Anurag Kautoori had a tough time when he moved to the United States 18 months ago to study computer science at George Mason University. The 24 year-old was lonely for his friends and family back in Hyderabad, India, of course, but there was something else he missed almost as much: Bollywood movies.
“Movies are like bread in India,” the graduate student explains. “We watch one every two or three days.”
Then Kautoori discovered Loehmann’s Twin Cinema, a bare-bones, two-screen theater tucked away in a Falls Church strip mall. The theater shows only contemporary Indian movies, sometimes playing to sellout crowds. Now he’s at the ticket counter at least once a week.
“I normally don’t miss a movie,” Kautoori says as he heads toward the parking lot after a screening of “Double Dhamaal,” a slapstick comedy infused with the colorful song and dance sequences that have become the trademark of Bollywood films. “They’re loud, they’re larger than life and they’re full-on entertainment.”
Kautoori is far from alone in his devotion. The Washington area has seen a boom in enthusiasm for all things Bollywood, and the fervor is manifesting itself not just in movies watched but also in movies made, concerts held, performance troupes formed and nightclubs transformed into glittering Bolly dance parties.
This Friday, thousands of Bollywood fans will line up to welcome pop singer Atif Aslam to DAR Constitution Hall. When Aslam, an Indian heartthrob whose music has been featured in many Bollywood movies, played the venue last year, he sold out the 3,700-seat hall, and organizers say 300 people were turned away at the door.
Adding to the excitement, this year Aslam is paired with popular Bollywood singer Sunidhi Chauhan, with whom he is on a U.S. tour. “They’re the Indian equivalent of Justin Bieber and Katy Perry,” says Manan Singh Katohora, a filmmaker and event planner who is helping to organize the concert. And there is a vein of intrigue about the tour, he adds, because the singers have a testy relationship.
That kind of drama would play perfectly as a Bollywood plotline.
The term “Bollywood” originally referred to the prolific film industry based in what was then Bombay, the city now called Mumbai. In recent years it has become synonymous with a style of movie: one that often stretches over three hours with an intermission, includes some thread of romance and allows characters to move seamlessly into dreamlike song-and-dance scenes. And, unlike American films, a single film will often oscillate between comedy, action and drama in a way that defies simple classification.
In sheer numbers, India outpaces the United States in movie production, releasing 1,000 feature films a year. Low budgets and cheap ticket prices make the movies accessible to both theatergoers and would-be filmmakers. The industry’s $2 billion in worldwide revenue — still small compared with the $10 billion American film industry — comes mostly from ticket sales to Indians, but a 2007 report projected that growth in international markets would exceed growth at home.
That’s due in large part to the appetite of 2.84 million people of Indian descent who are living in the United States, according to the 2010 Census, a population that grew by 69 percent in 10 years. In 2008, an Indian company acquired 200 movie screens across the country, including those at Loehmann’s Twin Cinema, to capitalize on the market. And although Loehmann’s is the only local theater that plays entirely Indian films, a half-dozen others regularly include Bollywood movies in their lineups.
The Washington area is home to 127,963 Asian Indian Americans, giving it the fourth-highest concentration among major U.S. metropolitan areas. Indian people have overtaken Koreans as the largest group of Asians in Virginia.
“There are all these young, hip Indian people around, bringing this culture here,” says Tom Vick, curator of film for the Freer and Sackler galleries and author of “Asian Cinema: A Field Guide.” “Whenever we show a Bollywood movie here, we get huge crowds. And half of them will be Indian American people, but it’s also growing among the non-Indian American community.”
He credits the films’ contagious music. The songs’ fizzy pop embeds in the brain, leading to unconscious hip shaking even hours later. But Vick thinks a more surprising element drives the movies’ appeal: earnestness.
“They’re just so unaffectedly exuberant,” he says. “There’s nothing ironic in them. They’re just pure pleasure. And that might be something missing from American movies. These stories are often cliches, and you’ve seen them a thousand times, but they do them with a straight face, and you get sucked in to them.”
Ishu Krishna agrees. The 34-year-old Montgomery County native grew up watching a mix of Hollywood and Bollywood movies and is producing a feature film that draws from both types.
Krishna, a writer-director who works at a nonprofit group by day, is one of a few filmmakers who have begun making Bollywood-style films in the area. She found that there was so much talent and interest that she was able to cast the movie — her first feature-length film — entirely with local Indian American actors.
On a balmy Wednesday night, her seven-person film crew has taken over the living room of a Rockville home to shoot a scene for her romantic drama, “Arrange to Settle.” The film is about a young Indian American woman who has been unlucky in love and agrees to let her parents arrange a marriage. Then, of course, the man of her dreams walks in.
