The movie is about 30 minutes from starting when they begin to gather in the lobby. At first they are tentative, unsure if they’ve found each other here at the cavernous AMC Veterans 24 movie theater off Anderson Road northwest of downtown Tampa.
Until they overhear snippets of conversations like this:
“Which do you prefer, ‘Kuch Kuch Hota Hai’ or ‘Ghajini’?” and “Have you ever seen ‘Om Shanti Om’?” “Oh, yes!”
The meet-up members of the Bollywood Movie Club of Tampa Bay then confidently approach a growing circle of people, knowing they’ve found their group.
Long before Tampa Bay won the coveted prize of hosting the 2014 Bollywood Oscars – the Weekend and Awards Event of the International Indian Film Academy, watched by an estimated 800 million people worldwide and expected to draw tens of thousands of visitors to the area – this group of Bollywood movie-lovers was meeting in clusters to catch the latest releases in their favorite film genre.
“When I moved here, I’d come to a lot of these movies alone,” says Caitlin O’Conner of Pinellas Park north of St. Petersburg near Tampa. “I thought, ‘There have to be other people here in the same situation.’”
O’Conner formed the meet-up group in late 2012, drawn to the storytelling, drama, comedy, singing and dancing that characterize the Hindi-language movies, popularly known as Bollywood movies because they were made in Mumbai, India, once called Bombay. Bollywood is still the largest producer of the enormous Indian film industry and is one of the biggest, busiest film production centers in the world, releasing more than a thousand titles each year.
O’Conner found that her infatuation with Bollywood movies was shared by many others. The group grew to about 100 members – a mix of non-Indians like her, and others born and raised in India or of Indian heritage. They began to meet once or twice a month to attend a Bollywood movie at one of two Tampa cinemas now regularly showing Bollywood films in response to interest and the region’s large Indian-American community. One is the AMC Veterans 24 and the other is Britton 8.
“I love watching Bollywood,” says Rashmika Patel, a resident of England who’s in town for several months to visit a sister. “I’ve been coming to all the Indian movies.”
Unaware of the meet-up group, she stopped to talk with them in the lobby while waiting for her husband to enter from the parking lot.
“In most of the movies, I like how the songs add to the character development,” group member Jennifer Hancock says to Patel as the two compare favorite Bollywood movies, actors and other characteristics – from 15-minute chase sequences to over-the-top characters and the colorful choreographed singing and dancing intervals.
“You need to look at some of the very old movies in the ‘40s,” Patel tells her, before the group inches through the lobby, some stopping to buy popcorn, while others fret about getting a good seat.
Tonight’s showing is the U.S. premiere of “Chennai Express,” a projected blockbuster, and in between chatter about whether group members will catch a glimpse of some of the hundreds of Bollywood stars expected in Tampa Bay for the awards ceremony in April, others worry that tonight’s film would be nearly sold out.
“In India you would never be able to get to see a first showing so easily,” says Ritu Jauhar, a computer programmer and group member. She grew up in India and moved to Michigan as a young woman in 1986. “The (Bollywood) movies are so wholesome. In Western movies, there is too much sex and violence. When (Bollywood films) want to express love they do so by dancing and singing.”
As a little girl, she used to watch three movies a week.
“The movies make you forget,” she says. “When you go in there you leave the world behind.”
As the group enters Theater 9, sure enough, the place is packed – Indian-American family groups of parents and kids, couples, groups of teenage girls – and the group snakes into a line of seats, two rows back from the massive screen.
The lights dim, and after several previews, the main event begins, featuring in the lead male role the dashing, dark-haired Shahrukh Khan – not only one of the most successful and biggest names in Indian cinema, but considered one of the biggest movie stars ever. The leading female role is played by Deepika Padukone, who also starred with Khan in the blockbuster hit “Om Shanti Om.”
Over the next several hours, the film, a romantic action comedy with English subtitles, depicts the travels and travails of Khan’s character, a 40-year-old bachelor from Mumbai, going by train to South India to carry out the wishes of his late grandfather, to disperse part of his ashes there. On the way, he tries to rescue a beautiful South Indian woman trying to escape a forced marriage, pretends to be her fiancé to her father, a don of a Tamil Nadu village, dashes all over South India with her, fights with her father’s goons – and eventually falls in love.
Along the way are the famous and beautifully costumed song-and-dance intervals, many against scenic landscapes. Partway through, an intermission is announced, prompting a groan by a teenager in the third row. But the film resumes immediately, bypassing the intermission, as is common for screenings in many American theaters.
Jauhar leans in and whispers, “In India we go out and get some snacks.”
The ending is an upbeat message about the power of love and the limitless possibilities of a common man with a good heart.
As the credits roll, some start to leave, but Jauhar and many others hang back to watch the even more elaborate singing and dancing numbers – now with the leading lady in a beautiful pink sari and the leading man in a black suit with pink lapels, surrounding by dancing men in red top hats.
Outside the theater Jauhar compares notes with visitor from England Rashmika Patel as she also shares information about the nearby Hindu temple at the India Cultural Center.
“I was so taken aback by the shots of the railway,” Patel says of the scenic cinematography of South India. “Next time I’m in India, I’m going to go there!”
If you go:
To search for show times of Bollywood films at the AMC Veterans 24 cinema in Tampa, visit http://www.amctheatres.com/movie-theatres/amc-veterans-24.
For show times and listings at Britton 8, visit http://britton8.com/
For more information about the Bollywood Movie Club of Tampa Bay, visit http://www.meetup.com/Bollywood-Movie-Club-of-Tampa-Bay/.