Pictures in Paradise

By JJ Robinson

30 September 2013

Entertainment in the Maldives
The lack of foreign exchange is a problem for the entertainment business in Male even as much of the foreign currency earned by resorts is siphoned away from the Maldives. PHOTOS: JJ Robinson

The lack of foreign exchange is a problem for the entertainment business in Male even as much of the foreign currency earned by resorts is siphoned away from the Maldives. PHOTOS: JJ Robinson

A man with coiffed hair, wearing a long-sleeved floral shirt and grey pants belted almost at chest height lip-syncs a love song, while the object of his affection smiles prettily and shyly evades his advances for roughly two and a half hours.

Apart from the Dhivehi language and the setting – the jetty of one of the Maldives’ hundred-odd upmarket resorts (cue sunset, sparkling sea) – the scene could have been pulled from any one of hundreds of Bollywood films. This particular scene, shot in the 1990s, featured two of the most famous Maldivian actors of the era: Mariyam Nisha, and ‘Reeko’ Moosa Manik. Such was Manik’s appeal that one dedicated female fan in the mid 90s was reputed to have swallowed kerosene after accepting that he was out of her reach (thankfully she recovered).

Moosa went on to become a successful businessman, an MP, and a high-profile street activist in the democracy movement of 2005 which toppled Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s 30-year dictatorship, making way for the Maldives’ first democratically-elected president, Mohamed Nasheed, in 2008. A divisive figure with a flair for the dramatic, Moosa was much maligned by the remnants of the former regime, who accused him of using his “movie make-up skills” to exaggerate injuries sustained by Nasheed’s MPs during regular punch-ups in the country’s fractious parliamentary chamber.

It is perhaps surprising that the combination of free time, disposable income and English proficiency has not led to a vibrant and thriving entertainment industry in the Maldives.

Immediately following the ousting of the MDP government in a police-led mutiny on 7 February 2012, Moosa found himself on the receiving end of some of the country’s worst police brutality since the pro-democracy marches of 2005. Dragged behind police lines and savagely beaten – “they told me they were going to kill me,” he later recalled – Moosa was reportedly saved at the last minute by the intervention of a military officer. He was then hospitalised and flown overseas for surgery. As hospital pictures of the stricken former actor trickled out to the media, commentators peddling the new government’s line continued to insist the bandaged head, bloodied shirt, bruising and glazed expression were “the product of fine make-up and acting as per his background.”

Moosa’s storyline is just one example of how Maldivian politics often appears to follow the plot of a Bollywood film, complete with heroes, villains, violence and an abundance of
wicked uncles.


Setting the scene

The Maldives’ 330,000 people live on 200 of the country’s 1192 islands. Almost half the population lives in the capital, Male, a densely packed 2.2 square miles of candy-coloured concrete buildings sticking out of the Indian ocean like something from the post-apocalyptic Hollywood movie Waterworld.

Internationally, the country is best known for its resort islands, the upper tier of which attract an assortment of glitterati honeymooners, football legends, movie stars, arms dealers and Russian mafiosos. With each resort on its own private island and the locals housed on the handful of ‘inhabited’ islands, one of the archipelago’s core appeals for tourists is the relative privacy and guilt-free relaxation of a cultureless beach holiday; ‘Fly and Flop’, in travel-industry speak. The isolation of the individual resorts and the dependence of the Maldivian economy on tourism have turned these tourist islands into almost miniature fiefdoms, each providing its own food, power, accommodation, entertainment, sanitation and desalinated water not just to guests, but also to a small army of local and imported staff.

While the heavily manicured beaches and relaxing open-air restaurants and bars dominate the postcard image of the Maldives current among the million-odd tourists who visit each year, that picture is divorced from – if not schizophrenically opposed to – the realities of life facing the average Maldivian. Some of the more immediately obvious contradictions are products of the strict Islamic regulations in force for the local people: the complete ban on alcohol; the conservative dress code; the lack of a beach culture (many Maldivians, particularly women, have never learned to swim); and, in recent years, the closing of discos and attempts to ban locals from dancing. Ask a Maldivian to name the country’s greatest social challenge, and many will say boredom and the lack of entertainment.

The problem is especially acute for the country’s massive youth demographic. According to the Maldives’ UN country office, 62 percent of the population is aged under 25. The vast majority of young Maldivians are relatively urbane and highly ‘switched on’, thanks to one of Southasia’s highest rates of internet penetration, at 28.4 percent. Ninety-eight percent of Maldivians aged between 13 and 35 have a Facebook account.

