Tracing the history of B.C.’s love affair with Bollywood over the last 60 years (with video)

LARISSA CAHUTE
VANCOUVER DESI

Avtar Bains stands outside the Rio theatre, which used to be a Bollywood movie hub, in Vancouver, B.C. on May 23, 2013. Wayne Leidenfrost/PNG

The glittering and extravagant style of Bollywood hasn’t always been synonymous with the genre — Hindi films made a much more muted, nearly hidden descent onto the West Coast.

While India’s film industry celebrated its centennial this month, its roots in the Lower Mainland can only be traced back about 60 years, mostly, to the now-closed temple at West 2nd Avenue near Burrard Street.

It was amid rows upon rows of dining hall benches in the stark basement of the 1950s’ temple where Bollywood came to be in Vancouver.

“[Someone] would come and announce in temple there will be a movie shown downstairs at 2 p.m. Whoever was there would assemble and just watch it,” Kesar Bhatti, 80, recalled as he completed his weekly volunteer work for the Khalsa Diwan Society at the Ross Street temple. “Those days we had benches and chairs. We just moved them to one side, put chairs in rows.”

The much-anticipated film screening would happen about once a month — whenever someone could get a film reel imported from Mumbai.

According to Bhatti, up to 150 people would pile into the basement or dining hall — some leaning against walls — just to get their much-needed dose of entertainment.

“There was not much . . . of Bollywood here [in] those days,” Bhatti said. “The few families who were here, who came at that time, they starved for entertainment.

“Not everybody had a television, even if they had one, Indian movies would never be shown, so that was the only thing . . . this was the entertainment.

“That’s how it started.”

As Vancouver’s South Asian population slowly grew in size, there was a need for more films and community engagement.

New immigrants were struggling to adapt to their new and foreign home, while still searching for familiar neighbours and the unity the South Asian community is so commonly known for. And with their children first generation Canadian — never having been to India — the flourishing film industry was the only glimpse into their homeland.

Soon enough, a small group of people recognized this need — more importantly, the business opportunity that came with it. As new immigrants themselves, it was the best way to make ends meet — working in an already familiar industry.

By the late 1950s and early 1960s local woman Janki Shori seemed to be the lead organizer of events.

Shori died in the ’90s, but her daughter, Sylvia Mahal, can still recall her teenage years at their East 10th Avenue home where her single mother would work the phones with industry types, organizing the shipment of 16mm and 35mm films to the West Coast. Mahal and her siblings were recruited to trace and Xerox flyers for the screenings her mother organized from Vancouver Island, Port Alberni, Duncan, across the Lower Mainland and into California.

“She was the first person and only woman to bring movies from India to entertain the East Indian society in the Lower Mainland,” Mahal said from her Richmond home. “She showed it in the old theatres in Vancouver at the Kingcrest Theatre, at the York Theatre, the Rio, at the Lux.”

Mahal has kept the evidence of her mother’s hard work, too — something she can’t let go.

As she flips through the memorabilia from Shori’s independent Bollywood business — letters to Indian film industries and Adanac Brokers in Vancouver, 35mm films, records, posters, brochures all dating back to the 1950s — she can’t help but still be in awe at how her mom, a new immigrant “with little or no English,” managed.

“She really didn’t have a life — basically she was just struggling to make ends meet and it was a success in the end for her,” Mahal said. “She knew there was a need for the film industry.

Sylvia Mahal with some of her Bollywood memorabilia, including photos of her mom, in Richmond, B.C. on March 27, 2013. Wayne Leidenfrost/PNG

“She ended up very well-known in the East Indian community. They loved it . . . that was their only form of entertainment.”

Bhatti calls Shori “one of the original ones,” but as waves of immigrants landed in the ’70s, “more people came and they had more connections with Bollywood.”

In 1966, Avtar Bains left England for Vancouver with the dream of opening an Indian cinema — hoping to get away from the competition in the U.K.

In his first few months here, he met Shori and helped her put on screenings at community halls.

According to Bains, Shori and the now deceased Arjan Dhaliwal laid down a lot of the groundwork in the ’50s and ’60s, organizing screenings about once a month.

“Those days the movie was running 16mm, [which is] only usually two reels. Sometimes this guy, Arjan Dhaliwal, forgot the other reel at home so when the intermission came . . . he said, ‘I will show you the other half next week,’” Bains said with a laugh.

Soon enough, Bains took over in the late ’60s showing colour films every week.

He rented out theatres like the now-demolished Olympia on Nanaimo Street, then began renting the Queen Elizabeth Playhouse every Sunday.

