South Asia films light up area theaters as immigrant population surges
One in an occasional series on America's Changing Face.
Arti Patel, 21, is a devotee of Indian films, especially anything starring Bollywood heartthrob Salman Khan, a younger, square-jawed mash-up of Sylvester Stallone and John Travolta.
When Khan's timed-for-the-end-of-Ramadan release Kick came to the Neshaminy 24 cinema last week - in Hindi with English subtitles - the Bucks County Community College nursing student was among the first in line. A few days later, accompanied by two Hindi-speaking girlfriends, she saw it again.
"His movies are the best," said a clearly smitten Patel, who was born in India and was 6 when her family moved to Bensalem.
The likes of Kick have become a hot ticket at the Neshaminy and other theaters across the region as the populations of immigrants from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have exploded in this century.
In Philadelphia and its seven neighboring counties in Southeastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey, the combined South Asian immigrant population - 67,320 - is up 95 percent since 2000, a virtual doubling. The largest group, 15,476, live in Philadelphia, followed closely by Montgomery County at 14,021. Of the total, Bangladeshis make up 4,225; Pakistanis, 6,320, and Indians, 56,775.
In New Jersey, Burlington County leads, with 7,060 total.
Catering to the dramatic growth, several area theaters have daily screenings of movies in Hindi, Telugu, Tamil, and Malayalam, with English subtitles.
As Patel and about two dozen other patrons left the theater recently, Attia Khalid and two of her nieces, Zunaira Shahid and Ayesha Islam, arrived for the 10 p.m. show. The trio, all born in Pakistan, said they usually watch Urdu and Hindi films on DVD. This night they stepped out in style, each wearing a silky, pastel-hued shalwar qameez, a traditional Pakistani dress.
"It's our first visit to the theater," said Khalid, adding that she relished the chance to see a South Asian film in a public venue in America.
While Kick was showing at AMC's Neshaminy theater, it also was playing at Regal's Cinema 20 in Burlington.
"We've been programming these films in the [Philadelphia-area] market for approximately 10 years," said Regal's regional marketing manager, Jewel Gallagher.
The screenings started as a test of how to deliver niche films, she said. Today, they are part of regular programming at eight Regal locations in the region.
Because of the strength of India's film industry, its center of production, Mumbai, formerly Bombay, is nicknamed Bollywood. In the coming weeks, fans of the Bollywood genre will find Bangalore Days and Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania, among other offerings, in Oaks, Montgomery County; Downingtown, Chester County; Bensalem and Doylestown, Bucks County; and across the river in Burlington, Hamilton Commons, and Mays Landing.
Kick - a campy, high-budget, rom-com-esque action-adventure about a thrill-seeker who has a Robin Hood bent - is called a masala movie because it throws every kind of cinematic spice into the plot. It hit theaters worldwide for the end of Ramadan feast day, Eid al-Fitr, which in the Philadelphia area was Tuesday. Its promotional campaign: "Get your kick this Eid."
Gallagher said the box-office record for Indian-language films in North America was set last year with the release of Dhoom 3, a thriller about a thief. The previous record was set by 3 Idiots, a buddy film with a poignant message about career choices, released in December 2009.
Dollar figures for the films were not available, although large groups of moviegoers, who "bring the whole gang with them," fill the seats for the most popular ones, said Gallagher.
"There is a positive trend," she said. "The biggest hits are raising the bar for what these movies can achieve" here.
Asma Badar, of Cherry Hill, was born in Rawalpindi, raised in Karachi, and lived for a time in New Delhi. To describe her as multilingual barely does justice to the breadth of her multiple fluencies.
A physician, she moved to the United States to complete her studies. Recently she began taking her 10-year-old son to South Asian movies to expose him to the various languages and cultures.
"I have lots of friends, different cultures, different languages," she said. "But Urdu-speaking people, not so much."
She said she preferred Indian "art films," like The Lunchbox, to the commercial dance-mania extravaganzas.
"South Asians are a growing community here," said Badar, "and it feels good."
Watching the films makes her feel close to the home she left in Pakistan, she said, "and kind of reminds me of the American journey. We all came from somewhere else at some point."