However, while these young people boast a high literacy rate and English-speaking ability, the poor overall standard of school education means that around two-thirds of Maldivian candidates fail their secondary school O-level exams. Vocational education opportunities are next to non-existent, and the vast majority of both skilled and menial labour is performed by an army of imported labourers – mostly Bangladeshis on unpalatable wages – a workforce estimated to be one-third the size of the local population. As a consequence, every year thousands of young Maldivians are pumped out onto the streets, aged just 16, and with no functional education or prospects of further learning opportunities such as apprenticeships. They then face the ennui of two years’ idleness before reaching the minimum age of employment and a chance to find a job in the resort industry, the bloated civil service or the meagre private sector.

As a result, almost 30 percent of the population is unemployed, and the problem is getting worse. Between 2006 and 2010, unemployment increased by 20,000 people – an increase of over 100 percent. According to the government’s ‘Household Income and Expenditure Survey 2009-2010’, the problem is worse for women, who face social stigma discouraging them from working in the ‘morally corrupting’ resort industry. In 2006, the overall unemployment rate for women was 15 percent, increasing to 39 percent in 2010. The unemployment rate among males increased by 10 percent to 19 percent during the same period.

Despite this, the country has a per capita annual income of USD 8700 – the highest in Southasia – and in 2011 it became one of only three countries ever to graduate from the UN’s list of ‘least developed’ to ‘middle income’ countries. If this appears strange, picture an average middle-class family living in Male. The family probably owns a small but precious parcel of land on the crowded island, and a lack of capital and the difficulty of obtaining a bank loan leads them to enter into an agreement with a construction company to build a block of apartments on their land, in exchange for a large share of the new property. The family receives the penthouse and several apartments, which they then rent out at exorbitant London-esque rates to poorer islanders seeking work in Male. Many such families then move to less congested and less oppressively regulated cities such as Colombo in Sri Lanka or Trivandrum in India, where they live off the rental income. The children of these ‘landlord families’ who remain in the capital can expect security of accommodation, a disposable income, and difficulty in gaining employment, creating brisk business for the island’s many hundreds of coffee shops. Young people living on remoter islands however, have even fewer options.

The local film industry blossomed during the 90s, mimicking Hindi-film tropes in Dhivehi for Maldivians with time on their hands and cash in their pockets. It remains surprising that this combination of free time, disposable income and English proficiency has not led to a vibrant and thriving entertainment industry in the Maldives.

“People were crazy about Dhivehi movies. The entire media revolved around [local] film stars until the early 2000s,” says Hawwa Lubna, a Maldivian journalist. The Bollywood influence was near absolute, tweaked only to cater to local appetites for romance, horror, the supernatural and evil mothers-in-law – often all at once.

“I think the interest in horror maybe has something to do with our own superstitions,” Lubna suggests. “One famous plot was about a guy who is also a genie who falls in love with a woman and has half-genie children.” Naturally, Moosa played the part of genie.

“There’s a lot of genies falling in love with humans,” Lubna says. “In another film a female demon falls in love with a toddy collector, who finds her after she sings for him. There’s a lot of shining eyes and thunderbolts coming out of eyes.”

Love triangles are also very common, as is the romantic entrapment of men by women, observes Mohamed Naahii, a young law student living in Male. “A typical plot might involve a rich guy who falls in love with a girl from a very poor family, and the rich guy’s family doesn’t agree, so despite their objection he marries her and goes to live on an island. Eventually something bad happens and he comes back,” he says. “Another might involve a good couple who are affected by a lady who wishes to have an affair with the man, who falls into her trap. Sometimes it involves fear and horror – a rich ex-wife may come back to life and haunt or kill [her ex-husband].”


Online piracy and in-house idolatry

The hunger for entertainment has guaranteed a demand for cinema, though how and where Maldivians watch films has changed significantly in recent times. For years, Male’s government-owned Olympus Cinema, a rather dilapidated place until its recent renovation, regularly screened both Dhivehi and Hindi films using nothing more than a projector and a DVD player.

However, with the rise of home entertainment, cable, and with the screening of Hindi movies on the state broadcast network Television Maldives (TVM), many people preferred to stay home.

