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culture

Historicist: Nights Out At The Naaz Theatre

From a village in Punjab to the first dedicated Bollywood theatre in North America.

The Naaz Theatre, 1430 Gerrard Street East, 1981, from the Toronto Public Library.

It’s a weekend evening on Gerrard Street East in the mid-1970s and, as usual, there’s a line-up around the block to get into the Naaz Theatre. The first cinema in North America to show Indian films exclusively, according to its owner, the theatre was a brightly lit beacon, drawing South Asians from across Toronto and as far away as Niagara and Montreal. Many were recent arrivals to the country.

The films on show could be action-oriented like Sholay (1975) where Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan, two of Bollywood’s biggest stars, fight off a gang of bandits tormenting villagers, then—keeping to the familiar formula—court chaste women through song and dance. Or the films could be melodramas like Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (1978), in which iconic beauty Rekha finds herself at the centre of a volatile love triangle. For just a $3.50 ticket, socializing over the latest Bollywood blockbuster could assuage homesickness or provide a tangible connection with the contemporary scene in India.

For many movie-goers, an excursion to the Naaz Theatre was a whole-day affair. Before or after the show, they visited the many South Asian establishments that had sprouted in the neighbourhood in the wake of the opening of the cinema: browsing the racks of saris on display in shops; picking up garam masala spice and other specialty groceries; or dining at one of the restaurants serving regional Indian cuisines.

“For people from India, there was nothing else at the time,” one local outlined the importance of such visits to the burgeoning Gerrard India Bazaar in the 1970s to Christopher Hutsul in the Star (January 18, 2004).

The easing of federal government regulations in the late 1960s opened greater immigration opportunities for those with skilled trades or professional backgrounds like Gian Naz (often spelled Naaz), who immigrated to Toronto with his family in 1968. A successful mechanical engineer who’d constructed dams in his native India, Naz worked a variety of jobs in his initial years in Canada, according to Bagashree Paradkar’s obituary in the Toronto Star (January 18, 2000), including at a chemical plant, at an oil company, and inspecting planes for Air Canada.

In the next decade, the burgeoning South Asian community in Toronto would become increasingly visible both in terms of population numbers and the establishment of institutions. But upon the Naz family’s arrival, there was little in the way of cultural or social infrastructure.

Rare occasions for cultural comradeship came with screenings of Indian movies in church basements and school auditoriums. Under less-than-ideal conditions, shows were constantly interrupted because the antiquated 16-millimetre film equipment required film reels to be rethreaded every 40 minutes. But, in the eager demand for Indian films, Naz recognized an entrepreneurial opportunity and sought a more permanent solution.

He found the former Eastwood Theatre, at 1430 Gerrard St. E., in 1972. Once part of the B&F chain of cinemas, the Beaux-Arts movie house had been closed since 1966. It was located on a desolate stretch of Gerrard Street East, along with a half dozen other empty storefronts, in a working-class neighbourhood that had seen better days.

The Eastwood’s appeal for Naz was not that its location connected him to an identifiably concentrated South Asian audience, however. It didn’t. It was simply the cheapest facility available. He went door-to-door collecting financial support for his all-Indian cinema idea. Although even those within the South Asian community were sceptical about the venture’s potential success, Naz raised enough capital to rent the 750-seat theatre and begin securing the rights to 35-millimetre Hindi-language films.

The Naaz Theatre, as he dubbed it, was not an immediate success. “But he refused to give up,” his son Ken later told Paradkar. The whole family pitched in. Naz’s wife Shobha worked the ticket counter and prepared snack food to sell. Their children—Tina, Sunila, Ken, and Sonny—distributed flyers at gurdwaras and Hindu temples to advertise upcoming films. Business picked up within months.

In 1972—a time before videos, DVDs, or Saturday afternoon movies on Omni-TV—the Naaz Theatre represented the only opportunity for watching Bollywood films on the big screen, short of a trip to the subcontinent.

Initially only open on the weekends, the abundant crowds prompted the addition of films on weekdays. Urdu and Bengali-language films would add to the variety of predominantly Hindi films being shown.

“The theatre brought in $5,000 every month, sometimes more,” Gagandeep Ghuman writes. By 1974, Naz was able to purchase the building outright. Naz also shared his success as a businessman with his home town. His remittances funded the construction of the first school and improved infrastructure in his Punjabi village.

South Asian entrepreneurs soon identified the large theatre-going crowds as a ripe market and businesses proliferated in the immediate vicinity of the theatre in the 1970s and 1980s. The Indian Record Shop was the first to open next door to the theatre. Spurred by the area’s low rents, Gerrard was then dotted with the eateries, specialty groceries, jewellery stores, travel agencies, and sari shops we recognize as the Gerrard India Bazaar today.

