They were showing films from India and the USA and across the Arab world. One of the first movies to be shown there was the 1972 Woody Allen romcom Play It Again Sam. But the cinema’s heyday was before my time, and I actually never went to it. So I’ve been piecing this story together from other people’s memories – like Lachman and Raja’s. But I also went to visit Ammar Al Attar,who we spoke to earlier. And, he kind of works like an archivist. He calls his studio his ‘treasure trove’ and it’s full of old film rolls, and like photo prints, and cameras and books and magazines. Everything is to do with Dubai from the 1970s, 80s and 90s. And in his collection, he’s got some of the earliest film posters from the Plaza Cinema.
Ammar: I wanna show you one of the first posters they showed.
Alex: So, what we were looking at was this film poster for a 1973 American film called The Roommate. And it’s like - the cover is this, it’s like highly saturated photos and there’s one in the middle of this couple kissing, and it’s kind of surrounded by, like, photos of, kind of like, half naked women on the beach.
Alex (on tape): They shared more than their room… oh my god.
Alex: That was the tagline for the film, was ‘they shared more than their room’.
Ammar: I don't know how they say it is – it's very... un-appropriate.
Alex: When you consider the censorship in Dubai now, it’s kind of interesting to look back and see what was - like what was acceptable and what was allowed.
Ammar: But that was fine. Like even my uncle told me when we went to go Cinema and 70s, there was not much censorship. They were showing everything.
Alex: And there’s a stack of these. There’s also a poster for movie Sangram, which is a 1976 Bollywood crime movie about two brothers. And I watched the opening sequence on YouTube, it’s like this like super dramatic, super loud, explosiony high-speed car chase with guns and, yeah, it’s just, it’s really of a time in cinema.
The 1970s was really good time in the UAE’s history. Wages for most people were higher than they would be back home, and oil profits were just starting to come to fruition - it was a young, rapidly growing country and there was a lot of development and hope in the air. Dubai was an exciting place for many people. And as more people moved to the country for work, places like the Plaza Cinema quickly became important community hubs - particularly for the Indian expat community.
Hassan: You see, in Plaza cinema we used to screen six shows around the clock – 24 hours.
Alex: This is Hassan Kamal. He became manager of the Plaza Cinema in 2011.
Hassan: Usually for blockbuster movies, we used to get 3, 4 shows packed full.
Alex (on tape): Can I ask what the community of people that came were like?
Hassan: Asian people, especially Tamil, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, then Andhra. Some local people. 10% local people. You see, before it is - the cinema is there, cheapest entertainment for the public. Low category people, even middle class people and business people they want to see the movie as an entertainment.
Alex: And at the time, it was also super accessible –– the cinema was right in the center of town.
Yasser: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. It's located in the part of the city called Shindagha.
Alex: This is Yasser Elsheshtawy, a scholar who writes about urban planning and history, used to live in the UAE for nearly three decades.
Yasser: It formed such an important feature in the whole setting and it also gave it a very sort of South Asian or Indian character because it played primarily Bollywood movies. It seemed to me that it played this very important social role in the space and contributed to its vitality.
Alex: As the cinema grew more popular, it started hosting these huge red carpet events for movie openings. Huge queues would snake around the side of the building and big bands of drummers, photographers and press and all these people would be there. Because it wasn’t just about the movies. The building itself was like a hang out spot, it was like a meeting point
Yasser: The building itself, just architecturally speaking, is not particularly exciting or interesting. It’s just this really large box. It wasn't designed by particularly well-known or famous architects, hard to say exactly what style it belonged to, I guess modernist in a way. But in terms of its social function and what it meant to the area and its contribution to the life of this area, I think that definitely would have been a building that should have been preserved. It had value.
Dubai has been described as a sort of transient city; a place where people are for a brief amount of time and they are there to work and to make a living and then at the end they would have to leave and so on. For the city's low-income population, particularly those who live in labor camps or marginalised neighbourhoods, the only way by which they can establish a connection to the city and by extension turn it into a home of some kind is by going through these spaces.
So these are open spaces that are not necessarily meant for people to come together, but they are appropriated by the city's marginalized and disadvantaged residents in that it enable them to form an attachment to the city, make it feel a little less alien, less anonymous. It becomes a much better way, I think, to connect with the city and to feel an attachment to the city itself.
Alex: The Plaza Cinema was an important gathering place for the South Asian community in Dubai. But, at the end of 2014, after over 40 years in business, the staff were given some news by the cinema owners.
Hassan: I was given a three month notice.
Alex: It said that at the start of 2015, they were going to demolish it to make way for a hotel development. Hassan says the community came together and they tried to petition to keep it going, but nothing worked. Because remember, the Plaza Cinema only had one screen, which, when you need to compete with the multiplexes that are offering like twenty plus movies, it becomes more difficult to fill the cinema.
