Hooray for Bollywood

It's only the Saturday matinee, but the house is packed, and it seems everyone knows someone, as chatter fills the theater. One couple is warmly greeted by another: "We haven't seen you since that Christmas party!" Fathers balance toddlers on their laps and make that last phone call, while a small herd of preteen girls giggles at the back of the theater. Everyone is talking movies: "Kareena played the wife in that, didn't she?" Women twist around in their seats to chat with friends in the row behind them. "I know I'm going to cry at this one," one says. "My cousin just saw it in India."

As the lights dim, even the tiniest children settle into silence. The teenagers scramble to take their seats as the previews begin. In one, a henna-decorated woman dances and exchanges fiery glances with a swarthy, muscle-bound romantic hero. "He had the world at his feet. She loved him unconditionally," the narrator bellows in broken English. Another is for an epic sports drama: A young man, alone in a dry field, kicks the dirt in slow motion and majestically takes aim at a ball with a cricket bat. By the time the credits for the feature start rolling — over scenes of a revolutionary defying British forces — you could hear a pin drop.

You don't get anticipation like this from a crowd sitting down to see Firewall or Big Momma's House 2. SR Movies at Novi Town Center shows those films, too, but since it changed management on Dec. 1, the theater has a new mission: To play Indian-language Bollywood films every day of the week on at least one of the cineplex's eight screens. It may be too soon to tell, but on this particularly busy winter weekend, the gamble seems to be paying off in a big way. Once a hobby, showing the films of their homeland is now a full-time occupation for Rakesh Gangwani and his wife, Sonali.

"It was basically a passion of movies that got us into this, bringing a little bit of the culture closer to us," Sonali explains. "I have a 5-year-old who speaks Hindi quite fluently, because he watches all the movies. He can sing and dance to them. It's cute at this age, but that's what helps us instill the language and the culture when we're far away from home. That's what we're trying to do here."

Sonali works behind the scenes, booking the films and ordering the prints; Rakesh manages the theater and handles the day-to-day operations. It's a big change from just a few months ago, when the Goodrich chain owned the theaters and the couple would rent out a screen or two on the weekends to show films to metro Detroit's Indian community. When Goodrich left the Town Center last year, the Gangwanis saw an opportunity to expand their endeavor.

"Sometimes we say, 'When you make a hub, all the separate people meet,'" Rakesh says. "This is the only theater in Michigan that gets people from Kalamazoo, Flint, Lansing and Grand Rapids," in addition to Detroit.

Mind you, these aren't the polite, restrained, pretentious foreign films you see in American art houses. Although it's as old as Hollywood, the Indian film industry — nicknamed "Bollywood" for all of the Bombay-based production houses — developed very differently than its American counterpart. While English-language films grew grittier and more realistic amid the turbulent culture of the late '60s and '70s, Bollywood films went in the opposite direction, favoring escapism, fanfare and spectacle. The advent of color film in India in the late '50s created an audience clamoring for eye-popping, hip-shaking, all-encompassing entertainment.

Bollywood films give moviegoers the most bang for their buck, running about three hours in length (with intermission), and include every popular element under the sun: swooning lovers, fight scenes, family crises, impromptu dancing, lip-synched singing, special effects, breathtaking scenery, absurd slapstick, tragedy and just about anything else the country's conservative censors will allow. The industry is more prolific than Hollywood, producing some 800 films a year. Its biggest stars work constantly, and have legions of fans whose rabid devotion would make Brad or Julia blush. Even the so-called "playback singers" — the unseen men and women who record songs for the actors to lip-synch — have scores of adoring followers.

Jatin Dholakia, an Ann Arbor resident who brought his wife and snow-suited baby to the theater, attempted to sum up the appeal: "It's everything. Some might like action, romance, drama, music. ... It has everything."

Although most of the films are available on disc — whether legally or in pirated, exported form — Dholakia prefers them on the big screen. "You can rent some of them on DVD, but it's so much better to see them in the cinema houses," he says.

Truly a grassroots effort, the theater advertises at local ethnic groceries, university campuses and community Web sites, attracting a loyal base of Indian-American families hungry for a nostalgic reminder of their homeland. But Sonali suggests that the movies' old-fashioned charms are undergoing a transformation of sorts, one represented by the hip, defiant revolutionaries portrayed in the theater's current hit, Rang De Basanti (see sidebar).

"Bollywood is headed in a different direction. It's no longer the same-old, same-old," she says. Speaking of the many twentysomething immigrants and second-generation Indians who made Basanti an opening-weekend sellout for the theater, she says, "They no longer want to come and see the same love story or people singing and running around trees anymore. Not that there weren't some great movies out of that time period, but now, people want to think when they go to our movies."

The Gangwanis feel that Bollywood's "different direction" is even beginning to appeal to a non-native, all-American audience; people growing sick of, say, the cookie-cutter Harrison Ford thriller playing just a few doors down. Almost all of the Hindi-language films they show are subtitled in English, and they're beginning to win some converts. "People kind of know what to expect in [American movies]," Sonali says, citing the countless reports of declining theater attendance for mainstream films. "That's what Hollywood needs to change. We have regular American customers who come to see all our Bollywood movies, because they just love the fact that they're so different."

During the intermission, the toddlers in the audience blow off some steam by running up and down the aisles, their reflective sneakers flashing in the dusky light of the theater. The line for the bathroom is almost as long as the one to the concession stand, where parents pick up samosas, chai and other Indian treats along with the usual popcorn and nachos. The new snacks were added at the request of audiences, whom the Gangwanis are constantly surveying to gauge their reactions to the theater.

"Our community is liking this. That's the feedback we're getting," Sonali says. "We just want to continue bringing them a piece of home. But it cannot be done without their support."


See Also:

Bombay blockbusters
A classic flick and a few crossovers worth watching.

Indian takeout
Places to get your home video fix of Bollywood cinema.

SR Movies at Novi Town Center is located at 26085 Town Center Dr., Novi; 248-465-7469. For showtimes, visit novitowncenter8.com.

Michael Hastings writes about film and culture for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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