DUBAI: As soon as I enter the grand hall of Cinemajlis, I am given a wristband to wear, before being greeted by a chaiwala who offers me a cup of steaming hot masala chai. It’s certainly not your typical iftar setting, but it’s offerings like these that have added much-needed variety to the Ramadan culinary scene in the UAE.
Alserkal Avenue’s Cinema Akil and Project Chaiwala have partnered for this specially curated 30-day experience, with Cinemajlis doing exactly what it says on the tin: it’s an iftar in a majlis-style setting, paired with a post-meal movie screening.
An independent arthouse theater, Cinema Akil was launched in 2014, and has since screened a multitude of independent and festival films via one-off pop-ups around Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, and at its main venue. Project Chaiwala, meanwhile, also started as a pop-up concept, in 2017. Two years later, it opened its flagship store sharing a space with Cinema Akil.
It’s clear that the talents behind both brands have put a lot of effort into Cinemajlis. Understated, yet fastidious in design, the hall has been transformed from regular cinema to — you guessed it — a majlis with floor cushions around the tables. The venue’s regular interiors, featuring traditional Indian stencil design on the walls, mix well with the additions and tweaks made for the Holy Month.
Mainstays like the classic prints and posters dotted around — including one for the original “Star Wars” film, and a black-and-white photograph of a young Sherihan (one of the Arab world’s best-known performers) — complement the classic 'Khayamiya' used for the majlis. This beautifully designed textile, a type of decorative appliqué material historically used to decorate tents across the Middle East, evokes memories of North Africa and the Levant in the Nineties, a simpler time when ‘fawazeer’ was in vogue.
The menu, created by Project Chaiwala, is bona fide, family-style, South Asian cuisine, featuring dishes that are the epitome of comfort food. There are samosas, soup, naan bread, Chicken Karahi, vegetable pulao and more. A personal highlight was the rich, creamy and buttery Dal Makhani. Simply put, it was glorious, with just the right amount of spice.
Displaying energetic elan, the team from the kitchen were always on hand to check in on diners, before distributing dessert, which was saffron cake with ice-cream.
As iftar wrapped up, guests were encouraged to take to the actual cinema seats to watch the movie. The night’s screening was “Naila and the Uprising,” a documentary that chronicles the real-life journey of Naila Ayesh, a key figure in the First Intifada. Cinema Akil has chosen four films to screen during Cinemajlis, with a new one starting every Friday for a week. Also on the schedule are 2017 Iraqi drama “The Journey,” and “Ext. Night,” the acclaimed Egyptian drama which screened at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.
While my trip to Cinemajlis was thanks to an invite, the experience left such an impression that I intend to return before the Holy Month ends. At AED200 ($54.45) per head for a light and delightful meal, and a film screening, it is such good value for money. And the fact that it’s the creation of two homegrown concepts makes it all the more special. To reserve your table, you need to book and pay online in advance, but you won’t regret it. The only thing you’ll regret is not having tried it sooner.