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India's 'Bollywood' films develop Western Pa. following

| Saturday, March 2, 2013, 7:27 p.m.
A scene from the Bollywood movie 'Mirchi,' a romantic action film. Credit: Carmike Cinemas
Ram Charan stars as the hero in the action-romance Bollywood film 'Naayak.' Credit: Carmike Cinemas
A movie poster for the Bollywood film 'Vishwaroopam,' released earlier this year. The spy film is one of the most successfull Indian-made films. Credit: Carmike Cinemas

If you've perused the movie listings at any point in the past few years, you might have noticed some strange names popping up now and again.

Titles like “Vishwaroopam,” “Mirchi” and “Kadal” almost look like typos at first. They also seem a little out of place among the blockbusters, star vehicles and soon-to-be-forgotten sequels that tend to crowd the screens at suburban multiplexes.

The emergence of Indian cinema in Western Pennsylvania is no accident, though. The big multiplex chains put all kinds of energy and effort into determining the exact perfect times for each movie screening, down to the minute, to maximize revenue. They wouldn't show unknown, un-promoted and often-unpronounceable foreign films if there wasn't an audience for them.

“We've had some success with playing Indian films in other markets,” says John Lundin, vice president of film for Carmike Cinemas of Columbus, Ga., which runs a number of local theaters. “The distributor of these Indian films suggested Pittsburgh as a potential market. We began playing various features in October of last year and are pleased with the results.”

Carmike Cinemas 10 at South Hills Village, the Carmike Galleria 6 in Upper St. Clair, and Loews AMC Waterfront in West Homestead are three local theaters that regularly show Indian films.

The Indian-movie business — “Bollywood” in the popular parlance, referring to the big film-industry hub of Bombay — is gigantic. By some measures, it's bigger than Hollywood, and serves not just India's massive billion-person population, but also large swaths of Asia, and Indian expatriate communities all over the world.

Bollywood has a formula that works, and tends to stick to it. Though Hollywood also is known to lean on a few successful formulas, Indian “masala” musicals take it to another level entirely.

“The usual ‘masala' (spice) film goes like this: Boy sees girl, boy falls in love with girl,” says Harish Saluja, filmmaker and founder of New Ray Films and the Silk Screen Asian American Film Festival. “Boy starts singing. Boy starts doing things that would normally get you fired, or would be considered sexual harassment. They fall in love, they hold hands, run around through gardens, forest, snow, together.

“Then, something bad happens — one is a different caste, one is rich and one is poor, or in an arranged marriage to another person. Complications go on for an hour or so. Then, there is a fight in which every protagonist is Superman, then the wedding. This is 90 percent of the (Indian) films.”

Beneath the Bollywood cliches, there are some noticeable changes happening in Indian cinema. There's more variety available now, in style and subject matter, than there has been for decades.

“Lately, there have been some breaths of fresh air,” Saluja says. “Even the masala films themselves, even though they still have stupid songs and dances, are getting more complicated. They fall somewhere in between. There's a story to it. One doesn't need to fast-forward to the dance numbers, or past them.”

“Action (‘Vishwaroopam') and comedy (‘Mirchi' and ‘Naayak') have been the most-successful films to date,” says Mark Jordan, a film buyer for Carmike. “Controversy surrounded ‘Vishwaroopam,' with the film being banned for a week in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. This led to increased awareness here, and a very successful run at the theaters.”

“Vishwaroopam” is a spy thriller that attracted the ire of various Muslim groups in Tamil Nadu. As a compromise, the audio was muted in several scenes.

However, some kinds of variety make programming for Indian-American audiences tricky.

“It matters a great deal which dialect the films play,” Lundin says. “The dialect is dependent on the local community. Tamil and Telugu are the prevailing languages of the films we exhibit, with Tamil being the more popular.”

Only 10 percent of the films are subtitled, Jordan says.

Indian cinema doesn't just tap Pittsburgh's audiences; it uses the city's talent.

Saluja directed “The Journey” (1997), starring Indian-British film legends Roshan Seth (“Gandhi”) and Saeed Jaffrey (“My Beautiful Laundrette”), and runs his production company, New Ray Films, out of the Pittsburgh area.

There are more than 14,000 Indian-Americans living in Pittsburgh, according to the 2010 census. The population tends to be well-educated, drawn to opportunities in the technical, educational and medical fields.

The site www.pittsburghindian.com provides screening information and reviews of Indian films in Pittsburgh. Opening this week is “Jabardasth” (in Telugu) at Carmike 10 at South Hills Village. “Mirchi” continues this week at Carmike 10. “Kai Po Che,” about three friends who try to start a cricket academy, is screening at AMC Loews Waterfront.

For the moment, local Indian-film fans have to snack on popcorn like the rest of us. That could change, though.

“We are looking into new selections for our concession stand to better serve this audience,” Lundin says.

Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at mmachosky@tribweb.com or 412-320-7901.

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