Beautifully bridging East and West, Dubai has certainly come a long way in the past 50 years. Witness to this nothing-short-of-miraculous transformation from a coastal desert oasis is Ahmed Golchin, who first set foot in Dubai back in 1963. A combination of unfortunate circumstances, determination and exemplary vision led to Mr Golchin making the city his home and making his mark in the film industry.
Witness to this nothing-short-of-miraculous transformation from a coastal desert oasis is Ahmed Golchin, who first set foot in Dubai back in 1963. A combination of unfortunate circumstances, determination and exemplary vision led to Mr Golchin making the city his home and making his mark in the film industry. As the founder & chairman of Phars Film, Mr Golchin is considered ‘The Father of Middle-eastern Cinema’, building the foundations to what is now the largest and most successful film distribution network of Hollywood and Bollywood movies in the Middle East. Blockbusters such as Titanic, Avatar, the 007 series, the Mission Impossible films and many more have reached the shores of Dubai by virtue of Mr Golchin and his passion for a good story with lots of action and a great hero to root for. The best part? His own personal tale, his rise and fall and rise again underdog adventures make for the best story of all.
Sitting in his sky-high offices in the city’s Downtown District, the extraordinarily fit and friendly media mogul regales us with his unlikely yet meteoric rise, what he describes as his ‘Slumdog Millionaire Adventures”. A visionary with a never-back-down attitude and a passion for a good story, his own tale is and will forever be the stuff of legends. Overcoming incredible odds with his determination and smile, his story matches perfectly with this dazzling city and its continuing ascent, the city of Dubai.
His story reads like one of the many action-packed books he would later publish or the blockbuster movies he would eventually distribute. Born into a modest family in Iran in 1942, Mr Golchin met and conquered his fair share of challenges from a young age. “My father was very religious, one could say fanatical, while my mother was very liberal so there was much fighting in my house”, he explains. “When I was 5 years old, the clash came to a climax during a family photo shoot when she refused to cover her hair. They divorced, she left and I never saw her again”. Added to that, young Ahmad was forbidden from listening to music, reading the newspaper or, ironically, watching films. “Soon after, I fell from a ladder and lost the sight in one eye and had to leave school. To make extra money, I started selling newspapers”. For most people, that would be the beginning of the end.
Not for Ahmed Golchin, who read the newspapers he was peddling from front to back and was soon reading anything he could get his hands on. He very quickly realised the power of the written word and its ability to help discover more about the world. From peddling newspapers, he moved on to selling second-hand books and came across an action thriller, Six Steps to Death, that changed the course of his life yet again. “The action-packed plot swept me away; it was an escape to another life. It was a time of great political upheaval, with a war behind us, Communism, the power plays with Iran, the British, China and Russia and so on. We needed a way to escape, and I realized early on that novels were the way”. Thanks to lax copyright laws, Mr Golchin was freely able to publish the translated versions of popular series, such as the Agatha Christie mysteries, Jean Le Carre spy thrillers, the entire Ian Fleming 007 catalogue, West Side Story and many, many more. In short order and against all odds, he became a respected publisher with an impressive roster of novels. Yet again, fate had something else in store for him.
“I read a book about the Vietnam war and loved it”, explains Mr Golchin. “I just felt that I had to publish it”. The problem was that it addressed the war from the Vietnamese and Russian perspective at a time when the US had great influence in Iran. “Because I published that book, I no longer felt safe in Iran”. Fearing retaliation, in 1963, he bought a one-way ticket onboard a small boat.
The Destination: across the Strait of Hormuz to what is now known as the UAE. “It was just a short ride across, but it was a world apart. The UAE had not been formed yet, that would come in 1971”. It was in this new land that the young Mr Golchin arrived soaking wet, alone and tired after his midnight escape. Taken to a hostel to sort his papers before moving on to his final destination, he placed his suitcase under his bed and promptly fell asleep. The next morning he awoke to find his passport and money had been stolen. Back to square one, albeit in a strange country! “I couldn’t go forward. I couldn’t go back. I was literally stuck”. The nearest embassy was in Kuwait, and he was told it would take at least six months to get new papers. Finding himself penniless and paperless in a strange land, he looked for solutions and opportunities, not pity. “I needed to eat, I needed to find a way to survive until I got my papers”.
Once a fighter, always a fighter. “I have never stood down from a fight or a challenge”, he says with a twinkle in his eye. As a child, he had learned the basics of carving and had good penmanship, and so he used these skills to survive, literally. He gathered up leftover tiles from building sites and carved prophetic verses on them. “I would sit from morning to evening at the market, hoping to sell just one tile to be able to afford a meal”. Next to the market, there was a coffee shop and a mosque, and next to that was a sign shop. “I was sitting in the coffee shop having my tea, when the owner of the sign shop approached me and asked if I was the one who had made the carvings on my tiles. He liked my penmanship and asked me to work for him”.
