Priya Mann

Bollywood movies - classic boy-meets-girl love stories featuring exotic locations, a vibrant array of colours and a string of musical numbers - are being shown more and more in mainstream Canadian theatres.

The premiere of Guru, a highly anticipated Bollywood film, was held in Toronto and screened among paparazzi, Mayor David Miller, thousands of screaming fans and India’s two biggest stars, Aishwarya Rai and Abhishek Bachan.  The premiere marked an historic event in Indian cinema and for Toronto on the international film stage.

“Guru is by far the most promising film to go mainstream,” says Guru’s distributor, Roger Nair of Roger Nair Productions. “Our vision is to bring films that could be appealing to Indians and appealing to everyone else at the same time.”

But is the mainstream audience ready for musical numbers interspersed throughout a three-hour film? Nair thinks they are. “I’m trying to bring a new flavour into the mainstream. Who’s to say that Hollywood is the perfect way of making a film? If it was, then why did Chicago do so well?”

Another risk for distributors is the lack of explicit sex scenes and kissing in Bollywood films. For Nair, sex doesn’t need to be explicit. “There’s a scene in [Guru] where you know they’ve had sex but it’s been done so tastefully.  Nobody took their clothes off, but you know they had sex.”

Bollywood films entered mainstream multiplexes and theatres eight years ago. The shift coincided with Hindi movies wielding greater economic force and a growing interest by non-Indian audiences. Traditionally, families view Indian films, whereas couples commonly see Hollywood movies, says Nav Bhatia, a Mississauga-based Bollywood film entrepreneur.

Bhatia has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars bringing Bollywood to Canada. “Previously Bollywood films were shown in third-rate theatres,” Bhatia says. “I wanted the same quality, sound [and] cleanliness,” similar to mainstream theatres.

Eight years ago, Bhatia was the first person to show a South Asian film in a mainstream theatre. “We decided to change things with Hum Saath Saath Hain, which we brought to AMC [theatres]. That was a big challenge and a big risk.”

Bhatia set out to screen more Bollywood films in upscale theatres across the country. “Krrish was shown in a big way. We bought it from the international distributor and it did very well. It’s tough business marketing Bollywood films to both Indian and mainstream audiences, Bhatia says.

“It’s more of a passion for me than making a profit. I wanted more to portray our South Asian community positively to the mainstream.”

After Krrish, Bhatia invested in the blockbuster Don, which was released across Canada with 21 prints, the most ever for a Bollywood film.

When it comes to releasing films in multiplexes, Nair says distributors are wrong to concentrate solely on areas with dense South Asian populations. “Everything we’ve done with [Guru] is different. We haven’t just played it at a typical theatre—an Indian theatre.”

Guru is the first Bollywood film to come into Canada under a distribution agreement and is one of a handful of films to be shown printless [digital]. According to Nair, this is “the future of filmmaking.” Digital printing saves shipping costs while also preventing the risk of a film being lost or copied on its way from India to Canada. 

“Mainstream audiences are taking note of us,” says Bhatia. “I wouldn’t be surprised if in the next three to four years mainstream people go out and see a Bollywood film in a multiplex.”

“I think we underestimate the Canadian public as filmgoers,” adds Nair. “Or as people receptive to new things. I think the general public shouldn’t see Bollywood films because they’re different, but because they want to.”