The majority of businesses were (and remain) mom-and-pop enterprises, Prithi Yelaja wrote in the Star (August 25, 2007), and was “a microcosm” of the cultural and religious diversity of the entire subcontinent with businesses operated by Punjabis, Gujaratis, Sri Lankans, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis. “The Indians are the only ones who’ve drawn such a big crowd,” one fellow merchant told the Star on May 21, 1980. “They revived this area, brought it alive.”

“The local movie house is the focal point for all activity on this part of Gerrard,” this article added. “The closer your shop is to the cinema, the better is business.”

By 1982, the South Asian character of the business strip was formalized with the creation of the Gerrard India Bazaar Business Improvement Area. Over the years, the BIA would fund additional parking spaces, and improvements to the sidewalks and streetlights, and host annual street festivals that continue today.

Additional images: Obituary for Gian Naaz from the Toronto Star on January 18, 2000; photo of the Naaz Theatre as it looks today by Kevin Plummer/Torontoist.

Southwest corner of Greenwood and Gerrard, October 15, 1934, from the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 58, Item 1366.

But as this stretch of Gerrard was transformed organically—without formalized plan or design—into a South Asian bazaar, the adjacent and predominantly white neighbourhood did not see a parallel demographic transformation. Before the Second World War, this part of Riverdale was staunchly Anglo-Saxon. The postwar period saw a large influx of Italians and, later, Greeks. In 1971, the number of South Asian residents was so small as to be negligible in census data cited by Jason Hackworth and Josephine Rekers in the Urban Affairs Review (November 2005). By 1980, the percentage was only 0.9 per cent and despite a slow but steady increase, it was still only 5.8 per cent by 2001. The largest visible minority in the area were Chinese residents drawn to nearby Chinatown East. Apart from a few families who owned the building and lived above the store, even the South Asian business owners lived elsewhere.

The competing interests of the business and residential communities caused friction over the volume of traffic and parking on residential side-streets. But sometimes such disputes could escalate to outright hostility. Racism was rife, one business owner recalled to the Star (August 25, 2007). “Every second day our front glass was broken,” he added. “Every weekend there were fights with young white thugs beating up people with hockey sticks, saying, ‘Paki go home.’”

The harassment and chanted epithets sometimes endured as people waited in line for the Naaz Theatre could continue after the movie began. Naz complained of continual harassment at the theatre in the Star (May 15, 1975), including “disturbances during the showing of East Indian films and the fact that racist slogans have been painted on the building.” But the businesses persevered and the bigots eventually relented in their campaign.

The Naaz Theatre was at its peak of popularity in the mid-to-late 1970s, during which time some of the biggest stars in Bollywood—including Bachchan, Rameshwari, Rajesh Khanna, and Sharmila Tagore—visited for screenings or to sign autographs.

Regular excursions to the cinema were central to the social life of many South Asians in Toronto. “You forgot everything when you went with friends to see a movie,” one area businessman told Ghuman. “You just had one thing in mind: meeting new people, hanging out with friends.”

While leading Toronto Sun reporter Percy Rowe on a tour of the bazaar in 1980, Deepa Mehta Saltzman described the convivial atmosphere of watching a movie at the Naaz Theatre: “You should see it on Friday or Saturday nights. It’s a family affair. Little kids run up and down the aisles. Everybody is eating, everybody is happy; it is the highlight of the week.”

From the beginning, food was an inevitable accompaniment to any Naaz outing, either by eating at one of the growing number of nearby restaurants and sweets shops, or by having a paper plate of bhatura and the channa made on an electric skillet in the ticket kiosk.

Speaking Yelaja, Veronica Mal recalled her family’s visits to the Bazaar in the early 1980s, shortly after their immigration from New Delhi. She said: “It reminded me of the hustle and bustle of a market back home. As soon as you stepped out of the 506 streetcar, you’d smell the barbecued corn, you’d hear the ghazuls and Bollywood pop songs blaring from the shops, and your mouth would start watering for mithai and pani puri.”

“Most people come because it’s a taste and feel of home,” one grocery clerk stated to Sonia Verma in the Globe and Mail (September 19, 1981). “Coming here is like taking a weekly trip back to India,” another local agreed. For a great many Toronto South Asians, the bazaar fulfilled a nostalgic longing for home.

Photo of the Naaz Theatre as it looks today by Kevin Plummer/Torontoist.

