Is This Seat Taken?

The Travails of Bollywood Movie-watching in the U.S.

[This is a piece I wrote that appeared  in the December 15, 2006 issue of India Abroad]

Oily samosas, no TP in the ladies room, toddlers dancing in the aisles and the occasional, pungent remnant of someone’s upset stomach.   Welcome to an evening out in the U.S.A. at the latest Bollywood blockbuster.  

Once in a while, those of us living in a big city actually get to watch Abhishek strut and Priyanka pout while sitting in climate-controlled comfort, nestled in cushy stadium seats, while noshing on tasty Indian snacks.   But more often, our derrières are subjected lumpy, stained velveteen seats dating back to the Reagan era, while the rest of us shivers, either because the aircon is too strong in the summer, or the heat is almost non-existent in the winter.

This May, to get some historic perspective of Hindi cinema, I spent the three months of summer watching as many movies as I could – older ones, interspersed with a few new releases – and reviewed them in a blog as I went along.

Looking back on the experience, and to the past nine years watching Hindi movies, I’m encouraged by several things.   First, the production values have soared.   Some stories are closer to “real life” without completely losing the magical flourishes, stunts are more believable, make-up and costumes look richer, and there are even innovations like funky, creative opening credits and DVD menus.   Second, U.S. audiences now have many simultaneous Friday releases, allowing us to keep up with what India and the U.K. are watching.

My first Hindi movie was Pardes, seen the summer of 1997, in a dreary, two-screen cinema in Hicksville, Long Island, since converted to an evangelical Christian church.   The only decor was the life-size cardboard figures of actors, glittering in their costumes as they greeted you in the lobby.

On subsequent visits, small kids did their jhatkas in the aisles along with Raveena and Govinda.   If there was a problem with the sound, patrons whistled and proclaimed “It happens only in India” and we all laughed at the filmi reference.   Winters were especially dismal, due to little heat and scarce audience.

I sobbed in unison with the two sisters next to me as a post-partum Rani bled to death,  but dheere, very dheere,  in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, while writing several letters to the daughter she’d never see grow up.   Aamir Khan made a special appearance one weeknight, and I cringed as he was prodded to sing  – a capella  – the popular Aati kya Kandala song from his hit Ghulam.  

Nowadays, I see most movies (Hindi and occasionally Tamil) in Manhattan or New Jersey.   New York City dwellers have had it good for a while now, with a multi-screen cinema in the basement of the Times Square Virgin Megastore showing one Hindi movie in each week’s lineup.   After they closed, the smaller, but uniquely focused Imaginasian cinema jumped in to fill the need (it’s tied in to the Imaginasian cable TV channel), and with no rhyme nor reason, and even less advance warning, a Bollywood flick will pop up in a mainstream Manhattan multiplex from time to time.

Suburbanites with cars fare better, as there are Hindi (and other Indian language) movies screened in Queens, out on Long Island, and up north of Manhattan.

New Jersey has a particular wealth of riches.   You will find not only the latest Bollywood releases, but also Telugu and Tamil, near large Indian hubs like Edison and Jersey City.   That’s the good news.   The bad news is, for a big release like this summer’s Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, good luck if you try to call the theaters to find out specific information about the opening day, or order tickets online.   Amazingly, the latter usually requires that you print out your receipt then still stand on a long queue at the cinema to exchange it for actual tickets.  

In comparing notes with people around the U.S., I found that, for the most part, cinemas disappoint.   Down in New Orleans, Sanket Vyas, who blogs about Indian music, rates his local mall cinema “fairly decent”, though prices are higher than for Hollywood fare.   That’s surprising, since prices by me equal those of other cinemas.  

In Houston, DesiPundit‘s Ash has a laundry list of the problems with the more central of the two cinemas: located in a seedy area, no credit cards accepted, paint peeling, “icky restrooms”, and, most vivid detail: “On one of our visits, the hall actually smelled of puke … uggh. We complained, and they sent in a guy who sprayed air freshener all around!”

Ash fumes: “I feel like desi theater-owners take advantage and don’t care about maintaining the quality of their theaters because they know that no matter what, people will show up for their regular dose of Bollywood. And that’s especially true of cities where there are one or two theaters. They’re taking advantage of their dominance in the supply-demand equation.”

But that’s not what gets Ash the most upset:   “One complaint I have is the number of folks who bring their little kids to movies, who then proceed to create a scene and ruin the evening for everyone else. I get the feeling that people land up in desi theaters and revert to their innate desi-ness!   Would these folks dare to take their bawling babies to their local Cinemark theater?!”

