New Jersey: Hooray for Bollywood

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Jan 3 19:08:05 UTC 2007

>>From the NYTimes, January 3, 2007

For Some Moviegoers, Its Hooray for Bollywood

NORTH BERGEN, N.J., Dec. 27 Swollen ticket lines, shouting children,
tempers rising as the movies sold out: This was any suburban multiplex
during the holidays. But different. Vada pav sandwiches and mango kulfi
were sold at the concession stand.  Conversations were in Gujarati or
Hindi. A poster in the lobby advertised an action film starring Aishwarya
Rai on one of six screens showing Indian cinema. It reminds me of home,
said Ambika Sikka, 26, who had come with her husband to see Bhagam Bhag, a
movie about a theater troupe that travels from India to London. (Plot:
Harassed actress quits troupe. Actors search for new heroine in London.
Accidentally steal heroin from gangsters.  Mystery and hilarity follow.)

The Columbia Park Cinema 12 sits at one end of a gloomy underground
parking lot at a shopping mall just off the approach to the Lincoln
Tunnel. Half of its 12 screens, called CinePlaza, are permanently reserved
for Indian films, making it the largest such complex on the East Coast,
according to its operator, Vijay Shah. On Wednesday nights, when the
tickets are half price, the 12-plex is crammed with customers eager to see
the latest hits from Bollywood, Indias Bombay-based, Hindi-language movie
industry, or other regional Indian cinema. For the mostly Indian audience
that comes to this transformed suburban theater, a trip to the movies is
still an outing, at once a family affair, a reminder of home and a chance
to experience a beloved cinematic tradition. The Indian movie theaters are
like community centers, said Suketu Mehta of Brooklyn, who wrote Maximum
City: Bombay Lost and Found, and has attended the CinePlaza with his
parents. Its a very cheap round trip home.

But these days Mr. Shahs business, one of the most successful Bollywood
movie houses in the country, is being threatened. Two weeks ago, the owner
of the mall, Forest City Ratner Companies, won approval to redevelop the
section where the CinePlaza is situated, perhaps into a residential tower,
according to township officials. Im not sure what Im going to do, said Mr.
Shah, an engineer who entered the cinema business several years ago, and
has already changed location once. He said he had already started looking
for another space to rent. I knew that sooner or later this was going to
happen, he said.

Indian cinemas have sprung up across the country, signaling both the
growth of the South Asian population and the increasing popularity of
films from the subcontinent. Last year, Hindi-language films, many of them
made in what is now called Mumbai, had by far their most successful year
in the United States, with, among others, 8 of the 15 highest-grossing
foreign-language films, said Gitesh Pandya, the editor of the Web site There were 228,000 Asian Indians living in New Jersey
in 2005, according to the Census Bureau, and the number living in New York
City is about the same. For South Asians afflicted by homesickness like I
was, it was a wonderful place where other people were in love with these
crazy movies like you were, said Mr. Mehta, who as a teenager watched
Indian movies on Queens Boulevard after his family moved to Jackson
Heights from India.

When videotapes of the movies became easier to find, some theaters closed
down. But in the mid-1990s, as South Asians grew tired of the poor quality
of the videotapes or perhaps just craved an evening out cinemas regained
their popularity. Today, Indian films can be found playing all over the
country, with one Web site listing almost 100 cinemas in 20 states. In
California, for example, the Naz8 cinemas feature eight-screen
multiplexes, many showing the same films as Mr. Shahs theater. Mr. Shah
and Naz8 share a large part of the American market, although they face
competition from distributors of Indian films who make deals with American
theater owners on their own, Mr. Pandya said. About 6:30 on Wednesday
night, Mr. Shah buzzed around the lobby of the cinema with a walkie-talkie
as the crowds poured in.

Tushar Gupta and his friends, all college students, took a bus here,
trusting that Govinda, a star of Bhagam Bhag, would make them laugh. Lets
hope he lives up to expectations, Mr. Gupta said. Govindas return to the
screen after a hiatus in politics was one of many entertainment subplots
here, a comeback almost everyone seemed to comment on. Birender Anand, 20,
waited for his cousin in front of a large, cardboard diorama for Dhoom 2,
a popular action movie featuring brooding, gorgeous Bollywood stars. He
was home from college in Ohio, and happy to be among so many Indians. Mr.
Anand said his turban drew a lot of attention in Ohio I get stuff all the

Lines formed, showtimes passed, the cinema became busier and Mr. Shah
became irritable, at one point threatening to cancel a screening if order
was not restored in a line. Afterward, he would not say how many tickets
had been sold, and was generally secretive when it came to business
affairs, citing worries about competitors. But that night, several hundred
people watched films at his six cinemas, which seat approximately 1,300
people. Mr. Shah said he had plans to expand his audience, perhaps by
showing films in Spanish, Korean and Japanese. I can do this with passion,
he said. I do my homework. I am the janitor and the owner. Asked if he was
ready to open an all-Indian movie theater, maybe with the help of an
outside investor, Mr. Shah said there was not enough business to make such
a project sustainable. But Mr. Mehta said it was only a matter of time
before a multiscreen theater showing only Indian films opened in the area.

I think there should be some kind of landmark status, some kind of
protection for places like this, he said. He explained that unlike those
in the United States, many cinemas in India were divided by class, ranging
from multiplexes with waiters to traveling tents. What unites the people
in the audience here is love of Bollywood films, and homesickness, he
said. For three hours, they are momentarily sated by watching these
creatures of light.


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