Major Hollywood premieres can sometimes elicit applause during the closing credits, a collective cheer as the film rolls, or a sea of similarly costumed fans, but the premiere of a highly anticipated Indian film evokes the feeling of a rock concert.
Seeing an Indian film in the theater is a far cry from the general silence of Hollywood film fans — with the audience constantly cheering for the protagonist or jeering the bad guys.
There are three theaters in the Madison area that consistently show Indian films: Marcus Point Cinema, AMC Fitchburg 18 and Market Square Theatre.
“We’ve developed a nice little community (in Madison) that looks forward to our playing them and it’s been well received,” said Sonny Gourley, senior vice president of film for Marcus Theatres.
When the movies appear in local theaters, they often do so quietly, but some of the films open in the city with a bang.
For instance, “Kabali”, a new film that premiered July 21 in Madison, features Indian film star Rajinikanth. The gangster drama focuses on Kabali, a man who gets out of prison for a false charge after 25 years. He was a leader among a group of Tamilians who were treated as slaves by the British who forced them to work in rubber factories.
Kabali transforms in the first half of the film from being a leader of mistreated workers in Malaysia to being a powerful mafia don. He must fight back against the rival gangs in the city to protect himself and those he loves.
Opening night showings sold out at Marcus Point Cinema and Market Square Theatre, according to Tarun Rama of Indian Film House, a film distribution and theater rental company.
So much excitement surrounded the film’s premiere that a second showing was added at Market Square for the people who couldn’t make it to the first showing, said Abhi Bitra of Indian Film House.
Just a short distance away, the new Bollywood hit “Sultan”, a film about a former wrestling champion, was playing at the AMC Fitchburg 18 theater.
In Indian cinema, the a term like “Bollywood” is tied to where the film was made or what language it’s in.
According to “The Bollywood Ticket” an American guide to Indian movies — run by a then Jennifer Hopfinger, who is now Jennifer Tomshack— “Bollywood is a term that refers to the Hindi-language film industry based in the Indian city of Mumbai, which used to be called Bombay.”
Bombay plus Hollywood equals “Bollywood”.
Bollywood and modern day Hollywood are much different — though the emotional nuance of “classic Hollywood” might be what draws Western viewers in.
Tomshack said that her love of Bollywood might be connected with her fondness for classic American films that displayed a greater sense of emotion than the American films of today.
“The biggest thing I like about it is how emotional they are,” said Tomshack who lives in Chicago. “You just don’t find melodrama in the West anymore. People think that Bollywood is a musical, but it’s like an opera. It’s an elevated sense of melodrama, even in films about mundane life. You don’t find that in Western film anymore.”
“Maybe we’re too cool to have those kind of giant emotions on display,” she said. “Maybe we’re too sophisticated, too hip, or we just fancy ourselves that way.”
That heightened sense of emotion is true, too, in other branches of Indian cinema, of which there are several.
There is “Kollywood” which are Tamil-language films from the Kodambakkam district in the city of Chennai, Malayalam-language cinema from Kerala is “Mollywood” and Telugu-language films from the state of Andhra Pradesh is “Tollywood’, according to “The Bollywood Ticket.”
Theaters in Madison show a little bit from each of the different sections of Indian cinema which is important because Madison has a growing and diverse Indian population.
There are approximately 3,000 Indian families living in the Madison area, according to Samir Datta, the treasurer of the local American Hindu Association.
Area theaters recognized that growing community as an opportunity to share different kinds of cinema.
Marcus Theatres began its “Bollywood series” about 2½ years ago in areas with sizable Indian communities such as Milwaukee and Madison, according to Gourley.
“It gradually developed into four or five theaters that we concentrate on playing as many as we can,” he said. “We are making a conscientious effort to play all sorts of content.
“It’s a goal of mine to play independent products as much as possible.”
The number of Indian films being shown around the city has “increased quite a bit in recent years”, according to Vikram Iyer who has lived in Madison for about six years.
Jeevan Ramanujakootam, who lives in Houston, Texas but sometimes travels to Wisconsin for work, said he sees as many Indian films as he can when they’re offered.
Ramanujakootam said “it’s a ritual” to attend all of Rajinikanth’s films on opening day and he’s done so since 1998.
“(The film) doesn’t have to be good or great,” he said. “It’s an experience.”
And for those who haven’t attended an Indian film premiere in the past, it’s an experience unlike any other movie premiere.
“I love to see (Indian films) in the theater,” Tomshack said. “It can be a little “Rocky Horror Picture Show” when audiences react to things that happen in the movie.”
“You go to a film on the first day just for fun,” said Ramanujakootam, who said that if he sees a film in India, the audience is often so loud he can’t hear some of the dialogue and he’ll see it again to actually take in the movie.
Luckily for audiences — even if the theater is filled with exuberant response — there are subtitles in the film.
Unfortunately, subtitles may be a big part of the reason that non-Indian audiences don’t attend the films, Tomshack said.
Gourley said that the primary audience for the Bollywood Series is fairly specialized, although he estimated that about 30 percent of the audiences seeing the films are non-Indian.
Iyer also said that it seems only about 30 percent of the audiences are non-Indian when he attends films.
“I applaud the local theaters for doing these experiments to reach a target audience,” said Agatino Balio, professor emeritus of the department of communication arts at UW-Madison.
Balio, whose expertise includes foreign film distribution in the United States, said that Madison theaters showing Indian films is an exceptional case because there is a large enough community to support the film and make it worthwhile for the theaters.
Tomshack cites the 2008, Oscar award-winning film “Slumdog Millionaire” for getting theaters interested in playing Indian films and for audiences becoming more interested in the foreign cinema — although “Slumdog” is not an Indian film, it reflects the style of Bollywood.
Ten years ago, people in the U.S. weren’t seeing Indian films and the fact that chain theaters are now carrying them makes a big difference, Tomshack said.
“I think if you have an open mind, they’re just good movies,” Tomshack said. “If you like good movies it’s reason enough to see it — if you have an open mind and are willing to see things in a different cultural lens with different values.”