This coincided with soaring piracy rates. Lubna, who grew up on Addu Atoll in the country’s far south, recalls that “until early 2000, there was a shop on every corner where you could go rent pirated movies [for] VHS for MVR 10 (USD 0.65) each.”

The insatiable appetite for Hindi films led to the arrival of Hindi soap operas, initially via bootleg Airtel television dishes, but later via legitimate cable connections to Indian channels such as Star Plus. One cultural side-effect of this obsession has been that even very conservative Muslim women, who are otherwise isolated inside their family homes and live by strict religious norms, can now speak fluent Hindi and recite the names of the Hindu pantheon.

Lubna, for instance, speaks fluent Hindi, and in rapid-fire conversations with her friends flits between English, Hindi and Dhivehi, often in the same sentence. “I started speaking Hindi when I was in kindergarten,” she says. “My aunt would test me. Every night before I went to bed all the ladies in the house would turn on the TV and watch Bollywood movies. That was around the time female heroes were coming up in Hindi cinema, with stories about women rising up against male oppressors –like stories of women raped and forced to marry their abuser, who then rise to get justice.”

I started speaking Hindi when I was in kindergarten,” she says. “My aunt would test me. Every night before I went to bed all the ladies in the house would turn on the TV and watch Bollywood movies.

Male’s congested living conditions and the large number of extended family members typically sharing a single home often means control of the television remote is firmly in female hands. Not that a blood connection is needed for a television to be appropriated as communal property; one UK expatriate living in Male with his Maldivian partner in a rented apartment complete with large-screen TV (used mostly for watching English football) recalls returning home one evening to discover his sofa packed with middle-aged, burka-clad women engrossed in Hindi soap operas. “They looked at me as if to ask, ‘Why are you here?’” he recalls.

Naahii faces a similar challenge. “In my house I cannot watch anything from 8pm to 11pm because all the women take over the TV,” he says. “If I’m lucky I get to see the 8 o’clock news. It’s like a separate state government.” Our interview was momentarily interrupted by a phone call from Naahii’s mother, reminding him to pay the cable bill.

The simultaneous broadcast of several soaps seems only to feed the addiction: “It’s normal to see women switching channels, watching multiple shows at once, sometimes in ‘mosaic mode’,” says Naahii.

Given the Maldives’ ban on the public display of non-Islamic religious sentiments, which extends to stern notices on immigration cards warning visitors against bringing in religious symbols or literature, the widespread tolerance of Hindi soap operas regularly featuring scenes of idol worship is surprising. Lubna says she has heard rumours of some houses complying with clerical edicts against watching the soaps, but, she says, “I don’t think women generally have stopped … It is in the DNA of Maldivian women to watch these shows now. I don’t think sons and husbands have the power to switch them off.”

Schwack Cinema in Male screens Bollywood and Hollywood blockbusters.

Schwack Cinema in Male screens Bollywood and Hollywood blockbusters.

New waves

Naahii also notes that television and movies appear to receive a ‘get out of jail free’ card when it comes to the Maldives’ otherwise oppressive religious restrictions. “There is no tolerance for religious perspectives outside Islam, even though what you see [on TV] is not very Islamic. Scholars have been silent on Dhivehi movies. Even TVM, the state broadcaster, broadcasts ‘un-Islamic’ behaviour such as gender mixing and dancing. The government has been silent on it for years – it’s very hypocritical.” Naahii doubts Hindi television and movies have had much of a religious impact, but he says they have “definitely affected human relationships, culture and dating – now you have to impress a girl, give her things.”

Still, religious conservatism has had an impact on the domestic entertainment industry. Naahii recalls a legendary local musician, Ali Rameez, who renounced his superstar career and began hosting religious TV shows: “The last I heard he had signed a petition to bring camels to the Maldives to replace motorcycles.”

In 2002 two famous film stars, Niuma Mohamed and Ali Seezan, were sentenced to flogging as punishment for fornication after police caught them sharing a room. “Their movies were not shown on public television for a year after that,” says Naahii. “The producers of a lot of dramas and TV series suffered great losses because the actors were sentenced. These were the front page stories.”

If the arrival of cable television heralded the waning of the Maldives’ era of cinema-going and domestic movie superstars, the advent of multi-party politics in 2004-05 marked its true end. Political parties in the Maldives are now worshipped with the kind of adoration reserved for football teams in some other countries. Politicians and heads of supposedly independent democratic institutions are the new celebrities, with local media serving up a steady diet of scandal, corruption and vitriol starring a rogues’ gallery worthy of any Bollywood hit.