“I’m not sure about Jyothi,” says a dark-haired woman in a sparkling orange sari who plays the intended groom’s mother. “She’s way too independent.”
They do take after take of the short scene, which stands in stark contrast to a brightly colored song-and-dance extravaganza shot the previous weekend.
To appeal to American audiences, Krishna plans to weave such musical scenes into the plotline more than traditional Bollywood films do: Her lead character is a singer, and the dance sequences take place at wedding ceremonies. But she thinks people in both countries are hungry for occasional doses of jubilation.
“Whenever you have the economy down, people down, they tend to go for more fantasy than reality,” she says. “They want to have that kind of escapism.”
Although many credit the 2008 Oscar-winning hit “Slumdog Millionaire” with increasing the U.S. popularity of Bollywood movies, Krishna thinks that existing interest in Indian movies enabled that film to gain such wide acclaim.
And now there’s the popular TV series “Glee,” says Krishna, who is hoping to finish production on her film by year’s end.
In India, the songs are so important they’re often released before a film reaches the theaters. A radio hit can spell box-office millions and turn singers such as Aslam into megastars.
“In every Bollywood movie that comes out, there’s always a dance song,” says Ali Ji, a 24-year-old deejay who was born in Pakistan and has lived in the Washington area since he was 11. At 10:30 on a Saturday night, he’s preparing a lineup of songs for a “Bollywood Hollywood” party at Indian Experience, a downtown restaurant being transformed into a club for the evening.
The event was organized by Singh Katohora, the event planner who’s helping to stage this week’s concert. He’s one of a handful of local Indian Americans who put on parties themed around Bollywood and Bhangra, a style of music from Punjab, every couple weeks at various venues, sometimes attracting hundreds of revelers.
Ji’s job is to mix Bolly songs with hip-hop and house beats to satisfy the crowd of first- and second-generation Indian Americans pouring into the underground space. By the time he takes out his dhol, a drum popular in Punjabi music, the floor is packed with stylish dancers in their 20s and 30s, popping their shoulders and pumping their arms into the air.
This is their way of connecting with Indian culture and making it their own, he says.
“Our parents have the old culture in their heads,” Ji says. “They’re trying to raise us the way they were raised.” Not all of those traditions sit well with Ji and his friends, he says,“but Bollywood is the thing that keeps us all together.”
And today the appeal is stretching far beyond Indian American populations. Jeannie Baumann is of Korean descent and grew up in Michigan and Washington. She was introduced to Bollywood during college, but it wasn’t until two Indian American friends got married in 2005 that she got hooked. At both weddings, she heard an effervescent song called “Kajra Re” from the film “Bunty Aur Babli.”
“I just thought it was gorgeous,” she recalls.
A friend started sending her CDs and DVDs, and Baumann sought out screenings on her own. When she heard of Dhoonya Dance, one of several local dance schools offering Bollywood-themed classes, she signed up.
Indian dance competitions have become hugely popular on college campuses throughout the nation, spurring the formation of troupes that stage elaborate, beautifully costumed performances at weddings and festivals. In addition to schools that specialize in Indian culture, such as Dhoonya and the India International School in Fairfax County, other local groups, such as Silk Road Dance and CityDance, have begun offering Bollywood-themed classes and programs. (CityDance will present its latest Bollywood-inspired show, “The Warrior Princess of Manipur,” on Thursday as part of Strathmore’s Backyard Theater for Children in North Bethesda.)
Baumann became such a regular at local Dhoonya Dance classes in the District that she was asked to become a teacher. At a recent DhoonyaFit class — which she says does for Indian dance what Zumba does for Latin dance, making it fast, easy to follow and highly aerobic — she led 15 students through routines set to Bollywood songs. They followed her example, rocking their hips, twisting their wrists and coyly shimmying in front of a mirror-lined wall in Chinatown.
“The songs have this great beat that is just so fun to dance to,” Baumann says. “It’s almost impossible to sit still when you hear that dhol playing, and then there are some that are so melodic and you get swept away in the grace of it all.”
Singh Katohora, the promoter, is also casting the second Bollywood film he’ll make in the Washington area. The first, shot last year, is in the final stages of editing. He’s convinced that the popularity of Bollywood films will continue to grow in the United States.
“People work 60 hours a week,” he says, “and they want to just go watch a movie. Here the good is fighting the bad, and then, all of a sudden, they break into a song. It’s great.”