It was heartening to see so many women -- young and old, many in hijab and burqa shaking their bodies, raising their arms and singing with complete abandonment.
Yes, this happened in Saudi Arabia, reports Aseem Chhabra from the Red Sea International Film Festival.
On Saturday night, A R Rahman rocked the Corniche in Jeddah.
In his first concert in the city coinciding with the second edition of the Red Sea International Film Festival, the composer, singer and a man with a Sufi soul performed one of his best concerts.
His audience of a couple of thousand people were made up of local Saudis, and people from the Indian and Pakistani Diaspora, women, men, children and the elderly, all united by the sounds of popular music from India.
The venue for the concert was an elaborate stage equipped with hundreds of lights, giant video screens and speakers, all put up along the city's famous boulevard, the Jeddah Corniche, located along the Red Sea, where the cool breeze made up for the hot afternoon sun.
Rahman arrived late, but he put his heart and soul into the concert that lasted two-and-a-half hours.
He appeared on the stage dressed in a turquoise sherwani with sequins and stayed there throughout the show, singing, playing keyboards and watching his singers perform hits in Hindi and Tamil.
The show opened with Rahman singing the Oscar-winning song Jai Ho from Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire, one of the three numbers performed in the film, perhaps because it was such a huge hit outside India.
He ended the show way after midnight by singing Chaiyan Chaiyan from Dil Se, his entourage of singers joining his chorus.
"It's so nice to be back after COVID," Rahman said to the audience. "I never believed that day would come."
Among the hit songs, Rahman and his team performed were Dil Se Re (Dil Se), Taal Se Taal (Taal), Tu Hee Re (from Bombay in Tamil and Hindi), Humma (Bombay), Muqabala (Humse Hai Muqabala), Madhuban Main Radha (Lagaan), Enna Solla Pogirai (Kandukondain Kandukondain) and a lovely spiritual rendition of Fun Kaya Fun (Rockstar).
People danced and sang along with the singers on stage.
Young men formed their small dance groups, making it their own party.
It was especially heartening to see so many women, young and old, many in hijab and burqa, dancing and singing with complete abandonment.
Yes, this happened in Saudi Arabia.
The second edition of the Red Sea festival is strong evidence to the fact that a lot is changing in Saudi Arabia, long considered the cornerstone of conservative Islamic values.
The festival running from December 1-10 consists of nearly 150 films, all uncensored, in many global languages, hit films from the recently concluded festivals in Europe and North America, as well a range of Arab films, including works from the nascent Saudi Arabian film industry.
Until 2018, there were no movie theatres in the country, but a new thinking led to their opening and they screen Hollywood, Arab, Bollywood and other international films. The Red Sea festival is part of this opening process.
The change is also clear from the presence of major global celebrities at this year’s festival: Oliver Stone (he heads this year's festival jury), Sharon Stone, Guy Ritchie, Spike Lee, Antonio Banderas, Luca Guadagnino and Fatih Akin.
India had the largest presence with several Bollywood stars flying to Jeddah -- from Shah Rukh Khan (he was in Jeddah shooting Raju Hirani's film Dunki) to Kajol, Shekhar Kapur, Shabana Azmi (Shekhar's new film What's Love Got to Do with It? with Shabana in the supporting role, opened the festival), Akshay Kumar, Ranbir Kapoor, Hrithik Roshan, Sonam Kapoor, Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor Khan.
Also making appearances on the red carpets were three film personalities of Indian origin who now live outside the country -- Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Gurinder Chadha (she presented the 20th anniversary screening of Bend It Like Beckham) and Frieda Pinto.
Shah Rukh was honored on the opening day of the festival where he thanked the festival and also the Jeddah film commission and the Saudi government for facilitating the shooting of Dunki. He was also gracious to acknowledge the other honouree of the evening, Guy Ritchie.
Later that evening, Shah Rukh appeared on stage once again -- the same venue where A R Rahman performed -- to introduce an open-air screening of Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. He was accompanied on the stage with his DDLJ co-star Kajol.
This was a curtain raiser for the 27-year-old film, which will soon be released for the first time in theatres in Saudi Arabia.
"Mere chote, chote bacche hain, ek pachees ka hai, ek ekees ki hai, ek nau saal ka hai," Shah Rukh said to a packed audience, mostly South Asians who were quite surprised by his sudden appearance on stage.
"But to be honest, even they still like the film. So if it is relevant, please watch it."
In bringing Kajol on stage, Shah Rukh improvised his dialogue from DDLH -- 'Jeddah jaise bade, bade shehron main aisi choti, choti batein to hoti rehti hai, Senorita,' as the audience went wild.
DDLJ, SRK said, was made "with so much innocence. The director, producer, everybody, none of us knew that we were making a film that would be watched 27 years later."
Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/Rediff.com