Fri Forjindam (Col ’02) spends hours in her mind’s eye, walking through the archway of the soon-to-be-built Bollywood Park Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. This is her world, the one she and her team have created, with its iconic Mumbai facades and movie icons and scaled-down Gateway of India. It is a place designed to capture and evoke 100 years of the magic, emotion and movie-making of Bollywood, an entertainment industry revered by millions.
Forjindam is lead creative developer and chief development officer of Mycotoo, a Pasadena, California, company that specializes in developing location-based and live entertainment. It is her job to create fun, whether in the form of theme parks, stunt shows or amusement park rides. The industry is on the rise, with amusement parks worldwide seeing more than 5 percent growth in the past year, according to the Themed Entertainment Association.
Forjindam didn’t even know such a job existed when she was young, yet she was unconsciously preparing herself for it her entire life. She grew up in Cameroon, watching Bollywood films performed in French and subtitled in Arabic, then immigrated to the United States when she was 14. Her parents urged her to study medicine, and she enrolled at UVA to study biology. But theater was her real love. “It hit me when everyone was in the library studying for MCATs and I was too busy memorizing lines for an audition for a play,” she says.
That’s when she says she “flipped the script” of the classic immigrant story and switched to theater. She went on to earn a graduate degree in theater at Columbia University and moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting. She had to support herself, and she didn’t want to wait tables, so she answered a Craigslist ad for an executive assistant at a themed entertainment company. There she discovered her new career. “I always felt like something was missing,” she says, “that being an actor was just a small piece of this bigger thing I wanted to be part of. I don’t think it’s an accident that it all worked out.”
Forjindam’s job incorporates show writing, directing and producing, plus technical design and installation, all with the goal of creating a dream experience for the visitor. She does everything from writing backstories to envisioning buildings and exotic dancers to considering the precise placement of a palm tree. She walks through these imagined places, her feet always in the shoes of the customer. What would you want? she asks. What would you expect? What would be a delightful surprise?
Forjindam gathers experts to come up with the most outlandish, blue-sky concepts they can. There are designers, engineers and architects, but also artists, film enthusiasts and others who might bring in different perspectives. For hours—sometimes days—they’ll brainstorm, always imagining themselves in the guests’ shoes. Forjindam says she becomes something of a method actor during these times, inhabiting a potential customer’s journey to the destination. “The more seamless all of that is, the more they’ll enjoy when they come through that gate,” she says. “The fun of the not-fun stuff is just as important.”
Her team then considers what happens once their guests are through the gate and the show begins—the design, the splash, the spectacle. “We’re taking you, the guest, from your reality to our reality,” she says. “We never think this is a place of make-believe. We go back and do research, building ourselves deep into this world.”
For the Bollywood park, she rewatched all of those films she’d grown up with, this time with a new eye, studying the colors, the rhythms, the flow of the scenes. “From my time in theater and acting, I know to immerse myself,” Forjindam says, “so that every detail comes from a place of truth.”
It’s the only way to touch a nerve close to the visitor’s heart, Forjindam says, to create not just one “shazam!” experience but to hide treasures—dialogue from a beloved movie playing through the wall when you pass close by, views that remind you of scenes from movies if you stand on a certain spot, secret carnivals of color and sound as you pass through arcades. “Fun is about discovery,” she says.
Forjindam was responsible for the main spine of the Bollywood park in Dubai. When it opens next year, it will be about half the size of California’s Disneyland and include five movie-themed zones and 16 rides and attractions. She designed Bollywood Boulevard to be like the Bollywood tradition itself—hypercolorful, with music and dance, character interactions and street theater. “We want visitors to feel like there’s a musical about to break out at any second,” she says.
To create it, she wove together the best workable ideas from her panel of experts and conveyed them to the art director, who then translated them into pictures and diagrams that the interior decorators, show set designers and architects could turn into something real. Included were details about sounds, about smells based on the location of food vendors, about the surfaces beneath visitors’ feet. Does all of it change when a visitor turns the corner? Of course there’s a palm tree, the guest should think, because right now I’m hot and I need shade.
Forjindam’s goal in Dubai, as in all of her projects, will be to immerse visitors in a world of fun. “It’s like being the concierge to that guest, so that everything happens as if it’s part of the story,” she says. “We spend months working on all of those details, but when you come in on that first day it should feel like the best of art—seamless, timeless, almost like it’s always been there.”
How to Plan a Paradise
This is a concept art piece to demonstrate creative intent. My intent was to showcase a wide variety of Bollywood-inspired movies and icons, not just the ones featured as rides or attractions in the park, so that guests' arrivals felt more universal to the genre.
We knew this venue was going to be a two-story complex with an ice cream and pastry shop. We had to envision and design the guest experience from the ground level up: What do you see from the ground level? How do you design an inviting second ﬂoor so that people know there’s something upstairs?