Not all agreed, however, as Rohinton Mistry shows in “Lend Me Your Light,” a short story in Tales from Firozsha Baag (Penguin Books, 1987). Mistry’s character, who has just immigrated to Toronto, is irritated by a fellow émigré’s letter deriding India. In a reply, Mistry’s character invites his friend to Toronto so he can take him to Gerrard Street as a way of showing that he hasn’t lost his roots:

I promised that when he visited, we would go to all the little restaurants there and gorge ourselves with bhelpuri, panipuri, batawa-wada, kulfi, as authentic as any in Bombay: then we could browse through the shops selling imported spices and Hindi records, and maybe even see a Hindi movie at the Naaz Cinema. I often went to Little India, I wrote; he would be certain to have a great time.

But, in reality, he too is struggling, feeling that he is “throbbing between two lives,” neither fully Canadian nor fully Indian. The character admits:

The truth is, I have been there just once. And on that occasion I fled the place in a very short time, feeling extremely ill at ease and ashamed, wondering why all this did not make me feel homesick or at least a little nostalgic. But Jamshed did not have to know any of it. My letter must have told him that whatever he suffered from, I did not share it. For a long time afterwards I did not hear from him.

After she arrived in Toronto from New Delhi in 1998, journalist Aparita Bhandari was disenchanted by her first visit to the Gerrard India Bazaar, calling the women’s ware “tacky” and the jewellery gaudy. “The gol-gappe were stale and the jalebis left a bitter aftertaste,” she wrote. “I fled Little India, wondering why everyone raved about it.” As she heard her friends’ stories, however, she began to understand the indelible influence visits to the neighbourhood had had as they were growing up.

From its peak popularity in the late 1970s to the early 1980s, business at the Naaz Theatre declined rapidly. The easy availability of Bollywood films on VHS severely curtailed ticket sales, as did the growing number of multiplexes screening the latest Bollywood blockbusters. People didn’t need to trek in from the suburbs anymore. The Naz family closed their theatre in the mid-1980s, and by 1985 they had sold the building. A subsequent owner tried to revive the cinema but it closed for good in the 1990s. Then, the building was converted into a mini-mall of sorts, known as the India Centre, with a variety of businesses occupying stalls inside.

The Naaz Theatre as it looks today. Photo by Kevin Plummer/Torontoist.

Gerrard Street underwent a parallel decline, affected by the construction of large, modern shopping complexes catering to South Asians at Albion and Islington, Derry and Airport, and throughout Brampton. In response to these and other challenges, the BIA commissioned Dr. Sandeep Kumar of Ryerson and his urban planning students for a design study. Seeking common ground between the diversity of backgrounds in the business district, the resulting design proposal emphasized the Naaz’s formative influence and suggested a Bollywood theme. The design proposed to renovate and reopen the theatre, now at the centre of a Bollywood walk of fame “and colourful murals and signage reminiscent of classic Bollywood movie posters,” as Kumar and George Martin put it in The Ontario Planning Journal (Vol.19, No. 5, 2004) [PDF]. The proposals weren’t adopted, which is just as well, as residents and merchants alike expressed concern about the Gerrard India Bazaar turning into a South Asian theme park.

Dilapidated and abandoned today, the old Naaz Theatre is empty again; the mall tenants all gone. A building permit in the window hints towards the promise of future revitalization.

Suffering from cancer and Parkinson’s disease, Gian Naz died at the age of 69 on January 3, 2000. He was buried at St. Margaret’s Cemetery in Scarborough. From the modest dream of moving Bollywood films out of church basements and back onto the big screen, Naz created a cultural beacon drawing movie-goers from across the GTA and further afield. In turn, his vision fostered a South Asian business community that perseveres to this day.

Additional image: Article from the Toronto Star on May 21, 1980.

The author extends thanks to the Toronto Public Library staff at the Gerrard-Ashdale branch and at the Baldwin Room for helping locate and digitize an archival photograph of the Naaz Theatre.

Additional sources consulted: Harald Bauder & Angelica Suorineni, Toronto’s Little India: A Brief Neighbourhood History [PDF] (Ryerson University, 2010); Cynthia Brouse, “Indian Summer” in Toronto Life (September 2005); Jason Hackworth and Josephine Rekers, “Ethnic Packaging and Gentrification: The Case of Four Neighborhods in Toronto,” Urban Affairs Review (November 2005); Milton Israel, In The Furthest Soil: A Social History of Indo-Canadians in Ontario (Toronto Organization for the Promotion of Indian Culture Toronto, 1994); Percy Rowe, “Little India Presents Life in Technicolor,” Toronto Sun (June 8, 1980); John Sebert, The Nabes: Toronto’s Wonderful Neighbourhood Movie Houses (Mosaic Press, 2001); and Toronto Star articles from December 2, 1978, June 19, 1980, June 23 and July 16, 1984, June 17, 1985, September 12, 1988, and July 21, 1997.

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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