With rising internet speeds, the arrival of Bittorrent and the absence of any copyright law (until 2011), the younger generation has swiftly moved towards Hollywood content, with Dhivehi and Bollywood films increasingly associated with the older, over-35 generation. Corner shops that previously rented out pirated VHS tapes now maintain servers storing thousands of movies and TV series, transferrable to a USB storage drive for MVR 5 (USD 0.3) each.

But, as in other countries, the local film industry’s decline owed as much to technological changes as to changing tastes – many Dhivehi movies remain unpopular even after being uploaded for free viewing on YouTube. The one time TVM attempted producing its own soap opera, Naahii says, “they only had a handful of actors and the script was terrible most of the time.” Maldivian filmmakers have largely been unwilling to take creative risks, unable to compete with the technical and financial capacity of nearby Bollywood, and so have failed to meet the high expectations of a young generation raised on Hollywood blockbusters.

But that could be about to change. Some brave filmmakers are breaking old moulds. A very successful recent Dhivehi film, Loodhifaa, billed itself as “a fast paced gritty drama dealing with current social issues in our society told from a different perspective”, with the tagline: “Where hypocrisy is part of survival.” With multiple interweaving storylines, the film tackled problems such as drug abuse, poverty, child abuse, abortion and prostitution. It was also the first time a Maldivian movie had used ‘street’ language, rather than more formal Dhivehi. The film proved especially popular with young people, suggesting that there is a paying audience ready to embrace local films that engage contemporary Maldivian society and break free of Bollywood tropes.


Business and pleasure

Althaf Mohamed is the director of Schwack Maldives, an event-management company that branched out into cinema theatres with the purchase of Male’s Athena Cinema in June 2010. Like the Olympus, the Athena’s infrastructure at the time consisted of a projector and a BluRay-disc and DVD player, used to screen the occasional Bollywood film to small audiences. The only edge the Athena had over the Olympus was that it was air-conditioned.  The theatre was closed for renovation in January 2012, and reopened in November that same year as Schwack Cinema, now fully equipped with a commercial sound system and the latest 3D screening technology.

The technological upgrade was perhaps less significant than Schwack’s ability to negotiate with major studios – both Bollywood and Hollywood – for the rights to screen the latest films immediately upon release, making it not only the first modern cinema theatre in the Maldives, but also the first to screen content legitimately. The venture has been impressively successful. It was impossible to get seats for the Hollywood superhero film Iron Man 3 until three weeks after release, while Man of Steel, another recent superhero movie, continued to play to packed audiences well past a month after its premiere.

Althaf says convincing international movie distributors to work in the Maldives was key. “We started dealing with studios in 2010,” he recalls, “but at that time there was no copyright law in the Maldives and they wouldn’t allow us to play their content.” The Maldivian parliament passed the country’s first copyright legislation in April 2011. “We didn’t get a positive reply until October 2011,” Althaf says. “Now we are in connection with all major studios and independent producers as well … We convinced them that although the audience was small, people were willing to pay to see the latest movies. We needed them at a price we could pay – luckily their offer was very good.” Schwack has already picked its line-up of movies until 2015.

Schwack sells tickets at a fixed price of MVR 80 (USD 5.2) for a 2D movie, and MVR 100 (USD 6.5) for a 3D movie, including 3D glasses. Unlike cinemas in other countries, particularly in the West, Schwack hasn’t yet caught on to the concept of an abusively priced snack bar – popcorn and a drink sells for a measly MVR 25 (USD 1.6). If that sounds expensive for a Southasian country, Althaf explains that in the Maldives, “the average young guy will spend more than MVR 150 (USD 10) a day just on coffee.”

Given the Maldives’ ban on the public display of non-Islamic religious sentiments…the widespread tolerance of Hindi soap operas regularly featuring scenes of idol worship is surprising.

But bringing international entertainment to the Maldives has not been an easy task. Like all companies in the Maldives that import goods or services, Schwack is hampered by the country’s lack of foreign exchange. With the resort industry sometimes charging more than USD 2000 per night for a room, this seems a surprising problem. Yet the Maldives faces a crippling dollar shortage due to the technically illegal yet widely established practice of resorts receiving payments from guests directly in US currency and then funnelling this away to stable financial centres abroad, thereby greatly reducing demand for the local rufiya. That hits importers hard, while banks in the Maldives are left with little foreign currency to loan to new businesses. Schwack had to look overseas for backers to fund its renovation, eventually turning to the Mauritius Commercial Bank.

