Mona Alami

Bollywood hits Beirut

Kabir Khan's new film turned to Lebanon to take advantage of its unique resources: mountain scenery, explosives experts, and Amal extras

Phantom, Kabir Khan

A major Bollywood movie just finished shooting, believe it or not, here in Lebanon. The filming of this large Indian production, considered an achievement by many standards, depended nonetheless on what Lebanese do best: the art of war.


The new Kabir Khan movie, centering on the issue of counter-terrorism, inadvertently triggered a series of extraordinary rumors. “We had to build for the sake of the movie a fake Syrian refugee camp in the area of Kfardebian, representing the Syrian-Lebanese border,” says Corinne Sanan, managing partner at Beirutworks production house. “Locals who stumbled on the settlement spotted the FSA flag we had planted nearby and some of the actors dressed as fighters reported it to news media, which sparked stories of an FSA settlement in Faraya." Beirutworks is a sister company of the Dubai-based Filmworks, which is behind City of Life, a film shot in the UAE, and has contributed to many other big projects, such as the Bourne Legacy and Mission Impossible.


Heading the project is Indian film director Kabir Khan, known for his blockbuster action film, Ek Tha Tigerhad. The new film is tentatively titled Phantom and focuses on the November 2008 Mumbai attacks, which involved three days of coordinated bombings and shooting across India's largest city. The attacks were perpetrated by Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani-designated terror group, killing 174 people and wounding over 300.


According to Indian news outlets, filming was moved from Syria to neighboring Lebanon in the wake of the threatened American strikes in September.


“Lebanon was chosen for the set of the movie because we could easily recreate the same feel of our Syria scenes,” stated Sanan. The movie cast and crew flown to Lebanon included 79 actors and technicians.


The movie was filmed in Downtown Beirut, the populous area of Khandak al-Ghameek, and the mountain areas of Kfardebian, with the latter two supposedly representing Syria.


The production even put to use some of Lebanon’s most unusual talent in the role of local militia fighters. “Some militants from Amal participated in the fighting scenes,” acknowledges a source close to the Shiite political faction, speaking on condition of anonymity.


Two of the film’s stars, British-Indian actress Katrina Kaif and fellow Bollywood actor Saif Ali Khan, were filmed in fatigues surrounded by fighters in the action sequences. Both Kaif and Khan play secret agents.


“It was very exciting to work on this particular movie. I was amazed at the level of professionalism of the Indian cast and crew. The two stars were simply lovely,” says Sanan.


The film nonetheless encountered some minor problems. Two local actors were injured on set when they were hit by a car during shooting: The crew was filming a sequence featuring a car speeding through an explosion, and the two actors, blinded by the heavy smoke, pounded into the vehicle.


About 10 percent of the movie – filmed primarily in Los Angeles, India, London, and Malaysia – was shot in Lebanon, essentially for action scenes featuring shootings, explosions, and bombings. Special effects were handled by an expert, the local team, and the action director.


As for local residents in Khandak al-Ghameek, many frequently awoke to the sight and sound of massive explosions and bullets whizzing overhead, their neighborhood packed with dozens of Indian movie experts and stars during the film’s production. “People were curious. They watched us filming while cracking the usual jokes,” says Sanan.


Khan, the film’s director, hopes that the Bollywood movie will herald new opportunities for Lebanon to position itself on the international film production scene and pave the way for more new foreign pictures to be filmed locally. Whether this happens, he admits, remains to be seen.

Kabir Khan's new film, Phantom, turns to Lebanon for its action sequences. (Blogspot.com)

“The production even put to use some of Lebanon’s most unusual talent in the role of local militia fighters. ‘Some militants from Amal participated in the fighting scenes.’”