Abu Dhabi pulled out all the stops to house Bollywood action thriller Tiger Zinda Hai, the biggest ever production to shoot in the emirate.
When Indian director Ali Abbas Zafar and his producers at Yash Raj Films were scouting shooting locations for the $32m action thriller Tiger Zinda Hai in 2017, they knew it would be impossible to film in its conflict-hit settings of contemporary Iraq and Syria.
“We were looking for a place that could stand in for those countries,” says Aashish Singh, vice president, production at the leading Mumbai-based studio Yash Raj Films.
The production scouted a number of Middle Eastern territories before choosing Abu Dhabi for its locations, facilities and the enthusiasm of twofour54, the government-backed umbrella organisation for various Abu Dhabi-based audiovisual companies that was created in 2008 to help build a media and entertainment sector in the emirate. It has since invested plenty of time and money in attempting to attract Bollywood films to the region.
“[twofour54] had been in touch with us for a couple of years,” Singh says. “Maryam Al Mheiri [twofour54’s CEO] wanted us to come at any cost once we had a script that could fit in Abu Dhabi.”
Yash Raj Films was able to access the 30% cash rebate run by the Abu Dhabi Film Commission as well as logistical production and post-production support from twofour54. Singh was also persuaded by Abu Dhabi’s track record for hosting other Bollywood films, and the military support Abu Dhabi was able to offer. “We needed choppers – Black Hawks. The military came on the set,” Singh explains. “The pilots who flew the helicopters were actual military guys. They were very professional in helping us plan and execute what we needed.”
Tom Cruise has since tapped into the skills of the emirate’s armed services for a HALO parachute jump stunt sequence for Paramount’s Mission: Impossible — Fallout in spring 2018.
Building a backlot
Tiger Zinda Hai is inspired by the true story of 46 Indian nurses working in a hospital in the Iraqi city of Tikrit, who were taken prisoner by fighters from so-called ‘Islamic State’ when they invaded the city. Bollywood stars Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif play rival secret service agents involved in their rescue. In addition to Abu Dhabi, the film also shot mountain scenes in Austria.
In Abu Dhabi, Tiger Zinda Hai used two key locations: a working cement factory in the inland city of Al Ain that doubled for an oil refinery, and a vast, tailor-made 20,000 square metre back lot that included the main hospital set. There were also a number of desert scenes. The back lot was constructed in an industrial zone to the north of Abu Dhabi city and took a crew of 150 set builders — mostly Abu Dhabi locals of Pakistani, Indian and Syrian origin — three months to complete.
“In Mumbai, there isn’t space [to build a backlot]. Land is at such a premium it would be impossible for us to build something of this size there,” Singh says.
During the shoot, the crew numbers on set swelled to as many as 500 people, with a permanent unit of around 200 members who were mostly from India as well as a further 25 countries, reflective of Abu Dhabi’s international workforce. The crew included US stunt co-ordinator Tom Struthers and Polish cinematographer Marcin Laskawiec.
To access the cash rebate, the production worked with 10 Abu Dhabi trainees across various departments. “They were wonderful kids, very passionate about film and filmmaking, and hard-working. They brought a lot of energy onto the set,” says Singh.
The producer, who has more than 45 feature credits to his name, dismisses the challenge of shooting in soaring temperatures that rose regularly above 40°c. A system of air-conditioned tents and sets combined with plenty of “free-flowing liquids” kept everyone chilled, he says. “It was hot but people learned to deal with it after a few days,” he explains. “Coming from India, it was not such a big deal as it gets hot there too.”
The heat was also a bonus for the film’s star Khan, adds Singh: “He loves the heat and can’t stand the cold. He loves Abu Dhabi and promised twofour54 he would make his next two films there, which bears testimony to its strength as a location.”
True to his word, Khan returned to Abu Dhabi in March for the shoot of his film Race 3.