Although the recent Bollywood strike had an almost immediate impact on distribution and exhibition of Bollywood films around the world, specialized theaters, such as the Eagle Theater in Jackson Heights, Queens, never lost hope. The Eagle, located in the heart of New York City’s Little India, was forced to close in May, as the stream of first-run films dried up, but re-opened after the strike ended on June 5th. The strike had a ripple effect that was truly remarkable: New York’s Indian and Bollywood-loving community were dedicated veterans of the Eagle, often making an afternoon out of a meal, some shopping and a matinee, and so the businesses surrounding the theater suffered as well.
The theater itself has a checkered history — twenty years ago, it was hardly the kind of place most of us would wind up on a Sunday afternoon, bellies full of naan. Before it was purchased by two Punjabi businessmen in 1995, the Eagle was chiefly known for showing gay pornography. Ironically, the same thing that happened to the porn exhibition industry — that is, it died following the home rental and online access revolution — is now threatening the unique cinematic ecosystem that’s developed and flourished in Indian communities around the country in the last two decades. The combination of the strike, the recession, and more and more people choosing to rent DVDs or turn to piracy and downloading over the traditional theater experience have dealt a major blow to independent theaters like the Eagle. Mohammad Asif, who owns the Bombay Theater in Fresh Meadows, Queens, reported that just 18 months ago he had 1000 customers a week, while in recent weeks that number was more like 400.
And yet a huge part of the Bollywood viewing experience will always be a live, communal audience. Almost every Bollywood screening includes an intermission, during which audience members are encouraged to trade their thoughts on the picture so far, or purchase a few more samosas and mango lassis from the concession stand; the full experience easily stretches to three hours and beyond. In a way, the South Asian culture of dressing up to go to the movies harkens back to the earliest Hollywood movie palaces; Bollywood films are still a destination event, one that enterprising theater owners across the country have eagerly tapped into.
While there are a number of homegrown, independent Bollywood theaters like the Eagle around the country — Seattle’s Roxy Cinema, the Shalimar Theater in Houston — others have been bought up like investment properties in the past few years. Texas is the home of FunAsiA, a company that’s purchased the Bollywood 6 in Houston and recently opened two Bollywood theaters in the Chicago area. Adlabs, an Indian conglomerate, is another company that’s found success in purchasing the ImaginAsia movie theater chain and turning its cinemas into dedicated Bollywood outlets. Last year, they bought theaters in both Los Angeles and New York, adding to their total of 400 screens in the U.S., India, and Malaysia.
California Bay Area residents seem to have a love-hate relationship with Fremont’s Naz 8 cinema, which shows mostly Bollywood fare, but also the occasional Hollywood film. Where the new chain cinemas, in their cookie-cutter sterility, inevitably lose some of the charm of independently owned and run theaters, “charm” can be a relative term. Detractors of the Naz 8 characterize the theater as a grotty, run-down joint with dirty toilets and surly employees, but several of the complaints, interestingly, seem to stem from a kind of clash of cultures, with non-Indians noting that they felt alienated by the experience, and more annoyed than delighted by the traditional audience participation. “Some seem to treat the Naz as an anthropological experience,” one commenter wrote on the user-generated review site Yelp. “I think the Naz is the Naz — like most places that seem ‘regular’ because you the participant are fully part of the culture there, it makes no concession to those who aren’t already on board — you are there to take it on its own terms.”
That opportunity is becoming available to more and more people as both Bollywood films and specialty theaters are finally integrated into mainstream American culture. Chances are the latest Karina Kapoor or Abishek Bachchan flick is playing at a specialty movie house near you and the Bollywood experience — anthropological or otherwise — is yours for the partaking.
[Additional photo: Posters outside Fremont’s Naz 8 theater, courtesy of Gaurav Sharma, used with permission]