To jaundiced western eyes, the classic Bollywood movie is a frivolous thing. If you've seen a few films, you would think all of the cinema of in Mumbai (the most productive movie centre in the world, and the second most lucrative), was frozen in a 1950s-era Hollywood stasis in which every film is a musical.
Irrespective of subject matter, story, or genre, there will be a romance and it will be expressed in lavishly produced musical numbers replete with echo chamber voices and precision choreography on visually lush landscapes.
The appetite for those films transcended national boundaries. That is why, a decade ago, most Indo-Canadian grocery stores, convenience stores and even fabric shops used to display a Bollywood video section. Indian cinema has always been a key cultural link for immigrants who came to Canada from India with a persistent craving for the kinds of familiar films they knew and loved.
Joe Gupta, 62, is a local expert on Indian films (of which Bollywood is one significant component along with other films from other production centres, including Punjabi cinema). He estimates an inventory of about 100,000 movies on sale in his two India Spice House stores at 66 Mandalay Drive and 1875 Pembina Highway. Gupta also hosts a weekly AM radio show on CKJS devoted largely to music from Indian cinema.
The former journalist says the movies not only fed cultural cravings, but actually brought families together with their innocent style of entertainment.
"What you saw in the '50s, '60s', '70s and the beginning of the '80s were movies that had meaning and depth, some family values and some lessons. No nudity or obscene scenes," he says. "Movies in those days were comfortable to watch with elderly people and small children, without any embarrassing moments or bedroom scenes or any of that."
On top of that, exposure to the films may have constituted a language refresher course for subsequent generations. "Grandkids who watch movies in Punjabi with their grandparents can actually have their language skills enriched by watching movies," Gupta says.
Gupta acknowledges that Indian films have undergone a transition in the past few years, betraying the creeping influence of Hollywood cinema. (On the shelves of Gupta's Mandalay Drive store are gangster films with titles such as Mumbai Godfather and Once Upon a Time in Mumbai.)
"What they show these days, very seldom do you see a movie with some depth," he says.
But Gupta is hanging on to the video component of his business. As the traditional video store is disappearing, so too is the Bollywood video section of Indo-Canadian stores such as Dino's Grocery Mart on Notre Dame Avenue, once one of the go-to destinations for Indian film in the city centre. The frozen food section of that store, roughly the size of a small convenience store, used to house shelves and shelves of new and classic Bollywood movies. Store owner Dino Tailor says on weekends, he needed three people to staff the section by itself.
Now the video section of the store is relegated to a few shelves in a section that also sells African movies. Department manager Rajan Varma says demand for the movies has declined with much of the demand for the films being met by cable TV stations broadcasting ethnic programming as well as easily downloadable movies.
For Varma, the love for Indian cinema has dissipated.
"My wife and I like to watch the old movies, but we haven't watched anything for a long time," he says, suggesting that Bollywood cinema is facing the same problem as Hollywood: a lack of originality.
"It's the same old thing, remaking the older stories," he says. "There's nothing we want to watch."
And the bins of DVDs currently on display at Dino's?
"I'm just going to clear them out," he says.