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Bollywood on Clark

There are two heavy metal garbage cans on the corner of Clark and Estes. Neither one seems to get much use. The street is littered with plastic bottles, paper bags, discarded food wrappers, and half-eaten ears of corn-on-a-stick.

But there are times when this Rogers Park intersection takes on the aura of an old-time Hollywood opening, as women dressed in beautiful red, blue, and green saris are escorted by their dapper husbands into the Adelphi Theatre, the city’s only movie house to regularly screen films in Hindi, the principal language of northern India.

“They always dress up to come to the movies,” explains Parag Gandhi, owner of the Adelphi at 7074 N. Clark. “They bring their entire families here because it provides them with an opportunity to socialize.” He expects the crowds to increase during Diwali, the five-day Hindu festival that marks the new year on October 19. Gandhi says the major studios time new releases for Diwali the same way Hollywood puts out blockbusters at Christmas.

Moviegoing is a national pastime in India, and it has often been noted that its studios produce more films than those of any other nation–about 700 per year in a variety of regional languages. While some 200 of these are filmed in Hindi, many of the remaining movies are dubbed into that language to take advantage of the country’s largest market. The most influential of the regional cinemas comes out of Bombay, commonly referred to as Bollywood; the majority of its offerings are musicals.

The Adelphi premieres new movies on Fridays. Intermissions find patrons gathering in the red-carpeted lobby to greet friends and catch up on gossip. These intermissions may be as short as 15 minutes and as long as 45, says Gandhi, depending on the size of the audience. Intermissions provide a welcome break because the films, which have as many as eight musical numbers, commonly run as long as three hours. The concession stand sells popcorn, candy bars, and soft drinks, but when premiering new releases Gandhi also offers samosas, the puff pastry made with potatoes, peas, and spices.

Recently the Adelphi featured Maharaja, an action-adventure movie with songs by a popular composing duo known as Nadeem-Shravan. The film was violent–one scene showed an entire household getting hacked to death with swords. The most extravagant musical number preceded the final bloody battle between good and evil. At least 30 dancers changed costumes several times; even the movie’s lead villain joined in the singing and dancing before realizing his own number was up.

“Maharaja is an unusual film for the Indian cinema to produce,” says Gandhi, explaining that, lacking technical effects, most movies are love stories or family dramas. He points to a scene in Maharaja in which the hero saves his former nanny from two attacking lions. The lions are never in the same frame as the actors; indeed, they appear to be taken from faded stock footage.

The 29-year-old Gandhi, a graduate of Lane Tech and Loyola University, began showing movies in the 895-seat, one-screen theater in 1995. “During the early 90s, I rented the Gateway Theater at Lawrence and Milwaukee avenues to show movies, but I moved here three years ago after Gateway’s management couldn’t provide me with the dates I wanted,” Gandhi says. Currently he only books 15 movies in as many weeks spread out over the year. “I am real particular about what I show.”

Though Hindi speakers are the Adelphi’s target market, Indians aren’t the only ones who patronize the theater. Gandhi has noticed that Nigerians belonging to a church a few doors south regularly attend screenings. “I am not sure if they speak Hindi,” he says, “but I believe they understand what is being said.” Tibetans also come to every premiere. “Tibet borders India, and they speak Hindi better than I do.” Other regulars include Afghans, Iranians, Syrians, and Pakistanis. He says, “There isn’t any barrier or problems here between Pakistanis and Indians.” Gandhi notes that Hindi films have changed in recent years. Movies are increasingly filmed in other countries, such as Switzerland. “They want to show movie patrons different locales,” he says. More films include English too. “I think they are trying to appeal more and more to Indians living in the United States.”

Parag Gandhi was pulled into the movie business by his father, Gopal, who died in 1993. Gopal Gandhi grew up in Bombay in a family that operated movie theaters. (Parag still owns two movie houses there–Krishna Talkies and Sangam.) Gopal wasn’t interested in the movie business. In the mid-60s he immigrated to Rolla, Missouri, where he attended college and became a chemical engineer. But soon he discovered he was allergic to paint and other chemicals and had to give up his profession. In 1978, he started Movie King, one of the first video stores on Devon Avenue to rent Indian movies. “It was a pioneering effort on his part,” says Parag.

Like his father, Parag Gandhi hadn’t planned to continue in the family business. He wanted to attend the University of Illinois, where he had been offered a football scholarship after playing at Lane Tech. But when his father became ill, the younger Gandhi benched his dreams to take over Movie King. Eventually he would close the video rental side of the business to concentrate on sales of videotapes and DVDs and on operating the Adelphi. A color photograph of his father sits inside the theater’s box office.

Gandhi currently distributes newer Indian films on DVDs throughout Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Missouri. And recently he received a contract to distribute classic Indian movies on DVDs throughout the United States and Canada. At the Adelphi, he does practically everything, selling tickets, manning the concession stand, and projecting films. On a recent visit, I found him sitting in the box office, watching Monday Night Football on a portable TV.

Tickets are $9 at the door, $7 if customers purchase them in advance at Indian-owned grocery or video stores on Devon. Most of these shops display posters in their windows promoting upcoming films. Gandhi prefers that customers purchase their tickets in advance so that he can call stores to learn whether a movie has been sold out. “Then I don’t have to open the box office.”

Minutes before show time, Gandhi closes the box office and runs upstairs to become the projectionist, just as generations of Gandhis have done before him. “It’s in the blood,” he admits. “You either know this business or you don’t.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Parag Gandhi photo by Dan Machnik.