New series ‘Baghdad Central’ a tense thriller told with Arabs in mind

The show was shot in Morocco. (Supplied)
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Updated 12 February 2020

New series ‘Baghdad Central’ a tense thriller told with Arabs in mind

  • Set in 2003, when Baghdad was occupied by US-led coalition forces for six months, the thriller follows Iraqi ex-policeman Muhsin Al-Khafaji who finds himself embarking on a wider quest for justice in a society that has become lawless

DUBAI: “We are rarely in Western cinema and media as the protagonists,” said actor Waleed Zuaiter, who plays the lead character in “Baghdad Central,” the new thriller that aired on streaming service Starzplay on Feb. 12.  

Set in 2003, when Baghdad was occupied by US-led coalition forces for six months, the thriller follows Iraqi ex-policeman Muhsin Al-Khafaji who finds himself embarking on a wider quest for justice in a society that has become lawless.

Al-Khafaji, who was fired after the US invasion, worked under former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s regime. The show, which was shot in Morocco, revolves around Al-Khafaji and his two daughters after he loses his wife and son.

Zuaiter, who was born in the US and raised in Kuwait, told Arab News that when he first read the script, he was in “deep depression… I wasn’t in the right place. My father had passed away and so I had a very negative filter on everything.




The movie is set in 2003, when Baghdad was occupied by US-led coalition forces for six months. (Supplied)

“I had also been skeptical about any writing coming from the West about the Middle East, because my experience had been that it’s rare that they get it right and a lot of times it is very stereotypical and so my first thought was ‘oh it's another stereotype’ or ‘another accented Middle Eastern character’,” he added. 

It was his wife, however, who pushed him to reconsider the role. “The second time I read it I was like ‘wow I really connect with this character’ and then I took another read and I was like ‘wow this is everything I’ve ever wanted to play and I was very proud of it,” Zuaiter said. 




Waleed Zuaiter plays the role of Muhsin Al-Khafaji, an Iraqi ex-policeman. (Supplied)

British-Egyptian actress July Namir plays one of Khafaji’s daughters in the show. Her character, Murooj, is “wise beyond her years… she is extremely intellectual for her age.”

Despite her kidney disease, Murooj does not want to be an extra burden on her father who “has lost everything,” Namir said. 

The young actress also believes “Baghdad Central,” which was originally a novel by the author Elliott Colla, addresses the stereotype of the father-daughter relationship in the Arab world. 




British-Egyptian actress July Namir plays one of Khafaji’s daughters in the show. (Supplied)

“In the West, we have this perception of the Middle East and daughter-father relationships that the father is extremely aggressive and tells you off all the time... and here, actually, you have a much more softer, if anything, relationship. So, it is really interesting to showcase that these relationships do (exist),” Namir said.

When speaking to the executive producer of the show Kate Harwood, she said she was looking for new ways to tell a story.

“As a producer… this immediately felt like a really interesting perspective because we’ve been fed so many stories of Iraq 2003 and the protagonists were always American or British. So, to read this novel, which had a totally different perspective, was very refreshing.”


Film review: Great storytelling makes for fascinating watch in Netflix’s ‘Yeh Ballet’

“Yeh Ballet” is no rags-to-riches story, but one of sheer fortitude and a bit of luck. (Supplied)
Updated 24 February 2020

Film review: Great storytelling makes for fascinating watch in Netflix’s ‘Yeh Ballet’

CHENNAI: Sooni Taraporevala gained immense fame by writing for Mira Nair’s films, such as “The Namesake,” “Mississippi Masala” and the Oscar-nominated “Salaam Bombay.” In 2009, Taraporevala stepped behind the camera to helm a small movie called “Little Zizou” about the Parsi community. It was a hit, and three years ago, she took up the camera again to create a virtual reality short documentary about two boys from Mumbai’s slums who became renowned ballet dancers. 

Taraporevala converted her documentary into a full-length feature, “Yeh Ballet,” for Netflix, and the work, though with a somewhat documentary feel, is fascinating storytelling — a talent we have seen in her writings for Nair. 

Happily, “Yeh Ballet” is no rags-to-riches story (of the kind “Gully Boy” was), but one of sheer fortitude and a bit of luck. The film begins with a breathtaking aerial shot of the Arabian Ocean on whose shores Mumbai stands — an element that points toward the director’s background as a photographer. 

The film chronicles the lives of Nishu and Asif Beg. (Supplied) 

A story inspired by true events, “Yeh Ballet” chronicles the lives of Nishu (Manish Chauhan) and Asif Beg (newcomer Achintya Bose). The two lads are spotted by a ballet master, Saul Aaron (British actor Julian Sands) who, driven away from America because of his religion, lands in a Mumbai dance school.

Nishu and Asif, despite their nimble-footed ballet steps, find their paths paved with the hardest of obstacles. When foreign scholarships from famous ballet academies come calling, they cannot get a visa because they have no bank accounts. And while Asif’s father, dictated by his religion, is dead against the boy’s music and dancing, Nishu’s dad, a taxi driver, feels that his son’s passion is a waste of time and energy.

Well, all this ends well — as we could have guessed — but solid writing and imaginative editing along with Ankur Tewari’s curated music and the original score by Salvage Audio Collective turn “Yeh Ballet” into a gripping tale. It is not an easy task to transform a documentary into fiction, but Taraporevala does it with great ease. Or so it appears. Of course, the two protagonists add more than a silver lining to a movie that will be long remembered — the way we still mull over “Salaam Bombay” or “The Namesake.” But what I missed was a bit more ballet; the two guys are just wonderful to watch as they fly through the air.