My Voice - 2019

Movie Memories: From Celluloid to Cellphones

By Shivani Tripathi

From VHS tapes and rundown theaters to satellite dishes and smart phones, movie-watching in NC's Triangle, and in South Asian communities across the United States, has come a long way. More than advances in technology, this journey is about the growth of the South Asian population and how connecting to our roots through cinema has evolved.

Watching films from India wasn't as easy as it is today. My grandfather immigrated to America in the early 1960s and as a grad student would help arrange film reels to be borrowed and shipped from India to his campus. The South Asian student organization would enjoy movies starring screen idols such as Rajesh Khanna and Asha Parekh and for a few hours felt as if they were back home. In the rare occasion there was a specially arranged showing of a Hindi film at an arthouse theater, families from nearby areas would come fashionably dressed, it was a social event as much as a film screening.

Movie soundtracks were on vinyl and would travel great distances, sometimes multiple countries, to reach a home in America. The advent of the VCR in the early '80s made watching movies more convenient and many families, like my own, quickly purchased the outrageously priced technology to enjoy Hindi films. The VCR made it possible for me to watch cinema spanning decades, from black-and-white tragedies starring Dilip Kumar to Madhuri Dixit joyously dancing in a Technicolor dream. Procuring video cassettes was a small adventure in itself. As a child growing up in Colorado in the '80s and '90s, I remember going to an Aunty's house where she had set up the super power of converting PAL to NTSC. Video cassettes from India had to be converted to a format that American VCRs could play. A room in this Aunty's home had multiple VCRs and served as a video library. Renting cassettes from her was an easier task than driving over an hour each way to the lone Indian shop which rented out “new" films for only 24 hours.

New was a misnomer of sorts, as these movies might have had an official theatrical release in India many months before a copy arrived in the American West. These video cassettes had more to offer than the three-hour feature film. At the start of the cassette, or during an intermission point, short ads for concerts headlined by Hindi film stars would be included with venues and contact information slowly scrolling across the screen. Kitchen mixers, apparel, food brands and even grocery stores in larger metros would advertise, making for an interesting Desi American newsletter.

“Reel life" was a part of our real life, as music from popular films would play in the background during parties, poojas and festivals like Diwali and Raakhee. Families would proudly debut new soundtracks brought back from a recent trip to India and there would be much interest in knowing who currently the top star and playback singer was. The song “Chitthi Aayi Hai" from the 1986 film Naam became a deeply emotional anthem for those living away from the place they once called home. At large gatherings the song was often played or sung, and many silently wiped away their tears. In a time when expensive landline calls to the homeland were made late at night and traveling continents to see loved ones was an eventful occurrence, a film song captured the sentiments of a community trying to live in two worlds at once.

Moving to the Triangle in the mid-90s was a welcome experience in regards to Hindi cinema. There were at least two grocery stores serving the area including Mamta Emporium in Cary and a shop owned by an older Sikh gentleman on Hillsborough near NCSU. Along with groceries and sundries, many rows of VHS and audio cassettes were in these stores, making them integral to Desi life. Brij Market would later open in Cary and would carry VHS tapes of films, TV serials and audio cassettes. The vast majority of the VHS tapes people watched films on were pirated, but 1994's blockbuster Hum Aapke Hain Kaun and 1995's hit Karan Arjun had more than just box office success in common: both movies did not have an immediate release on video cassette.

While this was a boon for the production houses and theater owners, it became a curse for communities like ours. The movie theater closest to us that played Hindi films was an almost three-hour drive. Delaying an official release on cassette very quickly became the norm for the Hindi film industry and just as quickly prints became available which were shot inside cinema halls. One could hear the theater audience laughing at jokes; watch them getting up for concessions and even see flies buzzing around! These prints started showing ads, which were added in a post-production that overlapped the screen image with animated mosquitoes flying and babies crawling across the screen. This added to the already visually torturous experience, as we would have to adjust our TV settings to balance shoddy color and brightness. Somehow many thousands of South Asians found the experience justifiable just to see their favorite movie stars or keep up with popular culture. After all, how else could one choose and successfully choreograph a song for an upcoming wedding?

Two years after its release in India, all-time blockbuster Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge made its theatrical debut in Raleigh at the arthouse and at that time mostly rundown, Rialto theatre. The packed audience repeated many dialogues and quietly sang along as many of us had seen the film multiple times and listened to the soundtrack on loop. Soon after, both Rialto and Colony theatres started playing Hindi films more often and screenings were still considered more special than not. Before Chatham Square became the unofficial crossroads of the world for the town of Cary, one of the first Indian stores there was an audio-video establishment. Stocked with original VHS and DVDs of Hindi, Bengali, Tamil and Telugu films for rent, the store provided my first exposure to feature films by Satyajit Ray.

The first Tamil movie I ever watched, that wasn't dubbed, was Kandukondain Kandukondain and remains a favorite of mine. Sadly, the store had to close its doors as many in the area demanded to see films as soon as they were available to watch. Even as more people starting purchasing DVD players to view movies, VHS copies shot in theaters were available before official DVD copies were released. But as VHS tapes and players were becoming relics, burning DVDs for rental became the go-to practice for many shopkeepers, as buying burned copies for a couple dollars each proved worthwhile for both merchants and patrons.

In Cary, the Madstone Theater began showing indie and foreign movies, including Hindi films, starting in 2002 and in 2004 became Galaxy Cinemas under Indian-ownership. Still playing acclaimed American indies and foreign films, Galaxy Cinemas attracted audiences of various backgrounds and many people experienced Indian cinema for the first time. The theater ultimately closed in 2012 despite pleas from cine-goers to keep its doors open. Not that many years later, DVDs would become passé as Indian packages on satellite, streaming platforms and even social media became primary sources for watching films and songs. Grocery stores and clothing outlets are strictly sticking to their core business and brick-and-mortar shops which were dedicated to selling DVDs and CDs are long gone.

The demand for IT professionals from India since the mid-nineties has seen the growth of many towns across the Triangle, with Morrisville serving as a prime example. Cricket pitches, temples and Desi grocery stores, salons and restaurants dot the landscape. Large, national movie chains like AMC Theatres and Regal Cinemas now routinely show Hindi, Telugu and Tamil films. Being an avid theater-goer, I frequently receive alerts regarding their Indian offerings and in some locations, they serve Desi concessions such as samosa and chai. There have been times that after watching a Hindi film opening night, I compare notes with a cousin in India who likely saw it just hours before I did. Satellite dishes have sprung up in yards like sunflowers made of metal, beaming live images from the other side of the world.

Even today when I catch a glimpse of a film on cable which I had originally seen in splotchy print, I marvel at details I had missed such as the intricate beading on costumes or a spectacular shot set in a beautiful valley. While Indian films are enjoyed in many households, easy accessibility to the many forms of digital content make movies one option out of many. Whether a person is watching a big budget extravaganza at a local cinema or streaming the latest series, the picture and sound quality are crystal clear making the days of desperation a distant memory.

Smartphones, tablets and laptops make bridging the distance between far away friends and relatives just as easy. Would a song like “Chitthi Aayi Hai" work today like it did back then? Doubtful. While Indian films remain an important part of popular culture and still incite interest and excitement, its relationship has evolved with a growing, ever-changing community and will continue to do so.


Shivani Tripathi cannot remember a time she wasn't madly in love with Indian cinema and writing. She spends time in New York, North Carolina and Twitterpur at @Shivani510