The last time a movie starring Shahrukh Khan opened at Loehmann's Plaza, the line for tickets stretched across the Falls Church strip mall, hundreds of fans couldn't get seats and audiences packed the theater for weeks. So, just to be safe, Monika Khatri and her husband arrived early on a recent Saturday for the newest film featuring India's number one star.
The problem was that everyone else did, too. Sikh men wearing turbans waited in line behind Sri Lankan teenagers in Nike caps. Indian mothers in saris tried to control restless children as adolescent Afghan girls traded gossip by the box office. And behind them, Indian folk music floated out of cars searching the jammed lot for parking spaces.
"These movies bring you closer to home, because we are all so far away," said Khatri, 49, a Fairfax Station computer analyst from New Delhi, explaining why the $8-a-ticket, three-hour Hindi films are worth the trouble. "They're good entertainment, and they help you keep in touch with the culture."
Theaters that once showed movies in Spanish, Chinese and Greek disappeared from the Washington area long ago. But two local cinemas that play Hindi films seven nights a week are thriving -- and have become lively gathering places for the region's growing community of immigrants from South Asia.
The success of Loehmann's Twin Cinemas and Laurel Town Center Theaters -- and theaters like them in more than 30 other U.S. cities -- can be traced to remarkably devoted fans who see the Indian film world as a kitschy alternative to Hollywood. Affectionately nicknamed Bollywood, the Bombay movie industry churns out as many as 800 films a year, most of them lavish musicals featuring attractive stars and far-fetched plots.
Consider "Baadshah," the new comedy-action film in which the leading man plays a singing, dancing, sharpshooting private eye who manages to save a government minister from assassination.
Or watch "Taal," which has been playing to large crowds for weeks. It begins as a classic star-crossed romance involving a billionaire's son and a young woman from a rural village -- but then the woman becomes an international rock star.
Indian love stories featuring traditional folk songs re-mixed with Western rhythms and elaborately choreographed dance sequences do particularly well in the United States. On the weekend it opened, "Taal" earned more per screen than any Hollywood film and ranked 20th on Variety's box office list. And that's without subtitles.
Invariably set in exotic locales full of glamorous characters in beautiful costumes, Bollywood movies are popular in India because they offer escapist fantasies for a vast, rural underclass. But in the United States, the films play to a completely different audience -- well-educated professionals who already have "escaped."
"Here, it's nostalgia, a link to home," said Karan Capoor, 31, a management consultant who lives in Arlington. "Whether we ever go back to India is immaterial. In a certain way, particularly for those of us who grew up in India, it's part of who we are."
Capoor said it's easier for the educated to enjoy a Bollywood film here than in India. "There's a bit of a snob factor," he said. "To be honest, if I was living in Calcutta, I wouldn't be caught dead going to `Baadshah.' "
More people from India and Pakistan settled in the Washington area this decade than from anywhere else in Asia, and community leaders say South Asians have emerged as one of the largest ethnic groups in the region, their numbers approaching 100,000.
But immigrants from India and Pakistan aren't the only ones lining up at Loehmann's and Laurel. Visit on a Friday night, and you'll find cliques of their teenage children, who were born and raised in the United States and embrace India's pop culture as fervently as they do America's.
The crowds are also full of immigrants from other parts of the world, including Afghanistan, Iran, the Middle East, Africa and the Caribbean, people who grew up watching Hindi films though they may not speak the language.
"It's so much fun," said moviegoer Asha Farah, 33, of Vienna, a Somali nurse who came here nine years ago after growing up in Saudi Arabia. "When we were little, we would stay up all night and watch Indian movies, so it reminds you of when you were young."
Some immigrants take their U.S.-born children to the movies to reinforce cultural values. The films often emphasize respect for elders and the benefits of arranged marriages. And there are almost no sex scenes: In "Taal," when two characters shared a bottle of Coke, it amounted to heavy petting.
"The movies have a tremendous influence on my kids," said Rekha Uppal, 33, a mother of two in Potomac. "We like it because it keeps them in touch with the culture. They learn the language, and they have fun."
The theaters are also among the few public places where the South Asian community comes together. Moviegoers often make a social event of an outing and count on bumping into friends. Loehmann's has shown free presentations of international cricket matches and often helps raise money for community causes. Laurel serves samosas and tea with the popcorn and Milk Duds.
"It's a very homey atmosphere," said Hamza Javed, 21, of Centreville, a Pakistani tech worker who immigrated four years ago. "It's the only fun I have. After 90 or 100 hours of work, it's a relief to relax and see all the same people."
Hindi films first began playing in the Washington area in the late 1960s in an auditorium at Catholic University. Back then, the audience was composed almost entirely of students, the first wave of Indian immigrants to the United States after Congress relaxed immigration laws in 1965.
As the community grew, the movies moved to Silver Spring, then Arlington and then to the Takoma Theater near the District line. Radio station WHFS (99.1 FM) even started playing Indian music.
"The market wasn't big enough for weeknights, just weekends," recalled Punita Bhatt, an English professor at the University of the District of Columbia and one of those early Indian students at Catholic. "An entire generation of Indians remember Takoma as the equivalent of a community center. . . . It was nice, but it didn't last long."
In 1981, the theater closed, done in by videotapes and cable. Other local theaters that featured foreign-language films -- Spanish movies at the Ontario in Adams-Morgan and the Colony on Georgia Avenue, and Chinese movies at the American Theater in L'Enfant Plaza -- disappeared, too.
But a decade later, the Hindi theaters returned. Vijay Narula, 35, the president of a local tech firm who runs the two theaters now, said he often rents them out for screenings of Afghani, Senegalese or Iranian films, as well as movies in Bengali, Tamil, Telugu and other Indian languages.
In part, the comeback of Hindi cinema can be attributed to its younger fans, many of whom have paid up to $100 to watch their favorite stars perform at the Patriot Center this Saturday in one of a series of Indian concerts held every year. These teens are devotees of Salman Khan as much as Leonardo diCaprio, and their embrace of Bollywood provides a window into the acculturation of a generation.
Sachin Gupta, 17, of Mitchellville, said he avoided Indian culture for years, in part because he wanted to fit in. But this summer, he met other young Indian Americans at a few parties.
"My dad used to try to explain the movies to me, but I always thought it was dumb," he said. "Now, I'm learning about it and getting all into it." He can't speak Hindi but gets his friends to translate.
Inevitably, the second generation has a different take on Indian culture. It embraces the music and dance but struggles at times with the values. Teenage boys and girls sometimes meet at the theaters secretly, to avoid the anti-dating disapproval of more traditional parents.
Anuj Mehta, 26, a software engineer, and Raakhi Chohda, 25, a personnel manager, often went on dates to Loehmann's before they got engaged.
"But we never went on weekends," Chohda said. "Our parents didn't mind, but we didn't want their friends to gossip about us."