'The cheapest round-trip ticket home': South Asians revel in pleasures of Indian cinema at Fargo theater
FARGO — Some come for the action, some for the romance, some for the humor. Some come for the music and extravagant dance sequences. Some come for the stars — invincible heroes unlike any Hollywood produces. Some come for the colorful costumes and glittering jewelry.
But all come because it reminds them of a place they left behind.
For South Asians in the Fargo-Moorhead area, and throughout North Dakota, the Asian Indian movies shown at West Acres Cinema in Fargo are, in the words of expatriate writer Suketu Mehta, "the cheapest round-trip ticket home."
Last weekend, there were immigrants from India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Tibet, and beyond, drawn to see India's biggest film star, Salman Khan, in the movie "Tiger Zinda Hai," and the opportunity to spend 2 hours and 45 minutes immersed in the masala that is South Asia.
"We identify and relate with the people and the culture," said Divya Saxena of West Fargo, an immigrant from Rajasthan in northwest India.
"You feel closer to home," said Shah Habib, who grew up in Bangladesh.
"We were raised watching these kinds of movies," said Kamal Nepali, from Nepal. "We are connected."
West Acres Cinema has been showing Indian movies for more than a decade, but few outside the South Asian community, and other cultures where they are popular, seem to know about them.
If you haven't watched an Indian movie before, it can be an eye-opening experience and hugely entertaining. Indian movies are very different from Hollywood fare and other foreign-language movies shown in this country. They are lively and colorful, fast-moving, and rarely subtle. They are relentlessly positive — the star always gets the girl and the good guy always wins.
They are over-the-top and often unrealistic, but fun. It's best to leave your brain at home. They are rarely the sort of movie likely to win an Academy Award for best foreign-language film.
The most unusual aspect of Indian movies is that nearly all are musicals. "Tiger Zinda Hai" is atypical in that regard: It is a straight action movie with but one musical interlude. Most Indian movies contain five to 15 songs, and often feature highly choreographed dance scenes. Songs from movies become huge hits and are the soundtrack to people's lives.
"We all know it's fantasy," said Kavitha Gundala, who came to Fargo from Andhra Pradesh in south India in 2000. "We all know, when we're having a serious conversation, we can't burst into song. We know it's not real, but we all love the fantasies."
'A little bit of everything'
Indian films also defy genre classification. They combine action, romance, humor, song and dance — something for everyone — all in a single movie. They are rarely serious. Even a movie about an ISIS-like group abducting Indian nurses in Iraq, such as "Tiger Zinda Hai," is full of laughs.
"They have a lot of drama, some romance, a little bit of everything," said Prakash Bhattarai, from Nepal, who attended the Indian movie at West Acres on Friday.
India's film industry is known as Bollywood, a term that combines the name of the city that has long been the center of the country's movie business, Bombay (now Mumbai), and America's film capital.
But Indian moviemakers dislike the term because the country's film industry is older than Hollywood's and because the term obscures the fact that India now has strong regional film scenes in other parts of the country. Mumbai is the center of the Hindi-language film industry, but only about half of the Indian movies that play at West Acres are in Hindi.
West Acres doesn't screen Indian movies every week. It has shown Indian movies about a quarter of the time over the last year. Those movies draw South Asians not only from the Fargo-Moorhead area, but from as far away as Bismarck and Grand Forks.
"Tiger Zinda Hai," in Hindi, will play through Thursday, Jan. 4. Another Indian movie, "Okka Kshanam," in the Telugu language of south India, opens on Wednesday, Dec. 27. On Tuesday, Jan. 9, "Agnyaathavaasi," also in Telugu, will open. All Indian movies at West Acres have English subtitles.
"Every single time they show one we are here," said Divya Saxena, who attended "Tiger Zinda Hai" with her husband and two college-aged daughters. "We love Bollywood movies. We are fortunate to have the Bollywood movies that West Acres brings to us."
"We have grown up with these movies — the music, the costumes, the storylines," said her husband, Vineet.
"I love seeing all the colors, the bright faces, always a happy ending," said their daughter, Akriti.
The Indian movies at West Acres sometimes have different ticket prices than the Hollywood movies shown there. The ticket prices are dictated by film distributors. An opening-night ticket for "Agnyaathavaasi" will be $25 for adults, though the price will drop to $17 the next day.
Will Fargo moviegoers pay those prices? "They have before," said Rick Solarski, general manager at West Acres Cinema.
That may be because South Asians are crazy about movies. They are integral to the culture of the region, not just in India but in neighboring countries.
India has the biggest film industry in the world. It produces more than twice as many movies per year as Hollywood. A billion more people watch Indian movies annually than American ones. India is a huge market that Hollywood hasn't penetrated to a significant degree.
'A good way to stay out of trouble'
Sam Rangaswamy, who owns the Passage to India restaurant in Fargo and Fargo Fresh market, said he went to nearly 100 movies a year growing up in Bangalore in south India.
"That was the cheapest entertainment," he said. "For young people, it was a good way to stay out of trouble."
Prakash Bhattarai, 23, said he began attending Indian movies in his native Nepal in second grade. He watched Indian films so often that he learned to speak the Hindi language just from watching the movies, without ever taking lessons and even though Hindi wasn't spoken locally.
"I like Bollywood movies more than my (Nepali) movies," he said. "I love them."
Movies are a unifying force in a region that is spectacularly diverse in language, religion, ethnicity and class. India alone has 15 official languages, and boundaries between states within the country largely coincide with the geography of languages.
Hindi movies are popular throughout South Asia, not just in Hindi-speaking areas. Movies from other regions have also grown in popularity elsewhere.
"What is South Asian?" asks Suketu Mehta in his book "Maximum City," about Bombay. "Someone who watches Hindi movies. Someone whose being fills up with pleasure when he or she hears 'Mere Sapnon ki rani' or 'Kuch Kuch Hota Hai.' Here is our national language; here is our common song."
Cinema audiences are also very different in South Asia than in the United States. Movie-watching is an interactive experience. Crowds are noisy — yelling and whistling, and talking back to characters on the screen. They cheer heroes and hiss at villains. They sing along to popular songs. They even throw coins at the screen when their favorite stars appear.
People attending Indian movies in the U.S. are more sedate than in South Asia, but even here crowds don't sit quietly.
"They can be very vocal at times," West Acres' Solarski said. "They are very involved."