With the New Jersey cinemas, I’ve wondered if the lack of customer service on occasions is sometimes due to cinema owners being harried and struggling to keep up with the demands (during peak times).   I was exasperated this summer as the opening date of Kabhi Alvida approached and I ran into problems ordering tickets online and could not reach anyone at the theater to sort it out.   When I did hear back from the owner, he sounded stressed out at the impending onslaught of crowds for Karan Johar’s huge release, and he claimed that he and his few staff were doing their best.

My friends in Silicon Valley and the Bay area tell me their local movie houses leave something to be desired.   Vivek Kumar, one of the founders of the South Asian American Films and Arts Association, wishes for more options, because as a self-professed film buff, and reviewer, he has no choice but the local IMC6 (Indian Movie Cinema) and NAZ8.   In the latter, he notes the out-of-service water fountains and surly staff.   For him, the IMC 6 is “much more user friendly”, but the Naz shows most new Eros film releases.  

So why do we do it?   Why do we subject ourselves to the churlish staff, wailing babies and mouldy samosas?

For Ash, “We are far removed from home, and don’t have any Hindi TV channels, so we really don’t keep up with Bollywood. It’s not worth waiting for DVDs because they’re not that easily available and by the time they come around, we’ve forgotten all about the movie!”

For Beth Watkins, who lives and blogs about Hindi movies in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, she gets her Bollywood fix at the Boardman, a small art/foreign film theater, and is quite happy with the surroundings.   As someone who watches most Hindi movies at home alone or with a few friends, Beth says “I like seeing the colors of all the salwar kameez, overhearing languages I can’t understand, and watching the gaggles of college students giggling and shoving and waving to their friends.   I love gauging the audience reaction against the subtitles – it’s so informative to get a sense of what I’m missing by not understanding the language! And I really love being one of only dozens of voices laughing or yelling or gasping.   It’s extra fun to laugh in synch.”

I asked Siddharth Singh how things compare in London, given the size of the South Asian population in the U.K. and its length of time in Old Blighty, and, as I suspected, it’s the best you could hope for.   Most Bollywood movies he’s seen are in well located multiplexes in Central London that are part of large cinema chains, and, the halls are well maintained.

He told me about a recent night out at the Odeon Whiteleys, in Bayswater, close to a large Arab/Lebanese community:   “The last film I saw there was KANK, and again had the somewhat dubious pleasure of sitting next to a LOUD Iranian woman who laughed all through the first half and spent the latter clutching her husband’s sleeve and weeping silently. In front of us was a HUGE Arab family, who laughed, cried and held hands together through the entire movie.”

For me, I’ll endure the iffy ladies rooms and uneven customer service for the thrill of seeing and blogging about KANK or Don as soon as friends in Bombay, and for the social fun of it, being able to chat animatedly with friends and howl at the trailers (“Vikram Chatwal’s still being offered roles???”), and not being shushed, because everyone’s doing it.

19 thoughts on “Is This Seat Taken?

  1. Gautham, Celtic/Slavic.

    Meera, interesting to hear about things over on your side of the globe. There’s been a notable increase in the last few years in the number of Bollywood flics shot there too, right? To say nothing of Salaam Namaste…

  2. Hi

    I read this intersting post and the comments. Here is my two bit on this.

    Out here in Down Under, until recently we had that problem of one or two small theatres showing bollywood movies which were usually far away. Lots of desis crowding trying to get a ticket first and then a seat in the hall. Samosas were not sold but the usual popcorn and drinks as is the case for Hollywood movies. One noticed the the school/uni kids working at the popcorn bar or ticket counter on weekends patently unhappy at seeing such large number of people at desi movies coz hollywood movies generally do not attract such large crowds in Australia.

    Things have, however, been better for the past 2 years. Now most of the mainstream multiplex chains like Greater Union, Hoyts and Reading Cinemas screen bollywood movies regularly. These theatres are spread across different suburbs esp in the case of a big city like Sydney. Desis now can choose the nearest cinema and have a good time. However no samosas yet in sight!!!!



  3. Priya that was a hilarious story — you get that in England too although sadly those fleapit cinemas are dying out here and everything’s becoming shiny new multiplexed, but that made me smile because it is so recognisable! 🙂

  4. I live in Denver and they show Indian movies at this ancient looking movie theatre in this really sad mall. The terrible bathrooms and oily samosas sound really familiar. They also sell some strange lukewarm watery thing that’s supposedly chai. The movies never start on time. Every movie I’ve been to starts at least a half hour late. Now I’ve learnt to just show up thirty minutes late. The guy who is in charge of showing the movie always turns up super late. This one time we had been waiting for over twenty minutes and he strolls in and starts a conversation with his friend. This group of auntyjees got really mad and started yelling at him. It was quite a sight! He also charges a different rate each time… a couple of dollars extra for the not so popular movies! In spite of all this and the fact that it takes an hour to drive to the freaking place I still go cause I miss home and the other option is worse – watching pirated DVDs. I also secretly enjoy watching desis at family outings. 🙂

  5. filmiholic — when I was a kid, there were no multiplexes, all the Hindi movies would show at real fleapit, grindhouse cinemas, and we’d take samosas and kebabs in paper bags (the multplex people hate it because all the desis bring their own food and nobody buys popcorn!) — it’s all part of the fun.

