Allu Arjun takes a seat in Ray’s Bar at Jumeirah Etihad Towers, sets his bag by his side and slides back. The camera moves in as he prepares for his scene, a confrontation between the film’s hero, played by Arjun, and the villain, who is trying to steal his girl.
It’s the 11th day of filming for the Telugu film stars of Duvvada Jagannadham, the latest in a series of high-profile movies to be shot in Abu Dhabi.
“Everyone has been so friendly,” enthuses director Harish Shankar. The crew filmed for 12 days at sites including the Galleria, Adnec, Reem Island, Ferrari World, Jumeirah Etihad Towers and Hodariyat Bridge, colloquially known as the Bridge to Nowhere, where they shot some of the dance sequences.
As a landmark, Ferrari World was the clear favourite among the actors, so much so that Penmatsa Subbaraju, who plays the villain in what is his 185th film, sat up front on the world’ fastest rollercoaster.
Arjun, who has 12 million Facebook followers, posted a picture of himself at the amusement park with two Indian fans who won an Abu Dhabi Film Commission (ADFC) contest to meet him and the cast.
For the film’s director, Shankar, Abu Dhabi was a chance to shoot in “virgin territory … Abu Dhabi has never been exposed so much in Indian films”, he said.
In an exclusive interview with The National, Shankar says the film is a love story.
“Pooja Hegde plays a young modern woman studying fashion technology at college,” he says. “Arjun is a typical South Indian guy. He [his character] doesn’t believe what she believes. You know what they say, opposites attract.”
The scenes in Abu Dhabi come into play when Hegde’s character visits the UAE capital to meet another man – a slick entrepreneur – and Arjun’s character travels to win her back. “I’m like her in many ways,” says Hegde. “Before, I’ve played sweet, village girls, and she is a woman of today’s age. But there are also things she does that I wouldn’t do.”
Subbaraju echoes Shankar’s excitement about shooting the film in a city where few Indian films have so far been shot.
“It’s been fabulous,” he says. “Everything is new.”
The ADFC and twofour54 has been active in luring film companies to shoot here, with a programme for the past four years offering a 30 per cent rebate on expenses.
It’s been a success so far, with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Furious 7 and the Bollywood film Dishoom, which Duvvada Jagannadham’s director of photography Ayananka Bose also worked on, all filmed in the emirate.
Using the capital as a film location helps boost tourism and projects a desired image of the city overseas. Duvvada Jagannadham, for example, shows Abu Dhabi as a “fast-growing city”, as the film’s director Shankar called it, “with amazing skyscrapers”.
The Abu Dhabi Government has also been keen to establish a closer relationship with India, which has 2.2 million nationals here, many of them from South India, or about 30 per cent of the population.
There is a strong relationship between the countries, with bilateral trade valued at US$50 billion (Dh184 billion) in 2015 and 2016. Earlier this year, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, went on a three-day state visit to India for Republic Day, where he discussed a number of ways for the partnership to grow.
Duvvada Jagannadham, or DJ, named after the hero, is a collaboration among some of the biggest names in Tollywood, the Telugu-language film industry that is headquartered in South India and which produces up to 250 films per year.
As the 25th film from the production house headed by Dil Raju, it is a banner film whose large budget has allowed for sweeping dance and fight scenes.
About 150 extras, many of them Emirati nationals, appeared in the Abu Dhabi song and dance sequence.
It is the first time that Arjun and the film’s director have worked together, an opportunity Shankar says he has been waiting for.
“I was the assistant director on his second film, a huge blockbuster, and I wanted to work with him since then. He’s the kind of a hero my pen is longing to write for.
“He matches my sensibilities for music, dance and his comic timing is amazing.
“We have a common love for English-language films.”
He says his influences are classic Hollywood directors, such as Martin Scorsese, Billy Wilder and Frank Capra.
“My dream is to remake ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’,” referring to the 1946 Capra Christmas drama in which in which a guardian angel helps a man to realize all the lives he has helped.
“I’ve seen it over 50 times but I still cry when I watch it.”
• Duvvada Jagannadham is due for release in cinemas in May.