“The biggest challenge for us now is to get access to US dollars,” Althaf explains. “People are paying us in Maldivian rufiya but we have to send US dollars to the studios … We get some dollars from the bank, but not enough, so we have to buy dollars on the black market – we want to keep our prices fixed, but right now the [black market] price of a dollar is more than MVR 17.”  The government, meanwhile, continues to optimistically peg the official exchange rate at a maximum of MVR 15.42.

To make matters worse, Schwack Cinema also receives no concessions from the government, despite having opened up an entire new business sector in the country. “We don’t get a grace period from the government for taxation – in some countries new businesses get a 6-12 month grace period. We have to pay a 10 percent withholding tax on the amount we send to the studios,” Althaf says, bemoaning that his only likely recourse is for the company to take more of an active interest in local politics.


Coming soon

Until Schwack, many Maldivians had no choice but to download or buy low quality versions of films, often surreptitiously recorded in Russian cinemas. But even then, some Maldivians travelled to India for the release of blockbusters such as Avatar. Clearly, the demand for the real movie experience existed, but was not being met. Now, Schwack is challenging the entrenched enthusiasm for movie piracy among young people. “We believe the piracy rate in the Maldives is decreasing,” says Althaf. “We can see it is changing. We are screening some movies the same day as in the US, others after one week. During that time, no one can get copies of those movies. After one or two months they can easily get the film on the internet, but we screen on the release date and people come here – they want to see the movie first, and are buying fewer [newly released] movies in DVD shops.”

Beyond challenging video and movie piracy, Althaf sees Schwack on a larger mission: “We don’t have any entertainment in Male now and at night there is nowhere to go, other than cafes and restaurants.” He still remembers the 1980s, before the arrival of satellite television and the internet, when the Maldives enjoyed a strong cinema-going culture that sustained six theatres in little Male alone. “We believe people need entertainment,” Althaf says, “and we have been in the industry since 2000 doing event management, sound, lighting and stage shows.”

Despite the business difficulties, Schwack has enjoyed packed screenings, a lack of competition, and cheap but effective marketing via Facebook, and now plans to capitalise on its territory licence for screenings by opening a second cinema in Addu Atoll in mid-November. Meanwhile, the cinema in Male will be further renovated to add more comfortable seating with cupholders.

Investment in local movie production is also on the horizon. Schwack’s business plan involves establishing a separate arm to invest in local movies after a year of operating the theatre.

“The Maldives film industry is not that big, though they can make good movies,” Althaf says. “But it’s always the same concept – reworkings of romantic or horror themes. They always go for the safe option. There are creative directors and animators, but we also need to have local short courses for the technical side.” Althaf advocates a change in the model: rather than having a wealthy individual invest in a film and then rent a cinema to screen it, he would prefer a revenue-sharing model in line with Schwack’s existing business, with profit from ticket sales being shared between the cinema and the  movie studio. “We can’t just rent the place out to a studio for two weeks to show their movie. We have blockbusters lined up until 2015,” he explains.

In the meantime, Hollywood, which Althaf says attracts more male audiences, has eclipsed Bollywood, which attracts more women. “We know our audience and what they want. They prefer action movies, especially 3D movies, and 2D if they are really good. Blockbusters will for sure recover costs. If a studio asks us to take a film we will, but we have to work harder to recover costs compared to a superhero movie or blockbuster,” he explains.

Launch events, drawing on the company’s experience in the event management field, have helped raise the cinema’s profile. During the opening of the Superman film Man of Steel, the cinema’s front entrance was transformed into Superman’s arctic fortress of solitude, complete with fake snow. For the launch of Fast & Furious 6, which features customised street cars, local car enthusiasts parked two flashy sports cars outside. “The regional director of Universal Studios came to that event,” says Althaf proudly, adding that Schwack only narrowly missed out on welcoming Fast & Furious star Vin Diesel due to a scheduling conflict.

Shahrukh Khan is also reportedly on the cards for future events. If he does visit, Schwack could become one of the first local outfits to bring an international celebrity to the Maldives for something other than a beach holiday.


JJ Robinson is the Editor of Minivan News, the Maldives’ primary independent English-language news outlet. He is currently writing a book about his four years behind the scenes in ‘paradise’.

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