  6. Indeed, Jay.

    And there are are those of us – gori/vellai/firangi/however you want to call us – who begin to adapt to our Indian surroundings and, at times, will do things like carry in a packet of moong dal or banana chips from home.

    Hey, when in Rome…. 🙂

  7. The noise, the children running around, the loose shaggy ambience, the teenage girls giggling when the hero takes off his shirt, the happy vibes and joy when the songs come on (which everyone already knows and can sing along to because they’ve been playing on Zee TV for weeks already), the unembarassed crying at the sad scenes, the sight of Indian families, grandparents, parents, children, couples, uncles and aunties, all together, groups of teenage boys and girls flirting, all of these things are part of what makes me venture out to watch a Bollywood film here in the UK. It is part of the fun. So we talk out loud unlike in movies where it’s mostly white people watching. SO WHAT? Don’t you know that the best bit is going to the right shows to see a Hindi masala movie is that going to the cinema becomes an EVENT? And so what if we do things that way — we are emotional, heart-on-our-sleeves people, and this is one of the only things that living in the West we can do together with our families, across generations, hold hands and share something and be united in the drama and joy and dance and sadness we see on the screen.

    But obviously, when I go to watch the latest Michael Haneke or whatever in a central London arthouse, I expect different behaviour, but hey 😉

  8. Kamal, thanks for the Chi-town info and the URL.

    Vi, ah yeah, I’d say give it a try. It’s a fun experience when it’s a big film that’s been anticipated.

    Sharon, in all fairness to the little moviegoing tykes and their folks, my experience hasn’t been as extreme as Ashweeta’s.  And the dancing toddlers in the aisles, I actually find amusing.

    Lucky you, Maja, it must be great! And to answer your question, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a non-Indian going into any of these films (aside from KANK in Manhattan) and I guess I do still get some curious looks or stares, but have made it a point to try not to notice. (Otherwise I’ll get too self-conscious and trip going up the stairs to the seats.)  🙂

    Beth, you’ll have a blast in London, for sure. And you’ll maybe even see an episode of Big Brother with Shilpa Shetty! I’m always amazed how they manage to get celebrities to some of these threadbare theaters here for an appearance; even back at the time of Ghulam, Aamir was a huge star. More recently, for the release of 36 Chinatown Kareena and Shahid were by for a visit to a cinema in Jersey not too far from Manhattan (the theater was written about in the NY Times this week).

    Hi Raj, with regard to the ambience, I’m very much in the school of Beth, in that, for me, it’s a fun social outing and I like to peoplewatch too. And yes, I’m sure that given the flops-to-hit ratio, these cinemas are not goldmines for the men who own/run them. If I won the lottery, I’d love to buy one of these multiplexes, re-do it with quality furnishings and show a huge gamut of films, both filmi and arty, in as many languages as prints I could get my hands on (hey, I’d like to see that Amitabh Bachchan film in Bhojpuri!). It’s probably the only way you could do it, ‘cos I’m sure it would be a fun but money-losing endeavour….Ah, but a girl can dream….

  9. Thanks Maria.
    So true, the bit about wailing babies and loud desis exhibiting in brazen fashion their “desiness” thousands of miles away in North America. As for the decor and general upkeep of these cinema halls that are perhaps mostly rented, its a cinch if owners or franchisees really care. It’s perhaps a rare Bollywood flick such as “Kuch Kuch Hota Hai” or “KANK” that draws huge crowds. Thus the owner of the cinema hall or the facilitator doesn’t have the motivation to make the Bollywood experience a meaningful one.

  10. If I wasn’t already excited about my trip to London in February…. I should print this out and give it to my local theater – maybe the idea of having Indian food a the films – or having Aamir Khan show up! – will spark a new habit. Great article!

  11. Are there more non-desis watching Indian movies in the US? So far I’ve always been the only one in my cinema (a shiny new multiplex – UK really is the way forward 😉 ) and I still get stared at if I’m on my own.

  12. i’ve heard the same story regarding indian theatres in Toronto – lots of squalling kids and indulgent parents – one of the reasons I prefer to wait for the DVD.

  13. I live in NJ (and very close to the areas you mentioned) and I still haven’t gone to see a desi movie at the theatre. I rarely watch indian (well, either hindi or tamil) movies to begin with, but seeing them at the theatre here seems odd. Thus far, I haven’t had an inclination to go see it, but maybe I will soon.

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