Ali Al Ansari was four years old when he fell in love with Sholay, a classic Bollywood film about friendship and vengeance.
The Emirati aviation professional’s passion for Indian cinema endures 32 years later, so much so that he opened a restaurant that pays homage to the Hindi film industry in Dubai.
Ali Bhai’s opened its doors in Nad Al Hammar in December 2021. From brick walls adorned with posters of Indian classics such as Dewaar and Mughal–e–Azam, to a flashing sign that reads Sholay (which is still his favourite film), Ali Bhai’s interior is a nostalgic ode to Indian cinema’s glory days.
The tables are hand-painted in ethnic patterns, while movie paraphernalia from the early 1970s surrounds diners. For those who have grown up on Bollywood movies, a visit to Ali Bhai’s is like taking a step back in time.
“I travelled several times to India and Pakistan as a child with my family, and still do. It’s like a second home,” says Al Ansari.
My father used to bring back movie reels from India and they would be played on a projector for the whole family when we used to live in Shindagha in the 1960s
Ali Al Ansari, aviation professional and restaurateur
His love for desi culture and food aside, Al Ansari’s father was among the first Emiratis to introduce Bollywood movies to his family and friends in Dubai in the early 1960s.
“My father used to bring back movie reels from India and they would be played on a projector for the whole family when we used to live in Shindagha in the 1960s,” says Al Ansari. “We have learnt Hindi and Urdu language by watching these movies.”
Sholay aside, Al Ansari says he can watch Muqaddar ka Sikandar and Yaadein over and over again, and that he is a huge fan of Salman Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Ranveer Singh.
Describing the concept behind the interior, Al Ansari says the brick interior reminds him of houses in India, while a poster-filled wall takes inspiration from Mumbai’s ubiquitous local trains.
“We were once waiting to board a train in Mumbai and I saw a section full of film posters. Some were torn, some were of upcoming movies … this image stuck in my head, so I replicated it in my restaurant.”
Emirati-run Bollywood-themed Ali Bhai Restaurant in Dubai is full of movie posters. All photos: Pawan Singh / The National
However, he also wanted to create an ambience that represented Dubai’s multiculturalism, rather than tilting towards either India or Pakistan. It’s why the dominant colour is red and he’s not relied too heavily on the shades saffron or green (the dominant colours on India and Pakistan’s flags respectively).
Accordingly, Al Ansari says his restaurant has a customer base made up of 40 per cent Emiratis, 40 per cent Indians and Pakistanis, and 20 per cent a mix of other nationalities.
“I want everyone to come, sit and chat together like they all live together in Dubai,” he says.
While he is an aviation professional by day, every night Al Ansari doubles as head chef at Ali Bhai’s, concocting a fusion of Indian and Arabic food.
“Like the films, my love for desi food stems from childhood. I often saw my father making meals to give away as charity and all my siblings contributed in our own ways.
I am the youngest of all, so I was given smaller tasks — one day, I was asked to add some tomato paste in the food and I did so by throwing in the whole tin,” he recalls.
His cooking skills have progressed since then, but Al Ansari remains self-taught. He says he has learnt a lot from tasting authentic food in India and Pakistan and polishing his skills by watching YouTube videos.
Ali Bhai’s menu currently lists more than 60 dishes, including a section called “Bhai ka tandoor” (Bhai being his favourite star Salman Khan’s nickname), plus chaat and other street food, Indo-Chinese cuisine and traditional Indian sweetmeats for dessert.
“While biryani is my favourite dish, I’ve created a dish that mixes Oman chips with puri, which is quite popular among diners, too,” says Al Ansari.
Updated: April 17, 2023, 4:23 PM