In the ’70s, Bains finally bought his own theatre at Commercial and 6th Avenue. He later moved to the Rio at Commercial and Broadway, where he showed Indian films, along with other movies from such countries as Korea and Italy.

According to then-business partner, Amarjit Benning, the money started out slow.

“We didn’t make any money,” Benning said. “It was just entertainment in the beginning and then it became our business.”

They pinched pennies. Flyers advertising the next week’s show were handed out at the temple gates “because it was too costly on the radio.”

But the pair perservered, knowing there was a need.

“There was a need for entertainment in the community,” Benning said. “It’s like a date out for those people in those days . . . [and it was a] good community meeting place.”

And once they met that need, the business grew. The 750-seat theatre would pack in Bollywood fans, who piled in to see old-time favourites like “Sachaai” (1969), “Trishul” (1978) and “Amar Akbar Anthony” (1977), Benning recalled.

“We made some good money,” he said.

The spread of the VCR brought the booming industry to an end, and Bains and Benning were forced to let go of the Rio in 1982.

While it may have been the end for Vancouver’s well-known Bollywood theatre, it was the beginning for local director, Manny Parmar.

In February Parmar released his first feature-length Punjabi-language film “Pehchaan 3D,” a musical thriller nominated for three Leo awards for best program, direction and lead male performance.

Although only his first feature film, Parmar always knew he’d end up in the business.

“I’ve grown up watching Bollywood films all along,” he said.

His love for the industry started out in the small town of Houston when he was about seven years old.

Whenever the famly visited bustling Vancouver they’d head to the “Indian hub” at Main Street and 49th Avenue to rent 30 to 50 videos at a time to bring home and watch.

“(We) would go to the video stores and come back with a box full of video cassettes,” he said.

In the ’90s, Parmar’s family moved to Surrey and opened a video rental store, Tips Video India at 76th and 128th streets.

When video rentals started to falter, Tips turned into a video production business.

“My career path has kind of been all related — from the video rental business from being involved in Bollywood,” he explained.

While Parmar’s nominated film “follows the cinema style of Bollywood,” the Punjabi language film was filmed in British Columbia with the non-resident Indian community as its target audience.

But it was made in a way that’s marketable to Mumbai’s Bollywood audience — and it’s been well-received in both Punjab and Canada, he said.

Vancouver director and producer Manny Parmar, who’s been a fan of Bollywood movies since he was a kid, is photographed in Vancouver, B.C. on May 23, 2013. Larissa Cahute/The Province

“When Cineplex finally started airing Indian cinema, that’s actually when Punjabi cinema kind of emerged as well,” he said.
“It’s just the evolution of the cinema.”

And according to Cineplex Entertainment spokesman, Mike Langdon, the industry is “absolutely growing” mainstream — at Surrey’s Strawberry Hill location it’s now “a regular part of our programming.”

While Strawberry Hill Cinemas rolled out Bollywood screenings more than a decade ago, Langdon credits Devdas (2002) as “the catalyst for the mainstream industry.”

“We have found South Asian film in general to be very successful in Surrey and the Lower Mainland — it’s been in a big hit,” he said. “[It] sometimes outperforms top Hollywood movies.”

“There’s a strong market for South Asian film in certain areas of Canada and so we’ve always been at the forefront of that trend and it’s something we definitely plan to continue doing.”

For those who saw the quiet birth of Vancouver’s Bollywood scene, they can’t believe how far it’s actually come.

Now, Bhatti doesn’t have to go far to catch a glimpse of his homeland, not only because of Indian programming at mainstream theatres, but also because of mulitcultural television channels.

“Every Indian language program is available now — it’s a completely different thing altogether,” he said. “This has come a long way.”

“Bollywood business was not doing that good,” Bains said about when he closed the Rio in the ’80s.

But it’s a different story today, added Bains, who now works as a local representative for the Indian motion picture production company, Eros International. “Now Bollywood is coming back again.”

Because of this, Parmar sees a “huge market for us to build our own Bollywood here.”

“And it’s happening,” he said. “A lot of Punjabi films are being made here.”

“We have a lot of great programs here in Canada and B.C. for film making, why can’t we utilize them?”

So Parmar is doing just that with his next film: “a full-on Bollywood and English release,” which he plans to film in B.C. and Quebec, using local crews and actors.

“Why do we need to go to Mumbai to make a Bollywood film? Why can’t we do it here?

“We have the talent, we have the stars here as well.”

“There’s a huge network out here,” he added. “I definitely see it growing.”

lcahute@theprovince.com
twitter.com/larissacahute

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