Ellis Jacob can vividly recall his childhood trips to 1,000-seat movie houses in India to see the latest Bollywood film.
Growing up in Calcutta, he naturally developed a love for Hindi cinema.
“When I was younger it was a big event to go to a movie theatre,” said Jacob, who immigrated to Canada when he was 16-years-old. “It’s a social experience — people love to go to the movies and it’s part of the DNA of the Indian community.”
Now based in Toronto as CEO of Cineplex Entertainment, it’s only fitting Jacob is credited for Bollywood’s success story in the mainstream entertainment company.
“I always loved movies, back to the days where we had 800 to 1,000-seat movie houses in Calcutta,” said Jacob. “It was part of the incentive to do it in our company in Canada.
“We are such a multicultural country and given the fact that there are many South Asians that live in Canada, we felt that it was important that we provided movies to the audiences.”
Today, Bollywood films are screened in 15 of 151 Cineplex locations across the country, from Toronto to Surrey.
And according to Cineplex Entertainment’s director of film programming, Rob Cousins (referred to as ‘Bollywood Bobby’ in the office), Surrey’s Strawberry Hill Cinemas is one of the best theatres — alongside Brampton, Ontario’s SilverCity Cinemas — for South Asian cinema, so much so that the 2003 Bollywood film Hawayein outdid Hollywood blockbuster Pirates of the Carribean at the Surrey location.
“We did about $45,000 on opening weekend in Strawberry Hill, which is big,” said Cousins.
Cousins is expecting big numbers to come in once again at Strawberry Hill this weekend to coincide with the Indian holiday Diwali releases, like Krrish 3 on Friday, a “giant superhero film” starring Bollywood starlet Priyanka Chopra and heart throb Hrithik Roshan, followed by the Nov. 15 release of Deepika Padukone’s Ramleela.
While big Bollywood releases like these often do as well as their Hollywood counterparts, it was a “slow growth” since Cineplex introduced the genre about 15 years ago, said Cousins.
“When we first started playing the films, a lot of the films didn’t even come with subtitles,” he said.
But today, with digital projection, delivery and the ever-growing diaspora, at least 99 per cent of Bollywood releases are guaranteed to come with subtitles, which has also helped the genre reach beyond the traditional South Asian audience.
“It allows average Joes who might want to come out and see a song and dance film, or an action film, to be able to have a South Asian film experience,” said Cousins. “It’s also allowed a younger generation … beyond first and second generation immigrants in Canada to be able to experience the films a little bit more with their parents than what they were used to.”
Cousins added that “it’s been fantastic to watch it grow over the years” — even within the genre itself.”
The movies have diversified from dramas and song and dance films to “much more international films.”
“All the different types of films that you can imagine now are being released internationally through South Asian cinema,” said Cousins. “We are benefiting from the growth of Indian cinema not only here in Canada – in the U.S., in England, in Dubai – all parts of the world.”
“The modern South Asian filmmaker is now reaching out to all those different communities … they’re making dramas, political dramas.”
And Cousins further believes Bollywood is filling a niche that Hollywood has been lacking for years — something he relates back to the 2002 Bollywood hit, Devdas (starring “the Queen of South Asian Cinema, Aishwarya Rai”), which he credits as the movie that “triggered” South Asian cinema’s success in Canada.
“It is a beautiful film,” said Cousins. “It’s a grand historic romance … the type of film that Hollywood just doesn’t make anymore – The Great Gatsby aside – Hollywood doesn’t make grand scale, beautiful films or musicals in the way South Asian cinema has and I think Devdas really benefited from reaching out to a style of film that hasn’t been made in modern Hollywood.”
Bollywood’s “globalization” is even inspiring other countries — China, Philippines, etc. — to emulate its model as well.
“A lot of these languages came to us because they saw the success with South Asian film,” said Cousins. “It truly is an international cinema success story.”