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"It's so different here in the U.S.," reports Prashanth Holenarsipur, age 24, a graduate student in engineering at UM. "People go to the movies in small groups of two or even alone! Back in India almost every fun outing is with a huge group of friends--and 'mob psychology' demands that you make a lot of noise and pass comments about the movie." Indeed, I am as odd here in my solitude as I am in my paleness. "Do you understand the movie?" one middle-aged man asks kindly at intermission (which the Chopras extend for as long as the lobby is rocking). "You can't judge India by these films," he advises with a wry moue. "I haven't seen a Hindi movie for 23 years--since I lived there. They've changed."
Though the Chopras and their patrons certainly do their best, some aspects of moviegoing in India cannot be replicated. "Movies are so popular in India," Shashi explains gently. "You have to wait in line for advance tickets. If it's a good movie, you will have to wait four or five weeks to see it. And the theaters here are so small. The capacity of the halls there is much, much more, with 1,000 or 1,500 seats. Because it's so crowded, it's more festive." Her customers also cite the absence here of greasy veggie burgers and black-market ticket sales--although the latter, jokes software consultant Raghu Kulkarni, age 33, are not badly missed.
That said, the Chopras are having little trouble filling seats for such movies as Dil To Pagal Hai (roughly translated as Heart Is Crazy) and Pyar To Hona Hi Tha (We Had to Fall in Love). Recently, the couple sold 1,000 tickets over one weekend for Kuch Kuch Hota Hain (Something Happens in My Heart). Actors Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan and actresses Kajol Anjali and Madhuri Dixit are major draws--and not only because of their beauty. "The fact that the actors look like me makes fantasies more real," reveals financial analyst Ravi Wahi, age 60. "It's fun to be transported to India for a few hours."
There are particular headaches that come with targeting one ethnic community as your customer base. For all that it's growing, the Hindi-speaking Indian population here is quite small compared to Chicago's or even Atlanta's. (In the 1990 census, 6,855 people in the metropolitan area reported being of Asian-Indian descent, 2,495 of them born in India.) The Chopras are careful not to book a film on the date of any big party or wedding they hear about: "It would not do well," Pramod declares, smiling. However, the Chopras don't feel they've tapped out their market. When Manoranjan Movies first kicked off (with the initial help of Pramod's sister Rita Dumra), they obtained address lists from the Hindu temples in town and mailed notices to 2,000 families. "That was too expensive for us," Pramod says. "We cut it down to 400 six months back, and right now it's up to 1,052." Shashi concurs: "Every time we show a movie we get 10 or 15 new addresses."
The Chopras are surprised and pleased to be attracting one other community: people of whatever race who love cinema. Not that they plan on providing English translations any time soon. Unlike artier foreign films, the vibrant melodramas Manoranjan showcases can seduce non-Hindi speakers on high energy alone. Indeed, popular Hindi movies slide so winningly from suspense to dance number to action to comedy to romance and back to suspense that one dares to hope the days of Hollywood one-sentence-explains-all global blockbusters are numbered.
The Chopras acknowledge that Manoranjan is profiting. But if you're set on making buckets full of cash, Pramod warns, this is not the avenue to enter. Clearly, the couple keeps up this demanding hobby for other reasons. "I do believe that a lot of people come not only to see the movie but also to meet their friends and families," stresses Pramod, who has lived in the Twin Cities since 1976. "They feel as if this is a party going on rather than a movie screening. That's what makes me and my wife enjoy the business."
It's also clear that the Chopras are no longer in it to satisfy their original thirst for Hindi cinema. "We always miss the first hour of the movie," Shashi laughs, "because we're taking tickets and getting the snacks ready for intermission. We have never seen a movie from start to finish."
"Hindi First Fridays" continues at Oak Street Cinema on May 7 at 6:00 and 9:45 p.m. with screenings ofAnari No. 1, a "hilarious comedy of errors" starring Raveena Tandun and Govinda. For more information, call Manoranjan Movies at (612) 481-9068 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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