“I enjoy making people happy; the success is an afterthought.”
With no place to lay his head, the shop owner allowed Mr Golchin to sleep on the mezzanine floor. “I cut the letters for him by day and slept with a single blanket on the shop floor by night. And that’s how I survived until I got my papers and saved a bit of money to move on”. However, by that time, he had become entranced by Dubai and the future he felt it had. “When I had saved enough money to return to Iran, my friends and family assumed that I would stay there as there was no longer any danger for me. The political tides had once again turned. But I said I neither wanted to return to Iran, nor continue to the US. I had seen the future in Dubai, felt the potential there, the energy, and I wanted to return to make my mark”. And make it he did.
He scraped a bit together to buy a 35mm film – a Mexican fight movie dubbed to Farsi – that had been watched so often that there were scratches and hoes in it. This small, battered film was indeed the beginning of his future and the future of film in Dubai.
“I projected the film on a blank wall in the middle of Al Nasir Square. Even though they sat outdoors in the heat, seated on the floor, wooden crates or folding chairs and the film jumped and skipped, they loved it! These were people who worked all day and had nowhere or no way to relax and unwind. Just as my books were an escape in Iran, I found film to be an escape in Dubai”.
“No matter how many times I was knocked down, I got up and found a way to move forward.”
The thirst for entertainment was palpable and profitable, and Mr Golchin seized on it. From the earnings of that initial film, he was able to slowly buy more and better quality films. “Eventually, I started going to Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Iraq to buy used films and screen them in Dubai. Even as a publisher, I would to the movies all the time. They were and still are my passion.
LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION!
“I enjoyed buying and screening movies immensely and started to make money”, he reminisces. “In 1972, I went to the Cannes film festival as we needed more films!” The Cannes Film Festival? Yes, indeed. In 9 years, Mr Golchin went from penniless in a strange land to a distributor attending a major film market. “I went from zero to hero”, he laughs. “Just like Dubai”.
That initial trip to Cannes wasn’t a great success as the UAE was just newly formed that year and not many people knew about the Emirates. So, he went back home to seek sufficient funding and returned in 1973 to the market to purchase bundles of films. Bundles are films sold as a package deal, out of 10, perhaps 1 or 2 are good if you’re lucky. “When I used to publish books in Iran, I always made sure the covers were colourful, exciting, enticing. I did the same with the posters for the bundle of films. Good movie, bad movie, it didn’t matter; I made sure the poster was amazing”.
For the posters, Mr Golchin travelled to Italy in search of gorgeous hand-painted posters. “I worked in publishing in Iran. I realised it was possible to sell a book by its cover. It’s the same with independent movies. Bright, colourful, well-positioned posters do more than you know to get people on seats”. For the subtitles, he travelled to Lebanon to have each frame of the film imprinted with acid with the translation. An example of simply doing what needs to be done to survive, to thrive, Mr Golchin finally found a major customer from neighbouring Saudi Arabia.
“With my beautiful packaging, all the movies in the bundle looked great. At the time, they didn’t have cinemas. They showed movies in homes. There was also no censorship! A Jordanian also bought a bundle, then a friend of mine helped me find an agent in Egypt, and slowly, slowly, I grew”.
With momentum on his side, he bought Titanic. “That was the start of great things”. The success of the movie catapulted Mr Golchin to another level. His company Phar Films is responsible for bringing the very biggest films from Bollywood, the Middle East and Hollywood. “Avatar was even bigger than Titanic! We also brought all the 007 movies – like the books I had published back in another life -, the Mission Impossible movies, the surprise hit Parasite which turned out to be a great investment indeed!”.
He eventually opened theatres in Dubai, then in the neighbouring emirates of Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimeh. From the UAE’s open air film screenings to the first indoor theatre, to the first theatre with air conditioning, to the first multiplex, Mr Golchin was there, front and centre, witnessing and guiding the history of the UAE film industry. From scraping pennies together to buy his first used film to attending international fairs to acquire the distribution rights for multi-million-dollar blockbusters in just two decades, he is a shining example of following your passion, never giving up and enjoying what you do. His one and only business remains film distribution, although he has expanded his investment arm to include property as well, with over 200 million dollars-worth in Downtown Dubai.
“I have always loved stories. It was always about the adventure, the action and a portal to another world”. Nowadays, Mr Golchin’s personal taste leans more towards biographies than action thrillers, which is fitting as his life story is reportedly being made into a mini-series! A nail-biter with a happy ending, our favourite kind of story! Pass the popcorn, please.
On Location Magazine