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US Bollywood Theater Offers Immigrants a Connection to Home

Microsoft and other high-tech companies in the American Northwest have attracted thousands of employees from South Asia. It's natural on the weekend that they and their families want to relax Bollywood style.

So they head to a small movie theater in Kirkland, Washington, just a short drive from Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Washington. It's owned by Arif Amaani, who says Bollywood is sort of like a cultural time machine for his audience.

Cultural values come to life on the screen

"They come to watch not just films, they come to watch their people, their culture, they go back to their homeland," he explains. "On these films you can see the people, you can see the culture and you can see the costumes."

But most importantly, Amaani says, Bollywood productions come from the heart. "If you sit down and watch one film, you see it has values, it has respect for elders, it has friendship aspects, it has traditions. And you see everything in one film."

Amaani was a young boy when he emigrated to the Northwest from Bangladesh with his family. As a kid, he loved watching Bollywood stars. So, about 10 years ago, while still in his 20s, he started this theater company. At first, he used his own credit cards to buy movies and rent a theater screen once a month to show them. Now business is thriving, and Amaani is even showing Indian films in nearby cities like Portland.

A family experience

With no new blockbusters on the marquee tonight, the crowd is sparse. But when a big Bollywood movie is released, Amaani says hundreds of people show up on opening night to buy tickets.

Outside the theater this evening, more than a dozen members of the Sanghvi family are trying to decide which film to watch. There are three to choose from. Everyone weighs in, from the sari-wearing grandmother to young boys sporting saggy pants.

The matriarch of the family, Hina Sanghvi, agrees that Bollywood movies are more than just entertainment.

"First of all, it's my culture. I come from there so I relate to it," she points out, adding that she misses having easy access to the films. "Our movies always have singing and dancing. Most of them are musicals. And costumes. It's all about music and dancing. And it's very emotional, a lot of love stories."

And although a love story is playing tonight, it's a romantic comedy the family finally decides on, called Kambakkht Ishq. This film is a good example of how Bollywood and Hollywood are overlapping. In it, an Indian stuntman takes Hollywood by storm, but cannot find true love. Big names like Sylvester Stallone appear in the movie as themselves.

A gathering place like home

In India and Bangladesh, people meet and renew friendships at markets and piazzas. Here, Amaani says, those gatherings often happen at his theater.

"No matter how well you are living in a certain place, everybody always miss their home," he says.

Arif Amaani has recently opened another theater in downtown Seattle that books live comedy and music acts, both western and Indian-style. He hopes to open another, bigger Bollywood theater soon.