Hassan: Nowadays, it is not possible to keep such a big cinema. People need choices. Every day we cannot be full. And on an average, we’d get 500-600, like that.
Alex: For the final night, they planned a big send off. The Bollywood star Kamal Hassan flew in for a screening of his 2015 movie Uttama Villain. And out front, when you look at videos of the night, it looked like a concert –– there’s like a packed crowd of people screaming and filming with their phones as the movie stars walked down the red carpet. But then everybody went inside and the film screened and everybody left and then, by the next day, the lettering above the entryway just said, in big red block letters ‘theatre closed’.
Hassan: I didn’t like to remember that day. Nobody can see such a cinema.
Alex: Hassan works at the Galleria cinema now, which isn’t far away, but he says it’s not the same. And he says it’s hard for him to walk past the place where the Plaza Cinema, which, by the way, towards the end of it’s existence was called the Golden Cinema, to walk past where it used to be. He says all the good memories just come flooding back.
Hassan: My past recollections come to mind. I get really upset. Really I’m telling you, not for an interview. I feel so bad. Still, the Golden cinema has some specularity. The location, the construction, seats and screen. People will forget for three hours inside that cinema. That feeling is with me. It won’t go.
Alex: After the cinema closed down, something interesting happened. And I think it’s the first time a building closing down has had a response like this. People started visiting the demolition site, either to take one last look around, or to take a piece of the building with them. Two of those people were Ammar and Butheina, whom we heard from earlier on.
Butheina: One day I went and there was this cable wrapped around the in the door, but it was open, you know, so you could – it was very easy to... “enter”. The only thing that was intact was the balcony area. They hadn't taken out the seats there because I think they've been upgraded a little bit later, so they were relatively new and maybe there was an idea to sell them off or sell parts of them as scrap. So I called the demolition company, their number was like on the side of the wall, like, and I bought them for like fifteen thousand dirhams, I think. I figured I'd keep them and I'd hold onto them for whenever we would – if ever we would open the space those would be the seats and those would be the last remaining elements of the, you know, the cinema that I could hold onto.
Alex: When Butheina renovated Cinema Akil this year, she installed a row of seats from the Plaza Cinema in her theatre.
Butheina: It's a part of history, you know, and it's a structure that's now completely gone … so this is the last standing or last sitting artefact of the Golden cinema and everything that it represented.
Alex: And, that Butheina and Ammar felt it was important to document the cinema’s existence, I think it shows that this kind of history is important, and that people do care about it. Not just expats – but for locals like Butheina and Ammar, the Plaza Cinema was a part of their history, too.
Yasser: I mean, these are not particularly remarkable structures, but they acquire significance because of their social function, their memory that's associated with them.
Alex: This is Yasser Elsheshtawy again.
Yasser: And I think now there is a realisation among some people in Dubai that places like that are important.
Alex: Important enough that just this summer, in August 2018, the UAE government issued a decree which gave protected status to a few historical structures. A few of those structures were Deira Clocktower, the Dubai Trade Center, al Baraha hospital. This decree was basically put in place to recognise landmarks from the 60s and 70s for their social and cultural function – not necessarily for their architectural significance.
Yasser: It might be a little bit too late because so much has already been demolished, definitely from the 60s, there might be a few structures on a 70s, and so on.
But there's something called urban memory is basically – that within the city that if you walk through the city, pass through its places, that you recognize structures, elements that used to exist in the past and that they are still there. So it establishes a kind of continuity, and it gives character to the place, and to the city.
Alex: I think what’s important and fascinating to me about this concept of urban memory is – you never really pause to think about the things you see every day which make your city, your city. The grocery stores and the roundabouts and the high rises, even down to like the minute details in the cracks in the pavement. It’s all subconscious, but it paints a portrait of your home. And it’s only when those things are gone forever that we realise how important they actually were. It’s like a diary of where the city has been, and where it’s going – and what we choose to rub out is just as important as what we choose to keep.
Hebah: This episode was produced by Alex Atack and Vinita Bharadwaj, with editorial support from Dana Ballout and myself, Hebah Fisher. Sound design by Alex Atack and Mohamed Khreizat. Thank you to everybody who spoke to us for this story; Lachman Bhatia, Ausaf Ali Raja, Yasser Elsheshtawy, Butheina Kazim, Hind Mezaina, Ammar Al Attar and Hassan Kamal.
Yasser’s book is called Dubai: Behind an Urban Spectacle.
And finally, this story was by no means a comprehensive history of Dubai’s cinema culture – there is a ton of fascinating stuff we couldn’t fit in. We’ve put a few links to some of the articles we’ve found interesting, the places we references, and some upcoming events that are coming up in Dubai – they’re all in the show notes for this episode, so be sure to check those out.
Thanks for listening, until next time.